Cannes 39/90/? — An Interview with Étienne Gaudillère

by Yoana Pavlova

If the invention of cinema towards the end of the XIX century is the crowning achievement of man’s attempts to master reality, the XX century opens ground for a distinct fantasy: film festivals. The XIX-century tradition of world expositions – speeding up competition, sharpening the appetite for novelties, and projecting a bright image of the future – is slowly taken over by a less idealist yet more coveted showcase.

When the Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica takes place in Venice in August 1932, it is still part of La Biennale di Venezia. No jury or trophies, only the most recognizable movie stars on the big screen and lavish balls at the Excelsior hotel on the Lido. It is such a stunning success that many forget about the fascist regime behind the curtain. For the next edition, in 1934, there is already a prize named after Mussolini. In 1937, the Palazzo del Cinema di Venezia is inaugurated. In 1938, a scandal breaks out, as the awards are forcefully assigned to propaganda works, so the three French members of the Mostra jury, Philippe Erlanger, Émile Vuillermoz, and René Jeanne, chart a project for a similarly international yet “free” film event, endorsed by Jean Zay, then-Minister of Public Education and Fine Arts.

This decision is supported by industry representatives from the United States and Great Britain, that is to say, by top-level American and British diplomats. Several cities vie for the honor – Vichy, Biarritz, Cannes – and if the bets go on Côte d’Azur, it is thanks to its building reputation of an upper-middle-class location. What is striking from this early history of film festivals is the fact that they are clearly envisioned as a chic facade and a counterpoint of the banal everyday, just as cinema in that era is seen as the antithesis of life. From the invitation to Louis Lumière to preside over the festival and the sophisticated poster created by Jean-Gabriel Domergue to the stellar line-up, Cannes 1939 is destined for triumph, but this triumph does not, in fact, materialize, as a result of the war. In 2019, the French association Cercle Jean Zay d’Orléans organizes a “remake” of this would-be-first edition. It is an interesting experiment both proving the dash of the original, pre-WWII concept, as well as exemplifying the way its early aspirations charted Cannes’ identity for years to come.

It so happens that the first official edition of Cannes Film Festival comes about right after WWII, and quickly becomes “the most important film festival in the world and the most beautiful cultural event,” to quote Palais des Festivals et des Congrès’ website. The same goes for many other post-war initiatives in France that soon get established as “must-visit” annual destinations, often hosted in a picturesque setting. Such is the case of Avignon’s Semaine d’art dramatique, transformed into Festival d’Avignon, or “one of the most important contemporary performing arts events in the world”. Considering the historical context is key – French diplomacy during the Cold War is a well-balanced act, with the country fully aware of its geostrategic strength. Therefore, in these first decades, Cannes premieres include “the best” from Hollywood, Western Europe, as well as whatever passes through the membrane of socialist censorship, but also many titles from Asia and Latin America, with rare yet notable appearances from Africa and Australia.

Not only does this help create a global image of France as a cosmopolitan hub for arts and culture, it also nurtures the local scene. The second half of the XX century is rich in creativity and exchange, many artists enjoy parallel careers in cinema and theater. Fast-forward to contemporary France, and the picture is rather grim – the market is enormous, and the demand for “content” both from “le secteur de l’audiovisuel” and “le spectacle vivant” is never-ending, yet many professionals live in a dangerously precarious situation (and, naturally, the pandemic has only made this worse). In addition, it is as if the Internet and the ongoing digitalization of entertainment have drawn an invisible line between these two spheres of culture, even if cinema-going is still a national sport in France. This, however, could also be the perfect starting point to examine critically both “le secteur de l’audiovisuel” and “le spectacle vivant,” to experiment with their classic tropes and post-ness, to toy with well-known facts and fictions, and see what comes out of it.

©Joran Juvin

This is the premise of Cannes 39/90, a theater play the young Étienne Gaudillère with his Compagnie Y create for Théâtre Molière – Sète and debut in 2019, on the very day the Cannes Film Festival kicks off. Ten actors (including the stage director) trace the “subjective chronology” of five decades through a dozen key moments, such as Philippe Erlanger’s passionate advocacy for the idea of the festival in 1938, Simone Silva posing half-nude with Robert Mitchum in 1954, La Dolce Vita‘s Golden Palm in 1960, 1968 and the Nouvelle Vague, Canal Plus’s arrival in 1984, and Steven Soderbergh’s Golden Palm for Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989 marking the entrance of Miramax and Harvey Weinstein. There is drama, comedy, and cabaret; there is pathos but also flirtation with theatrical conventions. Most of all there is this captivating rhythm of jaunting through the past in the form of an “esquisse.” The two hours of the play pass by unnoticed, especially for seasoned cinephiles, and by the end one feels truly eager to know what happens after 1990, in what is supposed to be the second part, even if, in fact, everybody “knows.”

To go back to film festivals, “magic” is probably among the most overused words – still, there is no better way to describe the sensation of witnessing the canon-sculpting gestures in real time, be it at Cannes’ press conference in UGC Normandie in Paris or during a world premiere on La Croisette. Yes, it is an illusion, but a shared one, and what is actually amazing is how it works every time, even when one knows all the tricks and dislikes the characters. “Cannes est aussi un spectacle vivant,” says Thierry Frémaux at the 2021 presser, so what better moment to talk to Étienne Gaudillère about cinema and theater than this particular year when Cannes and Avignon overlap for the first time ever and when his Cannes 39/90 play is about to be presented at the very Palais des Festivals et des Congrès.

Subtitle translation by Fanny Cobos

Yoana Pavlova: What was it that attracted you to the theater in the first place?

Étienne Gaudillère: This is a vast question, even if I had the answer. Well, I am an actor. I started with theater rather early, in school. It was not like my parents influenced me, it was just something I was fascinated with, even as a kid I already did shows with my cousins. And then I had this experience in school that really left a mark on me, with a play that a friend of mine staged and we wrote together. It was the first time when I realized what is possible to do with theater. I am not sure it was a very good play, because we were so young, yet in any case it was a very happy episode, becoming aware of this freedom.

The question is indeed vast, yet, as an actor, what I find really beautiful in this profession is a particular relationship: the will to try to understand the other. There is this permanent reflection along the lines of “And what if my life were different? What if I were a king, or living in another country, or amid war?” The world of theater allows us to glimpse into all these different possibilities.

And then, as a director, given that I received the classic education of an actor, this transformation occurred when I started writing a theater play about WikiLeaks. I stumbled upon some information on the topic, completely by chance, and I had some free time at that moment, so I started writing. And what really motivated me to start writing this first piece was the fact that the story was absolutely mind boggling, so I had this urge to bring it to a wider audience. At the same time, I also felt that it renewed my outlook on the world around us.

Back at the time, when you started working on Pale Blue Dot, did your Compagnie Y exist already or not yet?

Basically, I created it for this theater play. I wrote the play, I offered it to a theater, and I had to create this formation in order to stage the play.

The name of the company is suggestive in a sense that I wonder to what degree your work is a continuation of millennials’ aesthetics, reflection, perception?

Well, when I worked on Pale Blue Dot, we were looking for a name of the company, and this was a play that narrates the world of the Internet and social media. I was born in 1987, and I would say we are the first generation for which these tools are fully integrated into our thought system and have become a part of us. Just an example, in Pale Blue Dot there is this music playlist from 2010 – I assume people from my generation are immediately able to recognize the songs, like Lady Gaga, Eminem, and so on. Yet, I am also wary, because it was important for the team to consist of various people, of various ages, as well as for the story to speak to people of different generations.

So this is another question that interests me, both in Pale Blue Dot and in Cannes 39/90: the generations. In Cannes 39/90, I am referring to the Nouvelle Vague – these people in their 20s and 30s who arrive on the scene and blow up the whole system. Then in the 1980s there is the Canal+ generation, then Steven Soderbergh and independent cinema. So, it is about this constant process of new generations coming that put into play a certain rapport on the agenda.

Many people watched Pale Blue Dot and said “It is crazy, one would say it is a theatricalized documentary, the scriptwriting rhythm reminds one of a TV show.” This surprised me a lot, and I think people also said this about Cannes 39/90: “There is suspense, one really feels like watching up until the end.” I believe this is most probably linked to my affinity for images, cinema, TV. I imagine that my generation feels much closer to this type of writing, particularly in TV shows, that surrounds us.

©Joran Juvin

Would you say that you are a cinephile, or rather an omnivorian when it comes to the audiovisual in general?

It is difficult to say that I am a cinephile, given that there are millions of films I still haven’t watched, but it is true that I have always had a very soft spot for cinema. In a sense, Cannes 39/90 is a reunification of my two passions, because back at the time I hesitated between cinema and theater. So, yes, cinema nourishes me and inspires me a lot, especially when it comes to dramaturgy.

In one of your interviews you mention that the inspiration to create Cannes 39/90 came when you were in Lyon around five years ago, in the moment when you bought a new dinner jacket. So the idea dates back to 2016?

Actually, it was before that. I started going to Cannes in 2010. It was in fact the same year in which I went both to Cannes and Avignon for the first time ever, and then I kept returning on a regular basis. I would say that the idea was already germinating at that time, and I took some notes. But the actual click, the epiphany came indeed at the moment when I created Pale Blue Dot, in 2016, and I had to get a new dinner jacket for Cannes right after. As I was walking on the street, I started thinking. And it is the type of click that happens when there has been a very long process beforehand, as if the solution had been always in front of your eyes but you weren’t able to see it, to verbalize it.

It was so obvious that I could work on Cannes, because I knew it already, wrote about it, and it had not really been treated as a subject. It was even surprising that nobody wrote anything like that before.

It is good that you mention Avignon, because I wanted to ask how do you see the difference between Cannes and Avignon?

There is a big difference in terms of media dynamics. What we see on TV when it comes to Cannes is really deformed, it is just a facade. I was delirious to be able to go to Cannes, to see films for free, to discover that there are actually various sections and competitions. I only knew 3% of all that before.

Avignon… There is this question, to which I don’t have an answer yet, and it is about the economy. What is striking when you go to Avignon for the first time (especially in my case, when I was 22) is that one becomes aware of this violent competition. We were a group of students, and all of us were stupefied to spot the intrigues, the commitment of every company in the off, the crisis knocking at the door. It was really violent.

I understand that for you there is this different perspective, because Cannes, too, can be quite violent, it depends whether you visit it as a spectator or as someone who takes part in the spectacle.

It is true. When you are a spectator, both festivals are great. Cannes is probably more closeted, and also Avignon is more expensive. In the beginning, when I visited both without much money, Cannes cost me less than Avignon.

©Joran Juvin

Nice but it is not always the case for everyone, especially for those who come from abroad without knowing the particularities of France that well. Still, what is interesting for me is that we are talking about two places of cult, where myths are being forged very differently. Having a premiere in Cannes or Avignon is a matter of existence, legitimacy, a trajectory of sorts. So I’ve wondered, if you create a spectacle about the history of Avignon, what would be different in your approach?

Let me just say something else about the difference between Cannes and Avignon, because it is true that there are many parallels, and both festivals came into being in more or less the same historical moment. Still, in Avignon there is this willingness to debate that is political and democratic, overall anchored. In Cannes there are no conferences, no open debates, which is very much Avignon’s DNA.

If I were to make a theater play about Avignon… Frankly, I already asked myself this question, and decided not to, because there are so many. It is a festival that was very well documented. Thomas Jolly already did something titled Le ciel, la nuit et la pierre glorieuse (The Sky, the Night, and the glorious Stone), for example, whereas most people have no idea about Cannes’ story. And that was very motivating. Otherwise, in terms of approach, I cannot tell you, unless I start working on the project.

And how did you work on Cannes, what was the principal method to stimulate you? Was it the images, the interviews, the winning films? Did you have a mood board of sorts?

It was a lot of work, precisely because there are not many resources. There are a lot of books with anecdotes, also richly illustrated with photographs, yet you can’t make a theater play out of this. The founding resource was Loredana Latil’s book Le Festival de Cannes sur la scène internationale [Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2005]. It traces back the history of the festival from 1939 to the early 1990s, so it was the cornerstone of the play in terms of dramaturgy. It also allowed us to chart the main axes of the story vis-à-vis diplomacy, politics, economics.

There weren’t that many films, because in reality there are actually so many, it’s monstrous; thus, if you pick one, it cannot be just one. Therefore, rather early on, I made the choice not to use any archival footage or any excerpts from competition films. I believe it is much more interesting to activate the viewer’s imagination by talking about these films instead of showing them, and to make the viewer eager to watch them.

So, apart from one scene in the play that was inspired by Godard, there was not much from the films, however, we used a lot of interviews, because the Nouvelle Vague is very well documented. There was Truffaut’s biography, and we actually ended up watching many Nouvelle Vague films.

With your actors?

Not with all of them, as I mostly wrote with two actors who are also in Cannes 39/90, so we locked ourselves up to study the Nouvelle Vague and prepare various files. We made a file for Chabrol, for Truffaut, etc., then I wrote. We did the same for the 1980s, with one file for Jack Lang, one for Steven Soderbergh, we even had one for Malraux, and so on. So, within several days we accumulated an enormous amount of materials, and I wrote.

What was particular was also the fact that I worked with historians, which was new for me, and especially when it came to the creation of Cannes in 1939. There is this book by Olivier Loubes, Cannes 1939, Le festival qui n’a pas eu lieu [Armand Colin, 2016], so we met, worked together. He read the prologue of the play, enlightened us on certain issues and details, even words. For example, back at the time the word “festival” was still not in circulation. The very idea to say “festival” was already an invention. And then Antoine de Baecque, Truffaut’s biographer, helped a lot as well, with everything related to the Nouvelle Vague.

In addition, I met some people to discuss the 1980s with them, because most of the Cannes regulars I know have frequented the festival from that era onwards. There was this oral history, especially  for the closing part of the play, about La Croisette as a place for drag, for instance. And I also met Jack Lang.

How did you articulate all these gestures and ideas, how did you translate them into the language of the theater? How did you turn it into a mise-en-scène?

It is a mix, because… Often I write, then we work on stage, and I rewrite with the actors. Occasionally, the actors did their own research and realized that certain elements don’t belong there. Still, it was me who wrote the basis of every scene, and yet the writing process for Cannes 39/90 was not only with the actors but also with the sets. I knew that I would prefer to show different locations in Cannes, so at certain moments it was the scenery that triggered the writing process. For example, we had a nightclub, and the setting informed the dramaturgy.

So it was a matter of infusion and concession. Finally, no more than 20% of what we worked on ended up in the play. There is this special alchemy, because sometimes there are group scenes prompting for a monologue, hence there was this long process of adjustment and polishing. One week before the premiere, I had to rewrite a whole part.

©Joran Juvin

As someone who watches mostly films and not so many plays, even if I love the theater, it was intriguing to see how you work with the mythology and the choreography of Cannes. At the same time, in another interview you mention that short dialogue lines are not good for theater. And what I saw was indeed this theatricalization of Cannes in a very classic way, which then leads to a sort of re-mythologization. To me, this is a political act, especially given that Cannes itself is so political. With Pale Blue Dot being so political as a subject too, my question is whether you, as author, feel this impulse to take a political stance when you develop a play? This viewpoint doesn’t need to be spelled out in the text, I am referring to your own reflections and creative decisions.

For Pale Blue Dot I absolutely refused to make a militant play. It would have been very easy to take Julian Assange as a protagonist, to retell his life, to defend him, and so on. This wasn’t my goal at all. Back at the time, it was difficult to form an opinion with the information that was public, and for some this is still problematic today. What I wanted to show was the myriad of issues that exist, this situation that we know from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons” [“Ce qui est terrible sur cette terre, c’est que tout le monde a ses raisons”].

So it is not just about politics, I think this is also linked to my background of acting and this idea of embodiment and motivation – how to show everyone’s stakes, the fact that they perceive them as legit. There are no saints and villains, it is more about confronting all these different characters and see what comes out of the conflict.

This is the reason why in Cannes 39/90 there are many group scenes, and this is possible in the theater, unlike in the cinema – one can stage together the Russian delegate, the American delegate, Jean Cocteau, etc., thus illustrating how they all have the same motivation but different methods. And this is also the political question that borders with the question about the different generations – how did they manage to go beyond the conflict, to solve the crisis.

If you look at the history of Cannes, it is a festival that could have ended in 1946, 1951, 1956… These are all critical years that could have marked the end of Cannes, yet they didn’t. To me, this is timeless politics, and economics.

Nowadays, you can do the same with a similar play where you have the government, pro-vaxxers, and anti-vaxxers, and see what comes out of it, of this mis-communication.

Could you please tell me a little bit about the second part of the play, given that you have chosen Weinstein as a bookmark of sorts. I assume you are already developing the sequel?

It is a huge question mark, with everything that has been going on at the moment. I am still on standby for news from the theater in order to advance the money.

Indeed, the first part ends right before Weinstein, and back at the time I imagined continuing by representing each period with a different tableau. Then I gave up the idea, also because the political and economical stakes in Cannes’ recent history are different. So, what I have in mind at the moment, is one tableau that goes directly to 2017 yet also traces back the ‘Weinstein affair.’ The end result might be something else, this is just my concept right now. Ever since this event, things have been developing at an amazing speed, this attention to women’s rights, to minorities… It is crazy how things have evolved since 2017.

What I would like to explore is how exactly did this ‘affair’ occur, and this means looking back at the industry in France and Hollywood, but also down to the most intimate words, including the women surrounding us.

Do you deem your audience ready for such an approach? What I see in France is a lot of resistance to this conversation, #MeToo in general. I recall those “tribunes” that appeared a couple of years ago, like that famous one in Le Monde, signed by a certain Catherine Deneuve and many other French women from the world of cinema. A whole generation that was really against the impulse to revise the history and the facts.

Nevertheless, it is my opinion that things have changed a lot since 2017.

Even in France?

Yes. There is still a lot to do, really a lot, but, as an example, just two or three years ago when an actress pressed rape charges and this information became public, there was still this reflex to wonder as to why she had stayed silent for 10, 15, or 20 years. Nowadays, at least media-wise, this question is no longer relevant. Now we know that this takes time, and has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the accusations. Merely by comparing the reception from several years ago and today, things have changed a lot.

Three, four years have passed since the Weinstein story, and I am convinced that it is possible to stage it theatrically. Two years ago, when we first debuted the play, these events appeared too fresh. Some actors asked me whether I plan to include the pandemic, considering the fact that last year’s Cannes was annulled because of that, but I found it too soon. Personally, and in the theater in general, I think that whenever one aims to provide to the audience some sort of historic reflection, a sense of perspective that surpasses the daily news, some time is required.

At the same time, I often think that those changes are far too slow in France, and that we are too often frightened by change. I am, actually, more and more angry about how people are reluctant to these changes in France. Optimism is a fight.

So have you decided in fact how to finish the second part? Is it going to be 2017, 2020?

At the moment, there is only one tableau about 2017. Otherwise, ever since the beginning I’ve already had this vision about the finale, and I hope it stays that way. And there is one more scene, with which we already toyed a bit, where the action is set in the faraway future and there are only ruins. So some people visit those ruins, without the slightest idea what happened there, and this is how we understand that the cinema is no more. Pretty much the way tourists visit Roman remains, those people knew there was some sort of ceremony going on, that many gathered in this place to watch something together, but the memory about it was lost.

©Joran Juvin

Yoana Pavlova is a Bulgarian writer, researcher, and programmer, currently based in France. Founding editor of, with bylines for various outlets in English and French, as well as with contributions to books on the New East, French cinephilia, cinema 2.0, at this point her field of work includes also immersive media and analogue methods in art/film criticism.

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