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Jean-Luc Godard’s legacy has been a part of the cinematic tradition for nearly 60 years. However, his sales agent said that when it came to distribution of the 87-year-old auteur’s latest work, “The Image Book,” he wanted to sell the movie to Netflix, and launch it in tandem with its Cannes premiere, prior to any theatrical release.
“That would be my dream,” said Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval, who has represented Godard’s past four movies at Cannes, in an interview from his office in Paris. “We didn’t have the film ready, so we couldn’t show it to them. I would’ve liked to have the Godard film on Netflix for 10 days during Cannes, and on the day of its screening, release it theatrically in France.”
The filmmaker’s profile in the country guaranteed that audiences would have shown up, Maraval said, noting the built-in draw of the Godard name. “Goodbye to Language,” his 3D essay film that played at Cannes in 2014, garnered nearly $400,000 at the U.S. box office alone. “I don’t think it would’ve stolen one audience member away to have a Godard film for 10 days on Netflix,” Maraval said. “We would still do the same number in theaters that we have had with Godard before.”
It’s a radical proposal for any movie, let alone one from a major film artist, especially in a year when the divide between Netflix and Cannes has never been wider. The festival has banned Netflix films from competition, and Netflix pulled all of its titles from the lineup, while a French law requiring a three-year theatrical window has made it untenable for Netflix to release any of its films in French theaters.
Maraval is still fuming about how the Netflix v. Cannes battle played out. “It’s stupid for both of them,” he said. “There was nothing wrong except that they weren’t welcoming to an American company. That’s the root of the problem. It’s American, we hate them, we don’t want them to come into our market. It’s a kind of fear that’s basically the same as the fear of immigrants: ‘We don’t want them here.’”
He noted the irony of many exhibitors protesting Netflix’s presence at Cannes in 2017, even as the most vocal companies focused on commercial titles. “They never show foreign-language films,” he said. “They’d probably show the World Cup match or some operas. So it’s a kind of monopolistic reaction from a big group that doesn’t want to question its monopoly.”
But Maraval said he was equally displeased with Netflix’s decision to yank its titles from the festival, including Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” and a restoration of Orson Welles’ last feature, “The Other Side of the Wind,” both of which were invited. “Netflix saying, ‘We won’t give our films to Cannes anymore’ is as stupid as the exhibitors,” Maraval said. “I think Netflix has put itself in a position of being the bad one now.”
He added that his thought the problem would be “fixed quickly, because there’s no reason it needs to be like this. He noted the prominence of Netflix in the market. “It’s probably the biggest client for French cinema,” he said, “even if the French don’t really welcome them.”
In an email to IndieWire, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux acknowledged the ongoing disconnect. “We are disappointed,” he said. “We tried to find solutions. I understand their position for the competition. But I still think Netflix should have accepted the out-of-competition invitation for ‘The Other Side of the Wind.’ They would have shown the film simultaneously in France and on their platform. It would have been great for them, and they would have come as heroes on the red carpet.”
Maraval had a similar idea for Godard — and said that the reclusive French-Swiss character remains flexible about strategies for releasing his projects. “His reflection today is that more traditional distribution hasn’t adapted to his films, and they’re more avant-grade museums and video installations than the way distribution happens today for a few weeks and then you’re out,” Maraval said. “I think he would like his films to be distributed as events that go around the world as special installations. I don’t think he has a position on Netflix.”
Of course, cinephiles would delight in hearing a major cinematic figure explain himself — but as anyone familiar with last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Faces Places” knows, he tends to be the reclusive sort. Godard’s previous two films, “Goodbye to Language” and “Film Socialism,” both played at Cannes with the filmmaker in absentia; he has yet to announce his plans for 2018.
“I think he sincerely wants to go,” Maraval said. “The two last times when he didn’t show up, it wasn’t that he planned not to show up. When he started to see Cannes on television, being quite old, he started to say, ‘Why should I go there? It’s tiring and it’s a circus. I’m not sure I’ll have the space to speak about my film and defend its content.’ He was thinking that there was only a bad side of going and not a good thing. It was more fear about being part of the big noise.”
Then there was the issue of being in competition, a distinction that comes with a high-profile press conference covered by journalists from around the world. “The problem is that any time Godard does a press conference, they ask him things about the political issues of the day. He’d be happy to speak deeply about his film. But at an event like Cannes, people would ask him, ‘What do you think about Donald Trump?’ He didn’t do a film about that.”
But there has been an upside to Godard’s low visibility in recent years. “We’ve done two films when he’s gone and two when he hasn’t,” Maraval said. “People spoke more about the films when he didn’t go.”
“The Image Book” premieres at Cannes on Friday, May 11.