For his tenth Cannes feature premiere, Arnaud Desplechin chose to present a docu-fictional love letter to cinema. Two years after Brother and Sister was in Competition, Spectateurs (or Filmlovers!) is one of the festival’s Special Screenings, an effervescent walk down memory lane with a director who has helped shape contemporary French cinema for the better. It’s not hard for a Frenchman to be a cinephile––almost everyone is trained in film knowledge, either formally or informally, as part of their cultural upbringing. But Filmlovers! manages to set itself apart from all the other meta-documentaries or essays about how cinema made their director the person they are today. Instead it is both an honest and highly poetic feature that quite naturally absorbs film and literary references to address the structural role cinema has played for both Desplechin himself and our way of viewing the world.

Filmlovers! is narrated by Paul Dédalus, the character of Desplechin’s earlier works My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument (1996) and My Golden Days (2015), and follows his evolution from ages 6 to 30, represented by actors Louis Birman, Milo Machado-Graner, Sam Chemou, and Salif Cissé. We witness a re-enactment of Paul’s first cinema viewing initiated by his grandmother (played by Françoise Lebrun); it was a matinee of Fantomas he had to leave because his sister got too frightened. At this point the film takes a documentary turn and asks people about the films that scared them, and while they share, one cannot help but turn the question to themselves. It takes a gentle approach to leave space for such questioning––Desplechin is not that interested in usurping the narrative, and neither is Paul. 

The playful form of Filmlovers! invites an affectionate kind of participation. It’s obvious, though, that if you’re seated for this kind of film you must already be a cinephile. But Desplechin’s (or Paul’s) poetic musing about the nature of cinema and how reality changes once captured on camera are just the beginning of it. At one point, the film takes a leap and delves into film-philosophy, discussing Roland Barthes, André Bazin, and, to my surprise, Stanley Cavell. One of the less-referenced theorists (at least in films), Cavell passed not long ago, but his legacy transformed film studies forever. He insisted we pay attention to cinema as both a recording of reality and a projection of it. In one scene, Paul and his friends strike up a conversation with a woman in a café, who is reading Cavell’s book The World Viewed. The conversation that follows is devoid of all performativity. The teenagers approach this woman as if she were a Socrates of the cinema with questions such as, “Why do I feel like I’m remembering my life when watching a film at the cinema?” There is a utopian subtext here, but it fits the tone of wonder so well that we cannot blame Desplechin for indulging.

“Cinema allows us to focus on what matters,” says the woman (Sandra Laugier, a philosophy professor at the Paris Sorbonne) and in its simplicity, this line captures everything. Yes, this uses other films to compose a history of its own (Only Angels Have Wings, The 400 Blows, Daisies, Man with a Movie Camera, to name a few), but the narration steers it towards more personal, poetic realms. Apart from being an elaborate “thank you” to cinema as an artform, Filmlovers! is also politically conscious of the fact that “films never stopped welcoming the vanquished,” as Paul says. In its later part, the docu-fiction recounts the narrator’s own experience of watching Shoah for the first time, before discussing the relationship between images and testimony with renowned literary critic Shoshana Felman in Tel Aviv. Other recognizable interlocutors include American critic and filmmaker Kent Jones and Desplechin’s long-time collaborator, actor and director Mathieu Amalric.

There are nuanced arguments made and a lot more questions than answers, which makes Desplechin’s film a genuine interrogation into what makes cinema so special. Yes, the director is clearly enamored by the film form––name a director who isn’t!––but he loves it enough to also be truthful. For Paul, cinema emerged as a language for the illiterate, and one can make a comparison with statues and frescoes in churches that served that very purpose in the early days of Christianity––thus it will always belong to the “vanquished.” Whichever row and seat we prefer, wherever we come from and whenever we’re headed, we are all equal when we’re spectators.

Filmlovers! premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B

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