Thierry Fremaux, the man chiefly responsible for this year'sprogramming selections at the Cannes Film Festival, has hit back at the barrageof barbed criticism and hopes that a more level-headed assessment of the 2003 Official Selection will emerge over time.

Fremaux, who has been Cannes' artistic director for the past threeyears, suggests that critics' expectations may have been artificially highfollowing the exceptional artistic achievement of the two previous editions.

"It is not so surprising that we have a year of contrast. Twoyears of roses are followed by one year of thorns. Cannes is still at thesummit [among film festivals]," Fremaux told Screen International in a telephoneinterview yesterday.

In this estimation, Fremaux is backed up by statistical datagathered by Screen International: the 2003 festival received the lowest averagescore from our panel of international critics in the last ten years, whereas2001 and 2002 festivals were both banner years. In fact last year represented ahigh watermark in terms of overall artistic quality. (See chart below.)

Acertain bristle in his voice betrays how bruised Fremaux has been by theincessant attack on the film selections, but remains nonetheless unbowed andunrepentant. Adding his voice to the frequent cryfrom festival programmers that those attending "A-list" festivalsexpect every competition film to be a masterpiece, he feels that critics havebeen too quick to castigate anything that falls short.

"We saw different reactions to films over a period of two tothree days. What I ask is that people look at the films over time, with thebenefit of a bit of distance."

He acknowledges, however, that problems may have been unavoidable."Before the festival began I knew that this was a difficult year, a yearof transition."

In a possible reference to films by the Coen brothers, JaneCampion, Quentin Tarantino, Emir Kusturica, Theo Angelopoulos and Wong Kar Wai, he says: "Many of the 'usual suspects' were not available this year."

Fremaux suggests that the choice of films available this yearfavoured Un Certain Regard, more than the main Competition, and that in otheryears the situation has been reversed.

"You have to look at the Official Selection as a whole. UnCertain Regard went off extremely successfully. Many films fitted the formatvery well." And there were others that he would probably have liked toshow in competition but had to be programmed in other slots.

Fremaux is careful not to wade too deeply into the debate overwhether Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny was among the worst films ever to show up in Competition orthe ongoing spat about who said what to whom after the dismal press screening.In fact, he draws a degree of comfort from the coverage Gallo's film received.

"It is entirely in the festival tradition to deliverthis kind of reaction and in a way it proves that cinema is a powerful mediumand provokes reactions," says Fremaux, before adding: "I have nevertaken a film simply because of its shock value."

Hinting at the programming hurdles that had to be overcome he alsomuses: "I wonder how different the reactions to The Brown Bunny would have been had it been programmedin Un Certain Regard instead of Competition."

Guarded as he might be over some issues, Fremaux is vehement inhis rebuttal of suggestions of French favouritism. "There were anexceptionally large number of French films seen in the selection process. Inmost years we have four in Competition and three in Un Certain Regard, thisyear there were five and two. There is too big an obsession withCompetition."

Above all, he rejects accusations that Cannes was forced to takeBertrand Blier's Les Cotelettes (which actually scored lower than The Brown Bunny in the Screen International poll,registering seven out of ten zeroes for an all-time low average of 0.3) inorder to obtain the starry Fanfan La Tulipe as the opening film. Both films camefrom Luc Besson's EuropaCorp. "Cannes does not feel that kind ofpressure."

Fremaux also rubbished suggestions that a film needed a Frenchdistributor in order to be selected. "One of the big hits of the festivalwas the Turkish film Uzak, which came to us without a distributor and still has no salesagent."

One hint of change in future years came on the issue ofjury selection. This year's Cannes Competition jury, like last year's, wasattacked in some quarters for not including professional film watchers such ascritics, producers or festival programmers. "It has been some years sincethe jury included any critics, but this is simply a cyclical thing."

Year/Average/Films higher than 2.5/Filmsless than 1.5

1994: 2.1 7 5
1995: 2.2 6 4
1996: 2.2 7 5
1997: 2.2 7 4
1998: 2.2 8 2
1999: 2.3 6 3
2000: 2.3 9 1
2001: 2.3 12 3
2002: 2.4 10 2
2003: 2.0 5 3
Source ScreenInternational.
Note: Competition filmsare rated for the paper on a scale from zero (bad) to 4 (excellent) by a panelof roughly ten leading international critics, many of whom have served with thesame jury throughout this period.