Montreal's World Film Festival (WFF) enters its 32nd year in a state of suspended animation. Is it, as its mercurial president Serge Losique claims, a festival of discoveries' Or is it a repository for films that no-one else has selected'
At the opening press conference on August 5, the line-up was announced with little fanfare. And for good reason: no-one had heard of most of the directors whose films were being announced. There was a palpable absence of star power. True, this bodes well for discovery. But it does not make for eye-catching headlines.
Hence Montreal is subject to a double standard. No-one, save Losique, will deny the event is a shell of its former self. Long gone are the days when Montreal registered on the world cinema Richter scale. But this is a perennial issue facing all smaller festivals: are we here to impress the world, or are we here to share the world of cinema with our local audience'
Bernadette Payeur of Montreal-based Acpav, the production company behind competition entry The Necessities Of Life (Ce Qu'il Faut Pour Vivre), says: 'The people of Montreal are receptive but the film community is still sceptical.'
If Necessities wins a prize at Montreal, she can count on extra coverage in the national media for which Canadian distributor Seville Pictures (and ultimately Acpav) would have otherwise had to pay. But she adds: 'If the film selection is good, if the directors are prestigious, then it will lift the event in the eyes of the film community.'
Odile Tremblay, veteran critic at the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir, has followed the decline of the WFF for years. 'It should be a smaller festival, with fewer films but a more careful selection. The festival's best years are in the past and Losique is living in the past and it's unlikely he will change.'
Montreal's smaller Festival du Nouveau Cinema (October 8-19) has an equally colourful chief in Claude Chamberlan but his significantly smaller selection generally draws a more favourable response from the critics. It is all part of the folly of Montreal, a city viewed askance (and, one suspects, secretly cherished) across Canada for the flamboyance and urgency of its cultural eruptions.
Here is an example of the curious relationship the WFF has with its industry peers. One distribution executive at the August 5 press conference was attending not as a representative of a film in the festival but to ensure the festival did not announce one of the company's films. Not that Losique's infamy is a hindrance to the festival's ability to attract films. It is not personal, says the distributor, 'We'll put a film in Montreal if it's appropriate for the marketing of the film.'
On that score, the distributor is no keener on premiering films at Toronto in September. 'I would rather not screen an auteur film at Toronto but the people with the world rights want it in Toronto because they hope it will help with a US sale. So we have to go.'
The distributor likened the film festival experience to fireworks. 'You can only send them up once. You better make sure they get seen, make an impact, because you can't relaunch a film.'
Neither can you relaunch a film festival. And Losique is in Montreal to stay, as his critics make suggestions he is unlikely to heed. At the opening press conference, Danielle Cauchard, his loyal deputy, let slip what could be viewed as a casual reference to her boss.
Someone inquired about the inspiration for this year's festival poster, which shows a presumably cineaste cat sporting 3D glasses. After offering a few responses, festival vice-president Cauchard said: 'A cat always lands on its feet.'