Cannes 2024 review: Spectateurs! (Arnaud Desplechin)

“A beautiful, complex examination of the craft he adores and which clearly continues to inspire him late into his own career.”

There are many experiences in our lives that we have forgotten, usually because we were too young to commit them entirely to memory – yet many people can easily provide a title when they are asked to name the first film they remember seeing. Something about our first encounter with cinema is notable enough for it to linger in our minds, even more than other moments in our childhood. This is the foundation on which Arnaud Desplechin constructs Spectateurs! (Filmlovers!), his most recent cinematic offering, in which the esteemed director leaps into his past in a delightfully unusual blend of fact and fiction. Once again he evokes his alter ego Paul Dédalus, who appeared in three of the director’s previous films, as a vessel for a fascinating journey through the history of cinema as seen through the director’s own personal experiences with the medium over the years. Starting from his childhood and weaving its way to the present day, the film provides a wonderfully entertaining and deeply meaningful exploration of cinema as seen through the developing gaze of a young cinephile growing to appreciate the images he sees on screen, forming a strong connection with the artists that laid the foundation for his love of cinema, to which Desplechin tenderly pays tribute throughout this poignant and profoundly charming film.

Over time, it has seemingly become a rite of passage for veteran directors to voyage to the very beginning of their cinematic journeys, telling vaguely autobiographical stories about their early encounters with film. Desplechin joins this list of auteurs driven to self-reflection, and uses this film as a way to examine his relationship with cinema over time. Spectateurs! is a very personal film for the director, since it takes the form of a moving manifesto around the power of art, and how different films he saw throughout his life inspired him. Presented in a series of chapters, each one roughly based around a particular film that Desplechin saw at some point during his childhood, late adolescence and early adulthood, the film provides compelling insights into his inspirations, particularly the movies that set the groundwork for his own eventual ventures into filmmaking. Told in fragments, and oscillating between archival footage and recreations of the experiences of Dédalus as he negotiates his growing identity as a young film aficionado at different points in his daily life, the film takes the form of a vibrant cinematic mosaic. Early in the film, there is a reference to Roland Barthes and his philosophy around cinema, and while it isn’t included here, a quote that bears significance to this film and its intentions is “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture”. Desplechin is quite aware that his artistry is the result of decades of engaging critically with several different films, being challenged and provoked, and eventually being radicalized into an artist himself, this journey being the core of the film.

Despite the philosophical underpinnings, and the director’s own fascination with theoretical concepts, Spectateurs! is not nearly as didactic in practice as it sounds, since it almost immediately establishes an emotional resonance that is simultaneously lighthearted and melancholic. Part of the approach the director takes to these ideas is by blurring the past and present, as well as blending fiction and reality, forming a hybrid documentary that contains several fascinating layers. This is an unconventional, somewhat autobiographical account of the director taking us on a whistle-stop tour of his cinematic journey, providing unique insights into the works that inspired him over the course of his life. In the process, he discusses how film is essentially the art of capturing fragments of the past and forming them into something dynamic and eternal – cinema is nothing more than the ratifying of images into collective memories that are shared across generations and cultures. Leaping between his childhood (shown through stunning and heartfelt reconstructions of the past) and the present moment, in which we hear the narration by Dédalus (provided by both the director and Mathieu Amalric, who first brought the character to life), the film creates a vivid portrait of the importance of cinema and how it plays a vital role in the development of the imagination of young people as they have their initial encounters with a medium designed to provoke and inspire in equal measure.

However, as deeply moving as his recollections on his cinematic journey may be, Desplechin is not interested in only exploring his own experiences and instead opens the world of this film up to a much broader set of voices that exist in tandem with his perspective. One of his most fervent observations is that film is not an isolated experience – even if one attends the cinema alone, we are still becoming part of a global collective that spans generations and geographical locations, being presented with the same set of images and having very different experiences with them. His interest in these portions of Spectateurs! (the plural in the title is most relevant here) is to provide a wide range of musings, engaging in conversations with different individuals, varying from casual filmgoers to seasoned veterans of the industry – and their perspectives are all valuable and equal in terms of how the film shows the filmgoing community as a whole. The director remarks that we are all “witnesses” to history through the films we watch over the course of our lives – whether fictional or documentary, these images are the past committed to a permanent form, a fascinating approach to the entire history of the medium. This is boldly summarized by the statement that “cinema is a question, not an answer”, which forms the foundation of the film. We are not merely passive viewers, but rather as integral to the filmmaking process as the artists themselves, since without an audience, a film cannot achieve everything it intended, at least from the director’s perspective. Cinema does not discriminate, and as the beautifully moving and often quite funny testimonials from the real-life interviewees demonstrate, there is a sense of unity in realizing that film has essentially always been a shared experience that has never shown any real interest in adhering to socio-cultural concepts in terms of audiences.

Throughout Spectateurs! Desplechin returns to a very simple question, phrased as “What happens to reality when it is projected?”, and in a film filled to the brim with difficulties, this is perhaps the most striking. Part of the film is focused on celebrating the legacy of certain artists and the work they left behind – filmmakers like François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman and Claude Lanzmann have all passed on, but their work remains alive, their visions continuously embraced by young viewers encountering their invaluable contributions to the medium. Desplechin writes himself into this narrative in a way that is decidedly humble and reflective, looking at his journey as an artist, as well as depicting his own efforts to leave a legacy for future generations. Beyond the sometimes flowery, complex questions based around film theory, Spectateurs! has a very simple philosophy, setting out to explore the universal experience of gathering in a cinema, whether crowded or empty, and experiencing that unforgettable sensation of journeying into another world through the pictures projected on a screen. Desplechin challenges himself to compress over a century of cinema produced across the world into only 88 minutes, and he succeeds delightfully, crafting a beautiful, complex examination of the craft he adores and which clearly continues to inspire him late into his own career. There are many bold assertions and statements that describe the importance of cinema as an art form scattered throughout the film, but perhaps the most moving and resonant is the one we hear quite early in the narrative: “At last…cinema”.