Filmlovers! Review: A Life Among Wonderful People in the Dark

Cannes 2024

5 mins read

Filmlovers! (Spectateurs!)
(France, 88 min.)
Dir. Arnaud Desplechin


Is there anything more Cannois than a semi-autobiographical film about a love for cinema? Indulgence worn on its sleeves, Arnaud Desplechin’s hybrid documentary Filmlovers! is a paean to cinephilia, a journey through a century and more of the moving image, and a philosophical deep dive into what cinephilia means.

The film follows Paul Dédalus, a character who first appeared in the 1996 Cannes comp film My Sex Live…or How I Got Into an Argument, which netted a César Award for most promising actor for a young Matthew Amalric. Here, almost three decades on, Amalric reprises the role, narrating as Paul and sharing the life of a young man as he falls deeply in love with movies.

Over period that spans from ages six to 30, a series of actors (Louis Birman, Milo Machado-Graner, Sam Chemoul, and Salif Cissé) showcase the various phases of Paul’s education. From his first screening at a cinema (taken by his grandmother, played here by the legendary Françoise Lebrun), Paul is shown as enthralled in the spectacle of it all, serving as an obvious avatar for Desplechin’s own journey.

The usual elements are at play here, from Edison’s early experiments and the Lumières’ grand exhibitions. However, when Paul’s becomes obsessed, the film clicks on a more personal level. Seeing the philosophical writing of Stanley Cavell, who wrote deeply about Hollywood comedies and the pursuit of happiness, within the context of Parisian café conversations proves even more nostalgic than some of the film clips. Along with quotes from Bazin, Barthes, and the like, Desplechin’s unapologetic injection of theoretical discourse into an otherwise breezy film is a welcome addition. It romanticizes the period of one’s life spent debating such issues, and raises long dormant anxieties about academic careers long abandoned for anyone who encountered these minds in a university seminar.

There are plenty of clips from any Film 101 course – Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Truffaut’s 400 Blows, the Lumières’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat – making this not dissimilar to numerous other cinephilic odysseys, from Scorsese’s Personal Journey to Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film. Stylistically, the film borrows more from Cinema Paradiso, or even Hugo—the common film-about-film love that’s been a mainstay for decades.

While Filmlovers! floats between remembrance and fantasy, it takes a sharp turn when Desplechin journeys to Tel Aviv, discussing with renowned critic Shoshana Felman what it’s like to witness in full Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour hour epic Shoah. After all the talk of meaning and cinematic ontology, we’re left to confront the act of those who witnessed the inconceivable, and how film, and documentary in particular, can struggle with deeper notions of truth.

Given all that’s occurring these days, from AI to fake news to the erasure of history in real time, these scenes are the most direct and impactful. The nostalgia for the cinema palace is acute, and the desire for spaces to remain for communities of strangers to bask in the reflected light is one I share powerfully. This is not a film that talks box office receipts or the window between theatrical and streaming. Nor is it a mere indulgent look at a privileged life spent lost in the works of others.

This is, quite simply, a celebration of the art of motion pictures, a love letter to those who love films. Filmlovers!, exclamation mark intact, describes well who the film is about. Yet the French title, Spectateurs!, provides deeper insights. For the act of actively watching is what is in play: we spectators that join the generations that have found both escapism and enlightenment reflected back off the cinema screen’s canvas. As a melange of memories, fantasy, and hard truths about how we engage with this art form, there’s much to mine out of Desplechin’s latest. At it its core, this film is guide for those that haven’t taken the same journey to find deeper meanings, and in turn a deeper love, of this most remarkable of human artistic achievements.

Filmlovers! premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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