Gilles Jacob: Author, Cannes President, Raconteur, Lover of Cinema, One-Time Champion of Trier

by Lisa Nesselson
April 29, 2013 1:28 PM
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Gilles Jacob and Brad Pitt at Cannes 2011
Twenty-seven hours after he and Thierry Fremaux announced the films in the Official Selection at Cannes this year, Gilles Jacob convened two handfuls of journalists for a pleasingly intimate [read : elbow-to-elbow] promotional luncheon at "La Mediterranée." The restaurant, across the street from Jacob's publisher, Flammarion, figures in a memorable scene in Orson Welles' "F for Fake" and none other than Jean Cocteau designed the plates.

Jacob has published four books in the past 5 years. His latest, "Les pas perdus" (literally "lost steps") hit French bookshops on April 24th and the Cannes Film Festival -- of which he is President for one more year -- hits its titular locality for the 66th time on May 15th.

Jacob's latest volume is a quick read, witty and insightful in places and of little interest to a non-French reader in others. Each one of the 496 entries spread over 170 pages begins with "I remember....". The volume ends with a two-page coda describing how a Woody Allen film remedied the author's memory loss.

Nestled in between succinct observations about vintage slang, scenes directed by Bresson, Bergman or Hitchcock, amusing ad campaigns, his crush on Diana Rigg in "The Avengers," Marlon Brando's taste in ice cream and John Waters' "Odorama" one finds some pointed words concerning Lars von Trier and a pronouncement concerning David Lynch. We'll get to that further down.

Here are some of the comments Jacob made between bites of duck breast followed by chocolate mousse, a meal I'm told he chose. As a lunch "programmer" I give him top marks.

"I wanted to assemble a book of Tweets," says Jacob, who admits to being "a Twitter addict."

"My original idea was 140 pages, each devoted to 140 characters (as in letters and spaces, not dramatis personae). I went to see my editor and somehow, although she liked the idea, I left with a commission for a different book."  Jacob calls it "a sort of self-portrait rendered in no particular order, meant to evoke the essence of daily life. I even throw in some memories of the future."

"I cover four generations," says Jacob, who was born in 1930 on June 22, a birthday he's pleased to share with Billy Wilder, Abbas Kiarostami, Meryl Streep and John Dillinger. "People my age will recognize all my references, a younger person might get half of them and to children, it's a sci-fi book."

Jacob has always been a voracious reader and he prides himself on trying to "guide" his nearly 9,000 Twitter followers toward books he thinks have merit. "My model for this volume is Dos Passos -- his books are made up of thousands of little daily details and descriptions of objects that can spark your own memories."

Jacob, who was for many years a film critic (and a good one) says "I could have been a literary critic." (His son is just that and his cousin, Odile Jacob, runs her own successful eponymous publishing house.)

On literature and his dear late friend Claude Chabrol: "I think of him a lot. I was at school with him. He laughed all the time and when we first met he was way more interested in literature than in cinema.

"The only education for writing is to read just as for the cinema, it's to see movies.

"I try not to be nostalgic because nostalgia serves no purpose, but there is melancholy in the book. That said, I'm intent on my so-called twilight years being joyous.

"In film criticsm, style barely gets discussed anymore. Critics recount the story of this or that film. The restrictions dictated by a Tweet keep one modest, I think. The imposed style is so concise it gives your brain a real workout."

A lifelong tennis player, who writes in the book that when it was time to switch sides on the court Arnon Milchan showed off by doing push-ups just to psych out his opponent, these days Jacob walks six kilometers a day. "It takes about an hour and it's excellent for pumping blood to one's brain. That oxygenation triggers thoughts and ideas. Of course, it's a nuisance when you have to stop to write them down.

"In France you get catalogued. No matter what I do, even if I'm not talking or writing about cinema in the slightest, the reader is going to be scrutinizing the text for film-related clues.

"I love wordplay. You mustn't overdo it, but it's FUN to play with words. Twitter really lends itself to that.

"I write anywhere and everywhere, with a pencil. Often at night. It's awful. You know you have to write it down then and there or you'll forget it. But you have to turn on the light."

About those four books in five years. "I didn't want to be breathing down the necks of the film selectors saying 'No, don't do it that way, do it the way I did it.' So I sought to occupy myself in a different way and crossed over to the other side. Instead of watching others express their creativity, I'm expressing mine."
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  • Rebecca Brite | May 7, 2013 5:22 AMReply

    A lovely article. When he steps down, "end of an era" will be no hyperbole.

  • Sara Rubin | May 2, 2013 5:13 PMReply

    Duck, mousse au chocolat, and witty conversation with someone who values the art of
    letter-writing: a delicious article, and an enticing book. Thanks for the insights.

  • Barbara Dent | April 30, 2013 3:43 AMReply

    I had not intended to read this book but reading the above article makes me think I might make the effort after all ! Thanks for a good read.

  • aw | April 29, 2013 10:18 PMReply

    great inside look on a remarkable man about whom I knew little. thanks.

  • Annette Insdorf | April 29, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    Merci, Lisa! Gilles Jacob is indeed a wonderful raconteur, whose books are informed by decades of affectionate immersion in film. I can't wait to read this new one.

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