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Gilles Jacob: Author, Raconteur, Lover of Cinema and Outgoing Cannes President

Festivals
by Lisa Nesselson
May 13, 2014 3:38 PM
5 Comments
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Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob.
Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob.

Jacob admits that he was such a stickler in his journalism days that if he made one typing mistake in the last line, he'd retype the entire page from scratch. Jacob first attended Cannes as a critic in 1964 and joined the staff in 1978. Working for the Cannes Film Festival always entailed a great deal of writing.  "I had to write a vast number of letters and find just the right approach, the right style for each one. To persuade people to come to Cannes or to let them know we wouldn't be taking their film. Finding the right approach keeps you limber.

"I've seen so many directors who grow unhappy when you ask them what they 'meant' by this or that aspect of their film. Fellini, for example. He'd say : 'The film is yours. What YOU see is what's there.' If a questioner wouldn't give up, then Fellini would say something like 'In a portion of the second reel, the scene is too green' and that usually shut them up.

"When you want something, when you're determined, what matters is following through. I wanted to marry a woman my parents didn't approve of. They each invited me to lunch to tell me I'd be making a mistake. Well, I did marry her (on Dec 18, 1957) and she's still by my side."

Jacob had been the guest between 8 and 9 that morning on one of France's most listened-to radio stations. They had dug up a vintage recording of Jacob as a contestant on a radio game show in 1957. The host, making preliminary small talk, said: "You were born on June 22, 1930 and you're a bachelor."

"No, I'm not," said Jacob with assurance.

"You're NOT a bachelor?" asked the host, flustered. "But your name IS Gilles Jacob?"

"That's correct. But I'm not single, I'm married."

"There must be something wrong with this card I'm holding," said the host.

"I got married two days ago," announced Jacob. "When I filled out the form for the show, I was a bachelor."

Jacob answered a question about Charlie Chaplin correctly and won 120,000 old francs -- the host wrote out a check on the spot.  Jacob is still obviously tickled pink about receiving a check for knowing about movies.

In the more than half a century since then, Jacob has added to his storehouse of knowledge about filmmakers. "Directors are a proud bunch and in the olden days they were paid a salary but not a percentage of the proceeds. Marcel Carné was helped out financially toward the end of his life by the City of Paris. He's one of the greatest directors France has known, but he couldn't pay his rent, he couldn't afford food. We started a prize, the 'Children of Paradise' prize, to raise funds for retired film artists in distress."

Asked about his oft-stated love for women, Jacob replied, "I can only work with women. At the office I'm surrounded by women. Film history is full of the love of a director for his leading lady. Go back to Griffith and Gish, to Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and so forth."

That pesky recurring question about the paucity of women directors in Competition slots came up. "It's a debate that takes place once a year," Jacob says. "True, there's one film out of 19 [now 20] in Competition directed by a woman. But there are 5 or 6 in Un Certain Regard. And in the Cinefondation -- filmmakers just starting out -- 8 out of 18 were made by women. So, that's the future we're looking at.  For years women were limited to certain aspects of filmmaking -- they've long worked as editors, handling continuity, as costume designers. There will be more women directors because they're in film schools now and coming up through the ranks."

Jacob's publisher added that 80% of the people who work in publishing are women. Somebody else added that the figures are similar for the legal profession in France. And don't forget that when French president François Hollande began his term of office exactly when Cannes got underway last year, he insisted that 50% of his cabinet be female. One minister has recently resigned, so there are now MORE women than men in cabinet posts.

Jacob's thoughts about the switch from celluloid to digital? "Film editors will tell you about losing the tactile aspect of film running through your fingers, of handling celluoid. But I make documentaries and I can tell you it's fabulous to be able to say 'take that bit there' without putting on white gloves and spooling through reels."

Does the selection committee REALLY see films at the last minute? "That's one of the by-products of digital filmmaking. Thierry saw it 48 hours ago, but (laughing) it may have been sitting there for 2 months!"

Jacob has saved all of his correspondence and is in the process of organizing it, perhaps for an eventual home at the National Library.

"Collections of correspondence sell well in the English-speaking world, but not in France. Flaubert did his very best writing in his letters." (And that's saying something! Imagine if he'd taken 40 years to write a letter as he reportedly did to get "Madame Bovary" just right.)

In 1988, Jacob was the co-author of a currated collection of François Truffaut's letters ranging from 1945-1984. "The beauty of handwriting -- Truffaut's handwriting, for example, was lovely to behold. I almost feel like typing things out and then recopying them by hand!"

What's the recipe for a major film festival? "There are three kinds of directors from which to assemble a festival: Grand masters -- say, an Alain Resnais. Confirmed directors. And newcomers. I created the Camera d'Or to give a boost to first-time directors.

"If an established film director makes a film, the festival director has to determine whether it's as good or better than the filmmaker's previous film. If not, if there's a decline in quality, you can rationalize: Well, it's nice to hear from him!

"Every festival director wants to have a great poster. You'll notice we use a lot of celebrities.

How has Cannes changed over the decades? "Cocteau was president of the jury three times. He'd stop the film to go have dinner and then everybody would come back and finish watching it after they'd eaten. Can you imagine a jury president doing such a thing now?

"Cannes was a village. It's a gigantic enterprise now. It was laid-back then. The level of conviviality has gone way down. You run from theater to theater shouting to friends, 'We'll see each other in Paris!' I hate to say this, but you'll be talking to one person and then, over their shoulder, you'll see somebody else who's more 'important.'

"At other festivals, if somebody boring buttonholes you, after 10 minutes you can make the excuse that you have to go take care of something urgent over there and you go over there and the boring guy follows you. At Cannes, you can always get away."

So, what DID Jacob write about Lars?  In entry 366 in 223 carefully chosen, relatively harsh words, he says, in part, "I remember Lars von Trier, who was close to me and whose films -- just about every one -- I showed. His wife is Jewish, his children are Jewish. It's impossible to accept his attitude, having asserted, in the middle of a Cannes press conference, that he understood Hitler -- a stance he continued to maintain when the Festival asked him to take a breather, the better to get a grip."

It did not go unnoticed that Jacob had used the past tense ("Lars von Trier qui a été proche de moi...").

But on the radio that morning he'd said of the Danish filmmaker who has always addressed him, in English, as "Dad": "It's very painful for me. I discovered him, I showed all his films from the very first. When somebody close to me makes excuses for Hitler I can't accept it.

"We're still close -- you can't NOT be close to somebody you've shared so much with. But I wanted him to know how distressed I was and in that I've succeeded."

To those of us at the luncheon table he said, "I think it's just a form of idiocy on his part. Not only did he not see the error of his ways, he dug in his heels."

In the book Jacob states that Von Trier's "punkitude" has worn thin and that his compulsive need to provoke can't be excused just because he's speaking a second language. He says there's a kamikaze bent in the guy and that sleeping pills may have eaten away at the brain lobe that signals most people to steer clear of self-destruction.

But in person, Jacob's features soften ever so slightly when speaking of Von Trier.  He's not going so far as to say Danish provocateurs will be Danish provocateurs but he wants the outside world to make no mistake: Jacob personally and his friends and family suffered during the war and you can jest about a great many things, but Hitler isn't one of them.

Entry 367, in it's entirety, has this to say: "I remember that before he sank into mysticism, David Lynch made films. Since taking up Transcendental Meditation, the nirvana of the void may have dried up his creative faculties. Or perhaps his heart is no longer in it."

My Spanish colleague, Georges Collar, who is about to attend his 55th consecutive Cannes Film Festival, made the observation that "You never retire from the cinema." Jacob grinned and voiced his approval. "That's what I like to hear!"

5 Comments

  • 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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