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When Gilles Jacob was a boy, he dreamed of someday becoming a judge. And so he became one, not in a court of law, but rather the court of cinema, serving for an unprecedented 22 years (from 1978 until 2000) as director of the Cannes Film Festival.
"A judge, of course, is supposed to find a balance between good and bad, right and wrong," he says today. "Likewise, to make a festival selection means finding a balance between good films and less good films."
One month before the start of Cannes' historic 60th anniversary (May 16–28), Jacob and I are talking in his upstairs office at the festival's Paris headquarters, located at 4, rue Amélie, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Down below, phones ring off the hook, couriers delivering and collecting packages form a bee line at the reception desk, and harried staffers scurry about as if their lives (or at least their livelihoods) depended on it. But Jacob's chambers, much like the man himself, are an oasis of calm, the peaceful eye at the center of the Cannes storm.
This is where Jacob has spent most of his time since relinquishing the Cannes directorship in 2001 and succeeding Pierre Viot as festival president — a combined administrative and diplomatic role that entails overseeing Cannes' year-round operations as well as its ongoing relationships with government ministers, corporate sponsors and, of course, the global film industry. Put simply, says Jacob, "When there is a fire, I am the fireman."
At Cannes, where he is familiar to even cursory festival onlookers as the smiling, tuxedoed gentleman greeting filmmakers and other guests at the top of the Palais des Festivals' famous red-carpeted stairs, Jacob can sometimes appear a distant, patrimonial figure. In Paris, he's warm and welcoming, rather like the benevolent owner of an old family business who pays more attention to worker and customer satisfaction than the bottom line. It may be a trait carried forth from the two decades Jacob spent in his own family's business — a small factory under the aegis of the U.S.-based Toledo Scale Company.
It was in 1959, at the age of 29, that Jacob came to work there at his father's behest, abandoning his plans to study literature and philosophy at Paris' storied Ecole Normale Supérieure. Five years later, he had married and fathered two sons, but still felt as though something was missing from his life. Never having envisioned himself as a captain of industry, he longed for his days as a student film buff, when together with several classmates he had created a quarterly cinema review, Raccords, which preceded by two years the founding of Cahiers du Cinéma. But, says Jacob, at nearly 35 and with a family to support, "I couldn't stand in line to get a job at a small cinema magazine."
So, he wrote a book instead, Une historie du cinéma moderne, which featured a series of critical essays on filmmakers ranging from Ernst Lubitsch and Orson Welles to ascendant New Wavers Godard and Truffaut. Published in 1963 (by Positif magazine founder Bernard Chardère), it attracted the attention of the critic Pierre Billard, who offered Jacob a job writing for the film magazine Cinéma 64.
"Meanwhile, he recalls, "I was still doing my job at the factory, so sometimes I missed some orders because I wanted to be at a screening on time. The factory was in Courbevoire, north of Paris, and I was coming into the city every day to see films. I had to get to the bridge between Courbevoire and Paris before 5:30 in the afternoon or otherwise the traffic was too heavy. So, at 5:28, I would put down the phone, even if I had a big order waiting on the other end."
Ask the average child of the 1930s what his or her earliest movie memory was and they'll likely tell you Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or perhaps a Marx Brothers farce. But Jacob's is Alerte en Méditerranée, a 1938 French espionage drama that his nanny took him to see in a Champs-Élysées movie palace, primarily so that she could make out in the balcony with her soldier boyfriend.
"That," he says, "was my first taste of cinema."
Then World War II broke out and, like many Jews, the Jacobs fled to unoccupied Nice, in the south of the country. It was there, during the war years, that young Gilles' own movie romance burst into full bloom.
"When I was good at school, my mother let me do whatever I wanted," he remembers. "So, every two or three days, I would go to see films on the Avenue de la Victoire, where I discovered that, on Wednesday afternoons, you could see two films for the price of one."
Those were rich years for French movies, despite the heavy censorship imposed by the Vichy government. After the war, Jacob, like so many of his generation's budding film buffs, frequented the cinema clubs of Paris' bohemian Left Bank and found himself swept up in the tide of American films of the 1940s just then washing up on French shores. But in many ways the most important movie of Jacob's life was one he wouldn't see until well into his career as a professional critic: the notorious (and notoriously bad) 1975 erotic melodrama The Story of O, directed by French softcore specialist Just Jaeckin.
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