The Two Faces of Cannes: Gilles Jacob

Eye of the storm

At the time, Jacob was writing in the pages of the newsweekly L'Express, where he had been asked not to review The Story of O owing to a promotional partnership the magazine had with the film's producers. He consented, but when, shortly thereafter, a television journalist asked for Jacob's opinion of the film, he didn't hold back.

"It so happened that, at that moment, the editor of L'Express was watching TV and he said, 'Get rid of that guy.' I wasn't fired outright. They just stopped printing my articles."

In short order, Jacob was sitting on two prestigious offers — one from the editor of a nascent daily newspaper, Le Matin de Paris, who offered Jacob the position of arts editor, the other from the Cannes Film Festival's then-president, Robert Favre le Brey. At first, Jacob said yes to the newspaper gig, then reconsidered when a friend pointed out that "there are 15 arts editors in Paris, but there's only one Cannes Film Festival." So, Jacob went to Cannes, only to find that the job he thought he'd accepted — that of festival director — was still very much occupied.

"The director at the time, Maurice Bessy, did not want to leave," says Jacob, whose relationship with his own successor, current Cannes artistic director (as the job was renamed in 2001) Thierry Frémaux, has been the subject of intense media scrutiny at home and abroad. "He was forced to leave by age and by cultural ministers, but he was very reluctant, and I didn't know that. I thought I was coming to replace him, and in fact it was to assist him. So, we had two years that were a little bit difficult, and at the end, he finally had to leave."

Bessy's exit, in 1978, made it easier for Jacob to tailor the festival to his personal vision, which he describes as "a focus on directors" and, in particular, a focus on discovering the next generation of the world's directing talent.

"One day in 1986," he says, "[longtime Cannes consultant] Pierre Rissient brought me three short films by an unknown Australian director and said, 'You should look at these, and I am sure you will select one of them.' In fact, I took all three. Her name was Jane Campion."

Among the other filmmakers Cannes helped introduce to the world during Jacob's tenure were Greece's Theo Angelopoulos, America's Coen brothers, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami and Denmark's Lars von Trier. This year, they and 28 other festival veterans have returned the favor by contributing shorts to a 33-segment omnibus film, To Each His Own Cinema, conceived and produced by Jacob for the 60th anniversary. (The completed project had its world premiere in Cannes, in the presence of nearly all of its co-directors, on May 20.)

That's one of several film-related projects, including an ongoing series of documentaries about the history of the festival, to which Jacob has devoted himself in recent years. But the man who presided over Cannes during the period of its most dramatic growth (including the addition of the Camera d'Or competition for first-time filmmakers and a Sundance-like lab for the development of new film projects) says his priority remains the effort to preserve Cannes' integrity and hard-won independence.

"In the 1970s, the festival relied on 98 percent public funding, which is the same as control," he says. "I decided to bring things into balance — that for each public dollar, I had to find a private one."

That's what Jacob did, through television broadcast deals, the expansion of the festival's concurrent film market, and through partnerships with the likes of HP, Loréal, Air France and Renault. "Now it is 50-50, and we are free to do as we like, which is why Thierry is so happy!"

Like Frémaux, Jacob is quick to wave off rumors of internal strife and speaks approvingly of his successor, save for one or two small quibbles.

"When we started to discuss things, I said, 'Look, Lyon for a while, and then after three years, Cannes all year round,'" says Jacob of the unusual arrangement that has seen Frémaux remain installed as director of the Lyon museum and cinematheque known as the Lumière Institute. "He said yes, but I don't see Lyon ending. So, he does both, which is not easy. Also, he loves football — or soccer, as you call it. And soccer can also be sucker. I don't like soccer during Cannes preparations, because you have to be thinking about Cannes in the mind nonstop. You cannot have other loves or feelings. It's the only way to do a good job."

Still, Jacob says, the biggest difference between him and Frémaux is a simple matter of metabolism.

"Thierry needs time to digest a movie. It's a question of personality. He hates to decide in five minutes. When I was in charge, I'd look at a film at 2 p.m., and by 4:30 the guy had the decision. Maybe I was wrong sometimes, because sometimes you choose a film from Hungary in January, because you feel it is not possible there could be another masterpiece, and then in March another film comes from Hungary and it's better than the first one. So, maybe you choose both films, but because of that some other country doesn't get its film into the festival. Or, you don't take the second film and you have only selected the lesser one.

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