The Two Faces of Cannes: Gilles Jacob

Eye of the storm

  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.

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.

"But," Jacob adds after thinking it over, "it did not happen so often."

For now, Jacob says he's planning his next move, that retirement isn't anywhere in the cards, and that he's trying not to think too much about the 60th anniversary "because I'm superstitious."

But come Cannes 2007's opening night screening (of Wong Kar-Wai's debut English-language feature, My Blueberry Nights), and Jacob will be right back where he belongs, at the top of those red stairs.

"Cannes is like a Catholic liturgy. To climb the stairs is a kind of ascension — like going to heaven."

And when you get to the top, Jacob says with an ear-to-ear grin, "God is there to welcome you!"

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