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

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

Twenty-seven hours after he and Thierry Fremaux announced the films in the Official Selection at Cannes in 2013, 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, 83, has published four books in the past 5 years. His latest, “Les pas perdus” (literally “lost steps”) hit French bookshops in April 2013. Meanwhile, the Cannes Film Festival hits its titular locality for the 67th time on May 14th. Following a 22-year stint as Festival artistic director, Gilles Jacob, 83, rose to Presidency in 2001. But this year’s Cannes will be his last. In 2015, Pierre Lescure takes over.

Jacob’s “Les pas perdus” 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.”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!”

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