Pierre Rissient called me on Thursday, welcoming me to Paris and hoping I would see “Burning,” Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s latest film set to premiere in a week at the Cannes Film Festival. He was organizing local screenings and advising the filmmaker, much like this indefatigable warrior of cinema had done for over 50 years. Two days later, he died in a Paris hospital after suffering complications from a blood clot. He was 81.
Rissient had struggled from health problems for years, but continued advising on the movies he loved until the day of his death. That should come as no surprise to those who fell into his orbit, and there were many.
Rissient was dubbed “Mr. Everywhere” by longtime pal Clint Eastwood for good reason: The multi-tasker was a critic in the ’50s, then an assistant director on the set of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” and joined forces with future filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier to handle international publicity on a range of films before making a few of them himself over the next decade. (His second feature, “Five and Skin,” played at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and the festival will screen a restored version of it at the 2018 edition.)
After that, Rissient entered a new stage of his career as an advocate. He was the first European figure to discover the work of Jane Campion and introduce it to Cannes, where she would eventually become the first (and so far only) woman to win the Palme d’Or. Rissient was beloved by many American filmmakers, including Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino, and Oliver Stone, though he was especially influential in championing Asian cinema. He was a major supporter of Hou Hsiao Hsien, widely considered the greatest living Taiwanese filmmaker, and also helped raise the awareness for directors such as Zhang Yimou and Hong Sang-soo. Though Rissient was reportedly disliked by some members of the Asian film industry for meddling in its affairs, he continued to be a treasured consultant for the Asian directors he supported.
Anyone with even a passing relationship to cinema felt the impact of Rissient’s work. Over the years, despite his work as a publicist, distributor, festival consultant and film producer, he lived as his own distinct brand, a fierce advocate of filmmakers who can take credit for putting many of them on the map.
In addition to serving as an artistic advisor to Cannes, Rissient was a fixture on the international festival circuit, often introducing restorations of classic films. He was treasured figure at the Telluride Film Festival, which named a theater after him — The Pierre — where an outline of his bald, bulky frame adorns the walls. Rissient lived as much for celebrating classic cinema as contemporary filmmakers, and often positioned his favorite new discoveries in the context of a broader historical timeline.
Rissient was a charming raconteur who exuded stories at every waking moment, so it came as no surprise when he became the subject of documentaries about his life. Critic Todd McCarthy’s 2007 “Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema” gathers many of the major filmmakers Rissient celebrated together to talk about his impact, while the 2016 documentary “Pierre Rissient: Gentleman Critic,” co-directed by Benoit Jacquot, Pascal Merigeau, and Guy Seligmann takes a simpler approach: a static camera in a Paris apartment, as he shares countless stories about films and filmmakers. Both movies played at Cannes, and in them he shares his ethos. “We must champion the smaller films,” he says in “Gentleman Critic,” while in McCarthy’s film, he elaborates: “It’s not enough to like a film,” he says, “You must like it for the right reasons.”
This sort of dogged commitment to his sensibilities was especially resonant in an age of aggregation and open-ended questions about the future of the movies. As a young moviegoer exploring the frontlines of film culture on the festival circuit, Rissient was one of the few figures from an earlier era of cinephilia to welcome me into his orbit, as he did for countless others across the decades. (The image at the top of this article is from a meeting that I took with Rissient and IndieWire co-founder Eugene Hernandez in Paris in 2017.) He became a regular visitor to the Critics Academy, the workshop for aspiring writers I ran for several years in Locarno and New York with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, extolling the virtues of French magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s as well as the many filmmakers he discovered over the years. He was always committed to sharing honest perspectives with filmmakers on their new films even when it upset them.
“What makes cinema is the eye of the director, beyond the script, beyond the acting,” Rissient said at the Locarno Critics Academy in 2013. “Like Mozart was born a musician, there are people who are born directors.” He said that seeing Akiro Kurosawa’s narrative-shifting “Rashomon” at the age of 15 first made him excited about the possibilities of the medium. “Cinema, of course,” he said, “is an art by itself.”
He mounted startling intellectual arguments for the works of Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger, though he was less a fan of Alfred Hitchcock. “He is not a pure director,” Rissient said at the Critics Academy. “He was a great showman.”
Though he had trouble walking in recent years, Rissient would often hobble or wheel his way around festival parties over the past decade to ensure that audiences were seeing some of the classic films on display. At last fall’s Telluride, he was adamant that festival crowds see “Kean, or the Disorder of Genius,” a 1924 silent film adapted from the Alexander Dumas play.
“It’s such a shock,” Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who also runs the Lumiere Festival in Lyon where Rissient was a regular, wrote me. “Pierre was such a friend for so many people he helped. He loved talented directors and his taste was perfect. (‘Almost perfect!’, he would have said.) He has been helpful for a lot of people, not only from cinema, as he was interested in youth. He has been so important for me when I started, for the Lumiere Festival when we created it.” With Tavernier, Fremaux added, Rissient “invented the job of the auteur film press agent in the sixties,” noting that their clients included John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Fremaux acknowledged that Rissient had been advising Cannes on the decision to screen Lee Chang-dong’s Haruki Murakami adaptation “Burning” in competition, and had also pushed for the inclusion of Chinese director Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which is set to become one of this year’s big discoveries — a technologically-complex production partly shot with 3D cameras and drones in a unique context, it premieres in Un Certain Regard, where Rissient’s own film once screened. As for that production, Fremaux said that the Cannes Classics screening of “Five and Skin” will be “the best memorial we could expect for him. All his friends will be around, the world of cinema he loved so much.”
Rissient is survived by his wife, Yung Hee, as well as a sister and her son, though many filmmakers and cinephiles considered him extended family. He had been attempting to hire an American publicist for “Burning” up until the moment he went to the hospital on Friday — when, according to his assistant Benjamin Illos, “He was the usual Pierre until the last moment,” answering requests about Cannes films and hoping to make sure “Burning” received the support he believed it deserved at the festival.
Above all else, Rissient’s support of current cinema goes beyond the narrow confines of movie-worship; he was a cultural activist who forced an industry to accommodate his standards for the art form, and cinema will forever owe him a debt.
A week before his death, Rissient circulated an email sharing his thoughts on “Burning,” with a typical blend of analysis and historical context. It is published below.
Destinies of “Burning,” by Pierre Rissient
How time flies.
It was more than 20 years ago when, in Kuala Lumpur, almost by accident, I saw U-Wei bin Haji Saari’s “Kaki Bakar.” An adaptation of William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” rooted in Malaysian culture, entirely unexpected. The film was screened with success in Un Certain Regard, and then went on to Telluride, New Directors/New Films, Busan and quite a few other festivals.
The film ends very emotively with a long, backwards tracking shot which shows the child moving forward. We, the viewers, rediscover our innocence. Innocence itself.
A while back, Lee Chang Dong mentioned to me that he’d like to adapt a short story by Murakami Haruki, itself based on “Barn Burning.” I reacted with skepticism.
But from the opening shot, a sinuous reverse track, and from the opening sounds, we are plunged into the teeming life of a busy working-class district, at once close and distanced. Every moment will reveal something unexpected.
The beautifully titled “Bend of the River” is for sure more an intimate epic than a simple western. It works in much the same way as Burning. Is there anything more cherishable in a film than the moment when it breaks away from what its author seems to have intended and begins to have a life of its own, with its own impulses?
Lee Chang-dong belongs to the rare breed of humanist directors, although his work is never burdened with “messages.” Also, to my surprise, I find myself dreaming that “Burning” prefigures the reunification of Korea, restoring at long last its ancestral culture. Maybe this was the hidden ambition of directors Shin Sang-ok and Im Kwon-taek yesterday, as it might be of Lee Chang-Dong today.