Citizen Cannes: the Man Behind the Cannes Festival

Citizen Cannes: the Man Behind the Cannes Festival
Gilles Jacob
Phaidon, 384pp, £19.95

The first Cannes film festival was planned for the autumn of 1939. It was explicitly designed as a democratic response to the Venice film festival, which had launched in 1932 and become a powerful platform for Benito Mussolini. However, the Nazi invasion of Poland stopped it from going ahead and the first festival did not take place until 1946.

The links between politics and cinema have always been close, but at no time have they been closer than in May 1968, when François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, enraged by the sacking in February of Henri Langlois as head of the French Cinémathèque, took the lead in forcing the festival to close in solidarity with striking workers and students.

One of the results of this cultural revolution was that in the early 1970s Cannes altered the method by which it selected films. Until then, films were proposed to Cannes by national boards and were taken to "represent" their country of origin. The method led to ferocious political manoeuvring and the selection of films that had little artistic value. In 1972, it was decided that the festival would select the films to be shown, and that they would be chosen entirely on merit.

The bureaucrats then in charge of the festival realised that they lacked both the skills and the contacts to do this. Their choice for the job was Gilles Jacob, who had made his name as a film critic for the magazine L'Express. This was no ordinary critic. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Jacob had at an early age bowed to family pressure and abandoned both his very promising studies and an early film magazine that he founded in order to run the family firm instead. Legend has it that the minister of culture, as he appointed Jacob to the Cannes job, said: "This one will do. He's too rich to be bribed."

To my disappointment, this story is neither confirmed nor denied in Jacob's autobiography. But there are many other fascinating anecdotes in this book, which is both a treasure trove of discreet gossip and, in the early pages, a moving account of life as a Jewish child in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Jacob was about ten at the time and his account of assuming a new identity and the years that he was sheltered in a French seminary is all the more poignant for being delivered, like almost everything else in the book, in the register of understatement. One of the few moments when he abandons this is as he reflects on his time at the seminary as the war was coming to an end. He writes: "I will not allow anyone to say in front of me that the Church did not help Jews during the war."

Even though Jacob was a successful businessman, his work had precipitated a severe nervous breakdown by the end of the 1950s. He cured himself by returning to his first love, writing about the cinema, while continuing to run the family firm. Cannes brought this dual life to an end. After he was finally appointed délégué général in 1978 (an appointment confirmed by the minister as the two men were showering after a game of tennis), he set about confirming Cannes as the best film festival in the world. He also developed it institutionally, particularly by establishing theCinéfondation, with which the festival nurtures young talent, in 1998.

Although the reader learns a little of this institution-building, the book is, above all, a succession of stories. In my favourite, our star- struck narrator is sitting at the best table at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles with Clint Eastwood. No sooner has Clint agreed to be president of the jury for that year's festival than a major earthquake strikes LA. Everybody dives under the table and becomes hysterical - except for the Man With No Name, who remains seated and imperturbable, as though nothing untoward is happening. When the terrible noise and shaking of the earthquake subsides, the first sound to break the silence is Clint's: "Check, please."

Jacob writes in the style of belles-lettres, and although his elegant French is well rendered here, much of the subtlety of his writing is lost in translation. The book was also written under severe political restraint, for although Jacob has passed the job of délégué général, and with it the selection of films, to Thierry Frémaux, he is still president of the festival and cannot afford to offend any director whom Cannes may be courting for a film next year.

Yet Jacob makes no attempt to hide his feelings in his account of the 1991 festival, when Roman Polanski took the job of president of the jury only to announce that he was gunning for "pretentious works made to impress the critics". Jacob makes it clear how much he disliked the way that year's jury was run.

For the most part, however, this is a book determined to talk only of those the author wishes to praise. The result is a vision of Cannes that is all sweetness and light; there is little here of the steely determination that Jacob has had to bring to managing the world's most successful film festival for over a generation.

Colin MacCabe is associate director of the London Consortium, the postgraduate studies programme.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right