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Lou de Laâge,
Flawed but entertaining portrait of an obscure cinematic figure
Name the Cannes Film Festival, and dozens of names are immediately associated to the world's most prestigious movie event: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Lars von Trier, Akira Kurosawa, Wim Wenders, Michael Moore... but Pierre Rissient? Very few people outside the festival have heard of him, so why is he worthy of a documentary about his "career"? That's what director Todd McCarthy, best known for being the chief film critic of Variety, tries to explain in Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient.
The expression "man of cinema" has many meanings, as Rissient's involvement in the film industry has been layered and versatile. Most of all, though, it says one essential thing about this peculiar Frenchman: he loves movies. As several of the film's interviewees (Bertrand Tavernier and Werner Herzog among them) point out, his passion for the subject is hard to surpass, to the degree that in case he disagrees with you he's capable of arguing his case so well it is downright impossible not to change your mind. If Pierre Rissient likes a motion picture, he will do whatever is possible to endorse that piece of work.
This brings me to the second definition of "man of cinema": like several other cinephiles, Rissient found the perfect means to express his passion by becoming a critic. This profession, however, was used mainly as a tool to learn from other filmmakers, and later he moved behind the camera, completing two relatively unknown features as a writer and director. Still, that wasn't enough. Something more stimulating was required.
Hence McCarthy's real reason for making this documentary, the third and most important meaning of "homme de cinema": if it weren't for Pierre, Cannes wouldn't be half as great as we know it. So what did Rissient do? Well, he used to go to minor film festivals all over the world, and whenever he saw a film that he liked, especially when made by a promising director, he would resort to all means necessary to get that movie, and its maker, to the French movie event. And what's so special about that, someone might say? Oh, nothing, just the list of filmmakers the "Man" practically "discovered": Clint Eastwood, Sydney Pollack (both of whom are more popular in Europe than in the US), Abbas Kiarostami, Jane Campion (The Piano was submitted to the main competition, and eventually won the Palme d'Or, at the Frenchman's insistence), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs played Out of Competition in 1992; Pulp Fiction famously won the top prize two years later) and countless others began their world conquest, cinematically speaking, thanks to Pierre.
This final section of the film turns out to be the meatiest, as several of the aforementioned filmmakers discuss their relationship with Rissient with real gratitude and enthusiasm (QT is particularly verbose, as usual, perhaps because he is talking about the only person in the business who finds it harder to shut up than he does). These intense feelings are what save the film, as the filmic structure is all but fully realized: a good documentary should blend narration and "talking heads" interviews, as too much of either eventually gets wearing; as Man of Cinema is all talking heads, it's up to Rissient and everyone else's contagious optimism to keep the viewer alert. It is also likely that the movie loses some of its impact if taken out of context (it was part of a series of special screenings for Cannes' 60th anniversary).
But in the end these flaws shouldn't detract from the pure entertainment McCarthy's sincere tribute is able to provide. It is also worth a look for the subject: after all, how many people have been so helpful in shaping the world's most famous film festival that they are actually allowed to attend any screening without an accreditation, wearing shorts and a T-shirt (whereas I had to get an invitation and dress "properly" in order to see the film)?
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