WHEN CLINT EASTWOOD thanked film critics and the French during one of his Oscar acceptance speeches, some insiders might have recognized that, yes, a few key critics began supporting him long before it was fashionable to take him seriously as a director. And, yes, the Cannes Film Festival had been featuring his films in competition for nearly a decade. But Eastwood might have had one particular Frenchman in mind at that moment. Pierre Rissient is very possibly the least-known man of tremendous influence in the entire world of cinema. His name has rarely appeared in the credits of pictures except of the two highly unusual Asian-based films he directed, and he has very rarely been published as an author or critic. The most difficult question you can ask Rissient is, “What do you do?” Most often, this gregarious Frenchman’s reply is something like, “Do you mean today or tomorrow?” To put it mundanely, some days Rissient is a press agent, paid by a major studio to help open a picture in Europe or rep it at a festival. Part of the year he is a scout for the Cannes Film Festival, combing the United States and the Far East, particularly, for interesting new films. With filmmakers, he has acted as adviser, confidant and even cutter at various stages of production. At other times, he will pop up unexpectedly at some far-flung festival on behalf of an unknown entry that may be the Third World’s answer to Raoul Walsh. In all these places, the bald-pated Rissient — who somewhat resembles a Gallic Otto Preminger, one of his favorite directors — cultivates filmmakers, critics, festival heads and distributors, stirring up interest, spreading and collecting gossip, indulging in feuds. He loves confidential meetings where he imparts the latest revelations gleaned from his travels, and I have also seen him nearly come to blows with people in the back alleys of Cannes in disagreements over films.
With his love of intrigue, Rissient would have been a favored courtier in royal days of a century or two ago, summoned by the king in the wee hours for special assignments.
Today, he is like a minister without portfolio for the directors he considers worthy of his zealous attention, a samurai warrior on behalf of great cinematic talent no matter where it comes from. He selects his beneficiaries on the basis of his passion for their work and nothing else, and then promotes them literally to the ends of the earth.
THIS HAS BEEN A BANNER YEAR for Rissient, so far. A friend of Eastwood’s since the late 1960s, Rissient has handled many of his films in France since “The Beguiled” in 1971. Personally taking care of Eastwood’s three Cannes entries –“Pale Rider,””Bird” and “White Hunter, Black Heart”– Rissient made sure his charge met the right writers and tirelessly lauded his talents to skeptical American critics.
With “Unforgiven,” Rissient, along with Eastwood, was finally vindicated after a very long campaign.
Less than two months after Eastwood’s Oscar-night vindication, Rissient had another sort of triumph when Jane Campion shared the Palme d’Or for “The Piano” in Cannes.
It is entirely fair to say that Rissient discovered Campion. On his annual scouting trip to Australia in 1986 on behalf of Cannes, he spotted Campion’s work during screenings of many student shorts, put four of them together as a package and brought them to the Riviera. He helped arrange for her first feature , “Sweetie,” to come to Cannes, and was the crucial link between Campion and “The Piano’s” production company, CIBY 2000, for whom Rissient is a consultant.
Rissient’s fingerprints are everywhere. He was arguably the first person outside China to support and promote the work of this year’s Palme d’Or co-winner, Chen Kaige, and was the first to bring international exposure to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, jury prize winner this year for “The Puppetmaster.” For good measure, Rissient opened Cannes best director Mike Leigh’s first feature, “Bleak Moments,” in Paris, even before it opened in the U.K.
Rissient has been at every Cannes Film Festival since 1964, bustling around the streets and insisting that you fit some unknown Indian or Korean film into your schedule. He has often been there in a very influential behind-the-scenes capacity for an important film, such as “The Go-Between” (he played the leading role in building Joseph Losey’s reputation from the late 1950s), “Mean Streets, “”Scarecrow,””The Conversation,””In the Realm of the Senses,””Apocalypse Now” and numerous Robert Altman pictures.
RISSIENT INTRODUCED WESTERN audiences to the work of Taiwanese master King Hu by bringing the uncut “A Touch of Zen” to Cannes in 1975, and singlehandedly brought the work of the late Filipino director Lino Brocka to the world’s attention.
Where other people may measure their careers by fat bank accounts or awards, Rissient can think in terms of talents discovered, reputations made and eminence increased. Through force of energy and will he asserts his views upon everyone from top studio executives to the most obscure critics for newspapers in Calcutta. He is willing to speculate that people listen to him “because of the fact that I have not often been wrong” in his judgment of films.
He has been around long enough to have worked as assistant director on the New Wave classics “Les Cousins” and “Breathless,” to have distributed Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” in France and shot screen tests of young actresses for Howard Hawks. Working in PR with Bertrand Tavernier through the 1960s, he vigorously rehabilitated the reputations of Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang, John Ford and many others. He played such a central role in generating recognition for Jim Thompson that the late author dedicated his last book to Rissient.
Rissient is aware that many of his friends feel that he should start promoting himself as cleverly as he has so many others and, experienced as he may be, Rissient is young enough to direct a few more films if he sets his mind to it. It would be gratifying and amusing if, in a couple of years, Rissient’s latest hot find turned out to be himself.