A gift from one cineaste to a world of others, “Words in Progress” mines press conferences of Cannes past to deliver a loving reminiscence by fest president and former artistic director Gilles Jacob. A significant departure from Jacob’s two prior, Cannes-themed mini-memoirs (2002’s “Histoires de Festival” and 2003’s “Les Marches”), hourlong docu plays more like a clever articulation of Jacob’s sentiments about the importance of the festival, and of cinema. Carried along by indelible archival footage and well-placed film clips, pic looks to delight and provoke movie-lovers of all persuasions, be they Cannes virgins or vets. It should also (unlike its predecessors) elicit significant fest interest beyond the Croisette.
Whereas the focus of “Les Marches” was on the comedy of red-carpet arrivals, “Words in Progress” shifts the spotlight to the pressroom — an equally loved and loathed Cannes institution. Employing the festival’s six-decade existence as his palate, Jacob shows us the good, the bad and the ugly of these rendezvous that, not infrequently, result in the volleying of flaming arrows between filmmakers and critics.
The memorable moments include a frazzle-haired Godard joking that in Cannes even the bums have cell phones; an aged Bresson musing about his chances of winning an award on the occasion of “L’Argent’s” premiere; a questionably sober Abel Ferrara lashing out at a contentious press corps; Francis Coppola presciently predicting the rise of an “electronic cinema” — more than 20 years ago.
Bertolucci, Eastwood, Fellini, Kiarostami and Tarantino are here too (as are scenes from their films), along with dozens of others.
Jacob, however, isn’t merely assembling a guest register of famous Cannes faces. Rather, in the fashion of the late maverick documentarian Emile De Antonio, he uses collage as a way to create new meanings through the careful association of extant material.
Often during “Words in Progress,” press conference footage is juxtaposed with scenes from the particular film being discussed, which are in turn juxtaposed with images of the same filmmaker recorded years later. (Coppola, for example, is seen both at the moment of “Apocalypse Now” and again, 20 years on, as jury president.) The effect creates a sense of the parental pride Jacob himself feels in the autumn of a career that has seen him present some of the world’s most important films and filmmakers on perhaps the world’s grandest stage.
Throughout, pic conveys a stirring sense of how crucial Cannes has been over the decades to certain filmmakers’ work, particularly in the age before film festivals were so commonplace.
And if “Words in Progress” might be described as overtly political, it has less to do with the preservation of Jacob’s own legacy than that of the festival itself.
Generally lighthearted, pic is peppered with moments when the tenor of the onscreen discussion turns more circumspect — as when Sergio Leone, fielding questions about his risky “Once Upon a Time in America,” condemns the suggestion that the presence of an older filmmaker in Cannes comes at the expense of a younger one. At such times, it can seem as though Jacob is speaking to us as well, telling us the ingredients he deems necessary for Cannes’ continued livelihood.
While pic is decidedly director-centric, it nevertheless finds time to pay homage to a few actors, too — particularly Marcello Mastroianni, whose performance in Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Dark Eyes,” as the man forever tempest-tossed by his love for an unattainable Russian siren, seems particularly resonant for Jacob.
But if “Words in Progress” has a star worthy of above-the-title billing, it’s the ever-quotable Godard, to whom Jacob has dedicated pic and whose frequent appearances herein are enough to suggest that an entire spin-off film might be constructed from his sound bites alone.