Though there’s no Rosebud at the center of “Gilles Jacob: Citizen Cannes,” there are plenty of insights, anecdotes and even a rare gameshow appearance by the man who topped the famous fest for more than two decades, and continues to exert an almost Godfatherly presence over the Croisette. Tracing his origins as a French Jew forced to hide during the war up to his red-carpet greetings with cinema’s biggest and brightest stars, Serge Le Peron’s entertaining portrait of a complex showbiz player should find fest and ancillary echoes following its preem at — quelle surprise — Cannes.
While Jacob is mostly seen today as the impeccably mannered gentleman kissing the likes of Angelina Jolie or Sharon Stone as they mount the Palais des Festivals’ red steps, his past is actually much less about celebrities than about the movies themselves.
Born in 1930 to middle-class Jewish entrepreneurs, he escaped the Nazi death camps by hiding out in a Catholic seminary — a story similar to that of Louis Malle’s “Au revoir les enfants” (clips of which are featured), and which Jacob admits gave him a paranoid sense of reality where “if everything’s going right, that means something’s going wrong.”
Back in Paris after the war, he was high school classmates with future New Wave helmer Claude Chabrol — whose wisecracking appearance is one of several amusing cameos in a docu that’s chockfull of cinema’s elite, including Croisette faves Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar.
A passion for movies hit both Jacob and Chabrol early on, and in the late ’40s, Jacob quickly starting writing and editing his own film-review quarterly, Raccords, which published some of the first pieces by then-tyro critic Francois Truffaut. Later, Jacob became the top reviewer at French weekly L’Express, before being fired in 1975 for his scathing critique of softcore arthouse phenomenon “The Story of O.”
A Cannes regular since the ’60s, Jacob would succeed topper Maurice Bessy in 1978, gradually transforming what was already a major film-world event into the be all and end all of film festivals. He opened up the fest to emerging talents, inviting helmers like Wim Wenders and Emir Kusturica into competition and creating the Camera d’Or prize for first feature, followed by the Cinefondation program for student films. He also presided over the construction of the massive Palais (correctly nicknamed “the Bunker” by the French press), which would be the mothership housing the fest’s constantly expanding selection.
Among the dozens of clips, interviews and glimpses into Jacob’s side activities as a film biographer, amateur photographer and documentary filmmaker, one of the most revealing is his 1957 TV appearance on the French quiz show “The Jackpot.” Ever the sly perfectionist, Jacob answers one question after another with the savvy of a professional poker player who never shows all his cards at once.
To give punch to the pic, Le Peron (a former critic himself) inserts clever chapter headings with animated titles, backing things with an upbeat score by Patrick Sigwalt. Other tech contributions are standard.