Gilles Jacob’s Journey From Film Critic to Cannes Fest Honcho

A self-described “veteran fire chief,” Gilles Jacob has been a key figure in Cannes for nearly four decades, including 22 years as artistic director. Variety first mentioned Jacob in a story in 1976, the year he joined the fest. But two years earlier, he was quoted in an ad when he was on the other side of the tracks: as a film reviewer.

What comes to mind when you think of 1974?

I was a chief film critic at L’Express. There were two of us doing the job; my partners included Francois Nourissier, then Paul Guimard, author of “Les choses de la vie.” Back then, I was the king, and a happy king. A critic in 1974 had some power, and contributed to filling theaters for movies he loved.

What movies did you help?

I defended auteur cinema for wider audiences — or popular, smart films, if you will. But I didn’t become big-headed, knowing how much our notoriety is ephemeral, a notion that my dismissal in 1976 (one of my worst memories) confirmed to me.

What challenges did you face at L’Express?

The boss, Francoise Giroud — who was an important journalist, demanding and confident — judged my articles severely; they were too personal in her eyes, and didn’t fit into the mold she imposed. But with the arrival of editor-in-chief Philippe Grumbach, things started to change: I don’t know why, but I was his favorite.

Did you attend Cannes?

I was the special correspondent of L’Express. At the beginning of my career, there was a certain coldness from Louisette Fargette (head of the fest’s press department). I don’t hold grudges, so once I was appointed executive director at Cannes, I promoted her. The journalists loved her very much, the way they love Christine Aime today, and rightfully so.

Memories from Cannes 1974?

The selection was a marvel: The new Hollywood rose to power. Palme d’Or was “The Conversation,” one of my favorites of Coppola’s, and so contemporary with the technology of phone surveillance. Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express,” and its glowing police cars racing. Nicholson in “The Last Detail,” from my friend Hal Ashby.

Anything else?

While I was a critic, I was far from imagining that I would become, 40 years later, the festival historian and a writer. My novel, which has just come out, ends by pure chance in … 1974! It’s called “Le Festival n’aura pas lieu” (The Festival Will Not Take Place). One protagonist is Alexander Walker, who was on the jury in 1974. The novel talks a lot about Hollywood since 1952 up until 1974 — still by chance — and it relates the shooting of (John Ford’s) “Mogambo.” Ah! Hollywood. … A promised land where we always return. …

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