PARIS — When he was interviewed in the ’60s, Orson Welles said of Stanley Kubrick: “Among the directors of his generation he seems to me a giant.” For several decades, especially after “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick also has been the director of reference for many French film buffs — as Welles was after he made “Citizen Kane.”
Interestingly enough, neither ever got an Academy Award for film or director. And while there are similarities to be drawn between the two, their professional destinies were diametrically opposed.
Welles worked with carte blanche from RKO, with all the technology and artistry of Hollywood at his disposal, and ended up solitary, begging for money and making his films under the most difficult conditions — if at all.
Kubrick began his career much like the New Wave directors — some five years before “400 Blows” and “Breathless” — on a shoestring budget, shooting on the streets of New York, writing, photographing, directing and editing “Killer’s Kiss.” Later he became the total master of his creation with all the money he needed and Warner Bros. at his feet.
In spite of his cult status in France, Kubrick did not always fare well with the press. His visionary mind, controversial subject matter, and constant stylistic and thematic renewal continually nonplused a tranche of the critical establishment. But he had a popular following and was admired not only by his fellow directors but also by painters, writers, philosophers and psychoanalysts who were thrilled by his unique blend of ideas and images, his savvy grasp of the spectacular combined with a deep knowledge of human psyche and the society around him.
After his successful trilogy — “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange” — his films were given a cold shoulder in the U.S., particularly by the New York scribes who, with few exceptions, never liked him.
I remember visiting London in 1975 with the great French director Claude Sautet and going to a sparsely attended public screening of “Barry Lyndon,” just after its release. We were dumbstruck by this flawless masterpiece and I called Kubrick to express our admiration for his latest work.
He had been lambasted by most of the American and British press, and the film was doing poorly at the box office, which had rather distressed him. To lift his spirits, I assured him that the film would be a huge success upon its release in Paris in the fall — something I truly believed. It indeed took the town by storm and sold some 1 million tickets.
In France, Kubrick was a director’s director but also a favorite with the audience. It was not only the mystery of his personality, his aloofness that fascinated immensely, but the sheer invention and perfection of his art. He knew how to captivate the eye and stimulate the mind. His pessimism was proved right by the predicaments of the 20th century, and he had no ready answers. For him, like for Paul Valery, “two dangers threaten the world: order and disorder.”
Since his death in 1999, every festival in France has toiled to put together a complete Kubrick retrospective and failed to do so due to material or legal reasons. This year, however, the Deauville Festival of American Cinema got access to the helmer’s films from Warner Bros. and the Kubrick estate. It’s a fitting venue for the works given it’s the only festival outside of the U.S. specifically dedicated to American film — a comfortable place for Kubrick, who spent the last decades of his life outside of the States making films for a Hollywood studio.
French film critic Michel Ciment is the preeminent Kubrick expert and author of “Kubrick” (1982), of which an updated version will appear in September, “Kubrick: The Definitive Edition” (Faber & Faber).