Pierre Rissient, based primarily at the Cannes Festival, is a little-known pillar of the international film community. For the past five decades, he has either launched or been instrumental in the careers of countless great filmmakers. Director Todd McCarthy’s entertaining, high-energy portrait, “Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient,” is first-rate festival and arthouse material — but its wit, populist rhythm and wealth of well-chosen film clips from the past half-century predict a healthy life on pay TV, DVD and Internet venues.
Plentiful clips and stills, skillfully cross-cut by editor James Taylor, reveal how Rissient (born in 1936) began as a critic and theater programmer in the early 1950s, served as assistant director to Jean-Luc Godard on “Breathless,” then became an international publicist with fellow critic (and future film director) Bertrand Tavernier. The pair would infamously sidestep traditional etiquette and corner critics straightaway as they emerged from this or that screening, taking them to task on the spot: “It’s not enough to like a film,” Rissient would repeat in argument after argument. “You must like it for the right reasons.”
In the 1970s, Rissient briefly became an admired (if resolutely noncommercial) filmmaker. He has since devoted himself to traveling the world, consulting with festivals, sampling everything no matter how far-flung, championing whatever he judges to be the best.
In the ’50s, he successfully promoted such underrated Americans as Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin and Anthony Mann — favoring, he tells McCarthy, filmmakers who are “humanist,” who don’t “use any tricks,” who “only use a camera to be close as possible to the perception of a scene.” Off the cuff, he makes an interesting, sharp-edged critique of Hitchcock along these lines. He is as vividly tough on Rossellini’s later work.
In recent decades, Rissient has become most passionately attuned to Asia, boosting the rise of Hou Hsiao Hsien (a particular favorite), Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Among Americans, he had long fought to improve the world’s appreciation for Clint Eastwood, purely as a film director, a stance which for years puzzled his French as well as American colleagues who preferred to admire Eastwood as an actor. The likes of “Pale Rider,” “Bird” (“His masterpiece,” says Rissient) and “Million Dollar Baby” have long validated Rissient’s prophetic insight.
“I’m definitely one of Pierre’s discoveries,” says Quentin Tarantino, calling Rissient “the king of Cannes.” Eastwood, John Boorman, Sydney Pollack, Werner Herzog, Jane Campion, Abbas Kiarostami and others fill our ears with colorful anecdotes. Many show him their works in progress. “Pierre doesn’t make suggestions,” says Pollack, “but he tells the truth at all times.” This unfailing honesty has cost Rissient many friendships — he has endured fallings-out with Losey, Mike Leigh and others.
Many use the word “enigma” when describing him. Amiable, tall, soft-spoken, Rissient says he was most deeply formed in the rural village where he spent his wartime boyhood — St. Pierre le Moutier, the site of Joan of Arc’s last military victory on her path to martyrdom. He claims its plain character for himself in a very moving moment — simply but powerfully composed — in which Rissient stands, brick-faced, stoic, yet deeply moved as he mourns the bare charm of his village’s train station and the vast desolate emptiness of the landscape around it.
Half a world away, in a moment filmed by Kiarostami, a Korean woman lightly flirts with Rissient in halting English along the seaward edge of a beach in Pusan, asking his age and whether he’s married. Rissient replies cordially, not quite flirting, but genuinely curious — and this, as McCarthy demonstrates again and again, may be the operative force within the man’s inscrutable charm. Other people interest Rissient far more than he interests himself. This notable discretion makes him a magnet for the curiosities of others, ourselves included.
Variety assigned this review to an impartial non-staffer since chief film critic Todd McCarthy produced and directed “Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient.”