Cannes leader: Gilles Jacob

Festival force muses on a life in cinema

If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then it could be said that Gilles Jacob’s future as “Citizen Cannes” was secured on the tennis courts of Deauville, one summer’s day in 1977.

Diplomat or not,” writes Jacob in his 2009 autobiography “La Vie Passera Comme Un Reve” (Life Will Pass Like a Dream), every time Jacob hit a ball toward Michel d’Ornano, France’s newly appointed minister of culture, he made sure that it landed centimeters over the baseline.

Say, are you doing this on purpose, or what?” muttered Claude Lelouch, Jacob’s disgruntled tennis partner. Afterward in the shower, Jacob found himself standing next to d’Ornano.

Still dripping, d’Ornano turns to me and says: ‘Are you ready?’ ”

Ready for what?” replied Jacob.

Three weeks later, he was on the end of a telephone call from Cannes president Pierre Viot, congratulating him on his appointment as the festival’s new general delegate.

Jacob’s episodic autobiography, set for an English-language translation published by Phaedon in the fall of 2011, casts a delectable look back on a career spent in the service of cinema.

Every film festival director is a frustrated film director,” writes Jacob with refreshing self deprecation. And his wife, Jeanette, would be unlikely to disagree.

On their honeymoon in 1958, the newlyweds did a tour of America. Jacob spent most of his time shooting home movies, leading his wife to remark, “Filming is good, but so is living.”

Cinema or life — that is the whole problem,” muses Jacob in the book. Initially as a journalist and critic, then as Cannes’ general delegate and finally as its president from 2000 to the present, Jacob says that he has always been motivated by his feelings as a simple “spectator.”

As festival delegate, he has given advice, suggested a tightening up or the addition of music. “It’s stronger than me,” he writes. “I am foremost a spectator who likes to improve a film that is not yet finished.”

But throughout Jacob’s career, he has also shown a stubborn streak — he will not take “no” for an answer.

This was certainly true in 1979, when he achieved his first major coup as festival delegate by persuading a reluctant Francis Ford Coppola — who had already won one Palme d’Or with “The Conversation” in 1974 — to premiere his latest film, “Apocalypse Now,” at Cannes. Coppola’s pic shared the Palme d’Or that year with Volcker Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum.”

There is always somewhere a film which he (a festival director) desires absolutely,” says Jacob. “For which he would be ready to sell his soul.”

The truth is, Jacob’s job has been made relatively easy through the friendships he has nurtured with directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, Lars von Trier and Martin Scorsese.

Even today,” he notes, “I would struggle to say if I prefer films or their directors.”

Jacob is too polite to stick the knife in and twist it. But he does reserve gentle criticism for Roman Polanski, whose tyrannical presidency of the 1991 Cannes jury led to a film (“Barton Fink”) winning three major prizes for the first time in the festival’s history. Isabelle Adjani’s presidency was scarcely less memorable, with Jacob noting, “Worried about the health of her jury, she suggested that everybody submit to a diet of radishes and peppers.”

In between film-related reminiscences, Jacob relates some extraordinary details about his private life. How as children, he and his brother escaped being deported by the Nazis by hiding behind a monastery’s harmonium, and his struggle with depression, which led to an addiction to lithium.

The only thing missing is a chapter on Jacob’s role as festival president and his relationship with Thierry Fremaux — the man who succeeded him as festival delegate. Perhaps Jacob is holding himself back for a sequel. If not, then an extra chapter for the English-language version would be most welcome.