World cinema has lost one of its greatest champions — and also one of its most enigmatic characters — with the passing of Pierre Rissient, the inveterate French film publicist, occasional filmmaker, and string-pulling éminence grise of the international festival scene.
Rissient died Saturday in Paris, just days before the start of Cannes, where he was scheduled to unveil a restoration of the 1982 drama “Cinq et la peau,” which debuted 36 years earlier at the festival in Un Certain Regard. And true to his encyclopedic command of film history, he also appears in the Cannes Classics documentary “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché.”
Rissient’s connection to Cannes is long and profound, dating back decades, to his early days (alongside partner-in-crime Bertrand Tavernier) as a film “praiser” — to invoke a cheeky bit of Variety slanguage that, in Rissient’s case, couldn’t be more apt, as he was never less than sincere about his passions. “It is not enough to love a film, one must love it for the right reason,” the dedicated cinephile is often quoted as saying, to the extent that the mantra appears on T-shirts sold at the Telluride Film Festival, where he was a frequent guest, and which named a theater The Pierre in his honor.
At once ubiquitous and invisible, Rissient was the force behind the discovery and reappraisal of some of the most respected directors in world cinema today. He helped bolster the international reputation of filmmakers such as Samuel Fuller and Clint Eastwood (who owes his current standing, especially among the French, to Rissient’s advocacy), and in his capacity as a film scout and programmer at Cannes and other world festivals, helped to launch the careers of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Jane Campion (the future Palme d’Or winner whose first three shorts he brought to Cannes). In recent years, Rissient turned much of his energy to the discovery of Asian talent, and it is thanks to his efforts that Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou are now household names around the world. This year, at age 81, he was going to bat on behalf of South Korean master Lee Chang-dong, whose “Burning” will premiere in competition.
To call Rissient “influential” is a profound understatement: Using skills he developed as a publicist alongside fellow cinephile Bertrand Tavernier early in his career, Rissient understood the strategy of how to influence the influencers themselves. He maintained personal connections with powerful film critics around the world, and it was not uncommon to receive a phone call from him out of the clear blue sky, whispering the name of a film or director whose work was not to be missed in an upcoming film festival.
Personally speaking, it was not until I appeared on Rissient’s radar (shortly after Todd McCarthy’s departure from Variety) that I knew I had “made it” as a film critic. Of course, I knew who Rissient was, thanks to McCarthy’s myth-making documentary, “Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema.” In that film, we are reminded just how mysterious Rissient’s methods were. “No one can tell you what he does,” says Claude Chabrol, who employed Rissient as an assistant director on “Les Cousins” way back in 1959. Since then, Rissient has directed two films and been the phantom thread in countless others, and given the unfortunate timing of his passing, we can expect to hear of many more of his accomplishments in the coming days at Cannes.