The Cannes Film Festival President, Looks Back
By RACHEL DONADIO, nytimes
"We need the stars to help the little countries. The big names bring the attention that helps art-house cinema."
CANNES, France — Each year, as stars ascend the red-carpeted steps here, a reserved gentleman in a bespoke Agnès B tuxedo is there to receive them. He is Gilles Jacob, and after more than 35 years at the Cannes Film Festival, the last 15 as president, he is alighting from those steps and retiring.
To Mr. Jacob, it’s the steps that make the difference at Cannes. “There’s almost a religious aspect to it, as if you were going up to heaven,” Mr. Jacob, 83, said in an interview Tuesday in his office here. “The Oscars, c’est magnifique, but it’s flat.”
That mix of Hollywood glamour and European respect for cinema has kept Cannes the queen of festivals; Mr. Jacob has long been part of the formula. “In the old days, if you walked up the red carpet and he chose to shake your hand, it was a big deal,” said Tom Bernard, a founder and co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is distributing several films in competition this year.
That handshake meant “you are an artist; you are in an elite class,” Mr. Bernard added. “You gained the respect of this guy who has been a tastemaker for decades.”
Mr. Jacob is widely credited with not allowing commercial pressures to weigh too heavily on the films selected for competition. “My formula is art cinema for a wide audience, or intelligent popular cinema,” he said. “They’re the same thing.”
The Cannes festival started in 1946. Until 1972, countries chose which films to submit.
“My legacy is, first of all, the independence of the festival,” Mr. Jacob said. “Diplomatic and political independence, professional independence and financial independence, which I achieved, with much difficulty, little by little.”
As the general delegate — the job of overseeing the festival, now held by Thierry Frémaux — from 1977 to 2000, Mr. Jacob helped to bring in corporate sponsors, which now account for half the operating budget, and to start a film market, where distributors buy films and invest in others before they’re made.
He says he’s most proud of creating the Un Certain Regard competition of more offbeat works, as well as the Camera d’Or award for a first-time director and the Cinéfoundation, which supports new filmmakers.
This year, there was a flap when mullahs in Iran objected to Mr. Jacob’s kissing Leila Hatami, an Iranian actress on the jury, on both cheeks when she walked the carpet. Mr. Jacob issued a statement on Twitter saying, “This controversy, based on a normal Western custom, is baseless.”
While admiring the festival’s commitment to cinéma d’auteur, some critics say that on Mr. Jacob’s watch, it has featured too many well-known directors rather than new talent. This year features work by Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Jean-Luc Godard. One of Mr. Jacob’s regrets is never getting Stanley Kubrick to Cannes; that director, who lived in London, refused to fly.
Next year, Pierre Lescure, a founder of Canal Plus, the French cable channel, will take over as the festival’s president. Mr. Jacob will continue to serve on the board and as president of the Cinéfoundation. One of Mr. Jacob’s two sons is on the foreign film selection committee, but he doesn’t think there will be a family dynasty at Cannes.
After all these years, Mr. Jacob still seems a bit star-struck, often tweeting selfies with celebrities. For him, it’s in keeping with the festival’s logic: The big names bring the attention that helps art-house cinema. “We need the stars to help the little countries,” he said.