President of Unifrance (France)
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“Film reviews first and foremost are a way of establishing a dialogue with filmmakers. During my 25 years as a critic at the Cahiers du cinéma, I have defended films I might not do so as readily today. Yet, over time, appearing to be too generous seemed to me a better risk to take than appearing to be too strict or unfair, as that sometimes implies overlooking something or hurting a film or filmmaker’s chances. For example, I regret overlooking the work of Claude Sautet, thereby losing the opportunity to engage with this filmmaker whose work I’ve since learned to appreciate.
There was a time, maybe during the golden age of the Cahiers, when reviews were thought of as a critical mirror held up to filmmakers - auteurs - who needed this dialogue that took the form of lengthy interviews, an underlying dialogue that accompanied their work. There was also a time when this dialogue broke down: the ideologically-driven years between 1970-1975, maybe even later.
Jean Eustache who I used to admire greatly said to me once: “When I needed the Cahiers, you weren’t there for me!” He was right. He was referring to the release of his film The Mother And The Whore, when it provoked a heated critical debate. Indeed, we weren’t on his side. It was 1973, the paper was still prone to a bit of a Maoist slant and so the film was reviewed as part of an article by Pascal Bonitzer focusing on three films: The Mother And The Whore, La Grande Bouffe and Last Tango In Paris. Pascal had written a brilliant, Lacanian text but the fact he’d discussed those three films together minimised their importance somewhat. These were all major films and The Mother And The Whore was undoubtedly one of the biggest films in French cinema and it should have been considered more seriously. It now seems obvious to me that each film deserved its own article, including an interview with its director.
But we were careless, wrapped up in our ideological bubbles and bereft of critical lucidity. When he came across the article in the Cahiers, a journal he was close to, as if he was part of the family given he’d spent some time with the team when he was young, Eustache understood that this time we weren’t there to support his film.
During that same period, Truffaut was also affected by the fact that the Cahiers, his own journal, was no longer covering his films. If you read the Cahiers du cinéma from the early 1970s, you’ll notice that films like The Wild Child and Two English Girls don’t feature at all. And yet these are films that were incredibly important to him, key moments in his life’s work. For the Cahiers, at the time, they weren’t interesting enough in terms of form and even less in terms of ideology.
It was a time of semiology and psychoanalysis, of structuralist influence - Christian Metz, Barthes, Lacan, etc. So much so that Truffaut’s cinema was no longer on the radar. So it’s unsurprising that he was affected, even more so, given the fact that in 1969 he’d helped save the journal when, along with Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and a number of close friends, he’d bought it from ex-owner Daniel Filipacchi. Thanks to Truffaut and Doniol-Valcroze, Claude Berri, Costa-Gavras, Michel Piccoli, Nicole Stéphane, Pierre Braunberger, Jean Riboud, so many friends of Truffaut, enough money had been collected for its editorial team to become independent again. So that same team who’d recovered editorial independence thanks to this group of friends considered Truffaut’s work not to be worthy of a critical review within their journal’s pages. From that point on, the Cahiers were no longer a critical and reflective tool there to support filmmakers, which for me was their real purpose.
Much later, in 1980, I wanted us to meet Truffaut who’d agreed to see us - he was about to finish editing The Last Metro. Serge Daney, Jean Narboni and I spent the whole day in his house conducting a very long interview that was dense, insightful, fascinating and occasionally polemical - when he finally settled scores with Godard. The interview was so long that it was published across two issues. This was a very important day for me: the Cahiers had re-engaged in a dialogue with Truffaut, a dialogue that had been interrupted long before I had become a film critic. We then did the same with Pialat, Téchiné, Jacquot, Doillon and many other important auteurs as it was clear this meant a lot to them. Not necessarily because they wanted us to say nice things about their films but because they felt the need to enter into a dialogue with critics, especially those at the Cahiers.
When Serge Daney took over at the Cahiers du cinéma in 1974, and I was sort of his second in command, the journal was clinically dead.
In terms of subscriptions and readership, we were at our lowest since its creation. I was in many ways an apprentice there, Serge had proudly taken on the role of editor, re-injecting in the Cahiers the joys of cinema, of travel, of meeting filmmakers, wherever they came from. As I was in charge of the admin side of things, I quickly noticed that over the next few months sales and subscriptions had been increasing: a new cycle was slowly beginning.
We had once again placed enjoyment at the heart of our operation, given we were allowed to work without any industry pressure. In our best times, we felt we were living as a collective, developing together a critical perspective. I learned and benefited a lot from this. Serge had perhaps experienced this collective mode of operating as quite stifling. When he left for Libération in 1981, it was for him, no pun intended, a real liberation.
The experience of writing articles that were published the next day, of having a mass readership and immediate feedback was a welcome change from the bizarre rhythm of a monthly magazine in which we invested as much (if not more) energy but where the slow pace of the process made the results feel more hypothetical. Writing for a daily paper was for him a bit like playing tennis with his readers: he’d throw the ball, it would be returned immediately and this somehow brought him a sort of narcissistic fulfillment.
I succeeded him at the Cahiers, trying in my own way to keep this focus on enjoyment, curiosity and critical openness, with the help of writers such as Alain Bergala, Charles Tesson, Olivier Assayas, Alain Philippon, Serge Le Péron, Danièle Dubroux. In 1982, the two issues of Made In USA proved incredibly successful. In fact, we had masterfully rekindled our links with American cinema after years of literary paucity. Made In Hong Kong, which Charles and Olivier created together in 1984 hadn’t actually done well at the time but became a collector’s item because they’d met pretty much everyone and had covered more or less all aspects and perspectives of Asian cinema (in other words, everything that was to come in the following 15 to 20 years.)
I really enjoyed working at the Cahiers then, when we were laying the groundwork, we were always on the lookout for new films, we would be the first to witness the emergence of films and directors, we were always in a state of heightened critical curiosity… When it’s possible, that’s where true enjoyment lies: not necessarily creating the films but being amongst those that discover them and place them within a specific context for our readers and perhaps other critics. At one time, the Cahiers had such an influence.
At 50, I was exhausted and I’d experienced all there was to experience as a senior editor of the Cahiers du cinéma. I loved that job and then I loved it less. I did it well at one time and less well at another. I felt dulled. And I knew filmmakers, artists and producers all too well… I had too many friendships with said filmmakers and so my own critical outlook wasn’t as free and independent. I knew I had to move on. And that’s how my career as a critic came to an end.
Today, as President of Unifrance, I’m discovering a new side to cinema: export. My work consists of supporting the distribution of French cinema abroad and I now realise how this challenge was completely alien to us when I was at the Cahiers. At no point was this ever an issue or something that we thought of or were curious about, knowing whether or not a French film would be successful abroad. These days I’m very much aware of just how essential this is.
To give you an example, I’ve known Mia Hansen-Love for 20 years. I’ve followed her career and yet I had no idea to what extent her work was known abroad. Same thing for Claire Denis. Maybe even more so than at home, those filmmakers benefit from a solid reputation, a sort of critical aura, from interest from American and Asian distributors and international festivals… I realise today that this notoriety is capable of giving them more freedom. Simply because when Mia Hansen-Love makes a film, it will be pre-sold in Germany, in Nordic countries, a Japanese, Korean or North American sales agent will buy it ...
In the global economy which oversees the circulation of films, critics have a role that although is not huge, has a strong symbolic importance. This means that even if a few film critics highlight a film or a filmmaker, it will be a sure boost to the way they are received abroad. And there are also, and maybe even more so, microcosms that can “make” the careers of certain European films on the American market. The Telluride festival for example enjoys great prestige as a very chic little place in Colorado where the American independent cinema community meets on the first weekend of September and gives the films an extra boost on their way to the Oscars. It’s also the case for Toronto on a more industrial scale. It’s a public, non-competitive festival where selection in their programme allows films to find an American distributor. In Toronto, the screens are always full, a good indicator of what your film can expect on the North American market. There’s also Berlin, Venise, San Sebastian… And Cannes and of course, the most important one. But we must also mention the New York Film Festival. From the 1970s up until his death, Truffaut was regularly selected there and his American career owes much to this. So if one or more festivals show some sort of loyalty to your work, your notoriety as an artist can steadily grow. And then critics help spread the word and that’s where independent distributors pick things up.
All in all, there’s a whole economic and symbolic chain in which criticism plays a major role: that of triggering enjoyment. And critics have, as a natural relay to their work, both festivals and independent distributors.”
As told to Nicolas Marcadé