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"First of all, we need to agree on the meaning of the word critic. Because there aren’t many. Many film journalists are happy to just write up a synopsis, adding a line stating that 'this film was better than the last one.' They are not critics. Critics, for me at least, are Jean Douchet and Serge Daney, people who cultivated the 'art of loving'. I think critics have to be historians. They have to have extensive cultural knowledge in all fields. To talk about cinema, one must know about literature, opera, fine art… They have to have this diverse cultural baggage and importantly be curious, as were Douchet and Daney.
Before getting to meet them, I didn’t have much of an understanding of criticism or cinema, because I didn’t have any money. So either I’d grab a Coke in a bar on Wednesdays with friends or I’d buy a magazine or I’d watch a film but I couldn’t do all three. And when I went to the cinema, it was mainly the promotional posters at the entrance that dictated my choices of what to watch. I didn’t know who was who, I was simply seduced by the pictures. Watching films was a leisure activity and a way for me to escape my reality at the time.
Then I met Jean Douchet who was speaking at a conference in Calais and he opened all sorts of doors for me. I understood then that cinema was a hugely important art. I started buying books, reading, trying to develop some sort of morality of cinema. Daney and Douchet were my very own teachers. For example, Daney said to me 'you need to create shots not images,' it wasn’t an obvious thing to understand but it was a foundational, essential bit of advice. Without them, I wouldn’t have done anything.
Later I directed Nord, my first film, which sold 20,000 tickets in France. At that time, there were no critics to say to people 'listen up, there’s an emerging filmmaker right here,' I just didn’t exist. The film would have disappeared and it would have all been over. Critical success - especially for a first film - whatever its box office success, is a free pass to make another. And in that sense, it is essential.
I’ll say it clearly: without critics I wouldn’t be here.
Thanks to criticism, when we meet producers, we are preceded by a sort of aura, big or small, and of course, that has an impact. When Caroline Champetier watched Nord, she came to ask me, via Douchet, why she hadn’t shed light on it. Then, she introduced me to Pascal Caucheteux and I felt that, given he was looking for young filmmakers, he was interested. Because producers read reviews and they like browsing small films, telling themselves 'this one looks interesting'.
Later, critics can also be your allies against producers. For example, that was the case for me when I made The Price Of Fame. Given the film tells the story of two guys who steal a coffin and then re-bury it, it was impossible for me to avoid the fact that digging is long, boring, tiring, hard and stressful. I had to show this and I couldn’t do it in two seconds. But I really had to fight and argue with my producer to keep what I wanted. So when I then read an article in Le Monde that said 'finally, someone’s brave enough to film the time it takes' and put out the same arguments that I had voiced, I could go back to the producer and say: 'told you so!' And that’s pretty cool.
Currently, it’s more complicated because everyone’s a critic. And so sometimes, criticism begins as early as the casting process. People say: 'What? You can’t cast a girl as a transsexual!' or 'Did you see the cast of Asterix?' I want to say to them: just hang on, the film isn’t even in production yet, so relax!
And the arrival of digital platforms worries me, of course. Godard used to say: when you watch a film on TV, you’re not watching a film but a reproduction. It’s like seeing Monet’s Nympheas on a postage stamp. I film in Scope, I only think in terms of a big screen. We carry out meticulous grading on each shot. During mixing, every second is thought out. If it’s all for it to end up on an i-Pad, that’s just sad…
And also, if you’re getting your food delivered by Uber, your books delivered by Amazon and your films delivered by Netflix, at some point you have to ask yourself what’s the difference between your life and that of some guy in Fleury-Merogis? Personally, I still feel the same rush of pleasure when I walk into a cinema. I like those red seats… I think that a believer should always feel some level of emotion when entering a church, no matter how old they are.
In such a context, criticism has now more than ever a crucial role to play."
As told to Nicolas Marcadé