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Pierre Rissient, France’s iconoclastic “man of cinema,” who was best known for discovering and promoting directors he believed in at film festivals around the world but whose eclectic career also embraced directing, producing and publicity work, died Saturday at a Paris hospital. He was 81 and had been suffering from numerous ailments over the past several years, although he had continued to make the festival rounds.
Rissient was due to appear at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival to present a restored version of one of his directorial efforts, Cinq et la peau (1982), in Cannes Classics.
One of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures on the international festival circuit for more than 50 years, Rissient began attending the Cannes Film Festival in the mid-1960s and cut an indelible figure with his bald pate, ample girth, t-shirts from around the world and sometimes booming voice. He was known as the only man who could enter the Palais in the evening without a tuxedo (he wore an elegant Asian outfit at the Oscars) and was a Cannes scout for many years.
“It is not enough to like a film, you have to like it for the right reasons,” Rissient was known to say. When he anointed a director as someone to take seriously, he was a ferocious advocate and took no prisoners. Among the many eminent filmmakers Rissient backed and help guide to greater international stature via festivals were Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, King Hu, Jane Campion (whom he discovered at an Australian film school and brought to Cannes), Sydney Pollack, John Boorman, Mike Leigh, Abbas Kiarostami, Charles Burnett, Hou Hsiao Hsien and Lino Brocka.
A native of Paris, where he fell in love with cinema at a young age, Rissient became involved with film clubs at an early age and began, especially at the Cinema McMahon, championing the work of some of the blacklisted writers and directors, including Joseph Losey, John Berry, Cy Endfield, Abraham Polonsky and Dalton Trumbo.
At the same time, he wrote and directed several short films and broke into the industry as Jean-Luc Godard’s assistant director on Breathless in 1960.
Rissient’s penchant for advocacy led him into a partnership with an equally ardent film buff, Bertrand Tavernier, and for several years they publicized reissues of old films in theatrical release in addition to new titles. In the late 1960s, Rissient developed a passion for Asian cinema, first represented at Cannes with his discovery of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971). For years thereafter, he represented and publicized many to top international acclaim at Cannes and other festivals, and in 1976 he directed his first feature, One Night Stand, starring Richard Jordan and made in Hong Kong.
In the 1990s, Rissient joined the adventurous French production company CB 2000, where he oversaw The Piano (1993), for which Campion became the first female director to win the Palme d’Or. During this period, he also was responsible for the company’s involvement in films by Leigh and Kiarostami, among others. By then he had also begun bringing Eastwood to Cannes with several of his films.
While always a maverick, guided only by his own enthusiasms and dislikes, Rissient was also a consummate insider, gaining the ear of top filmmakers, producers, executives, journalists and tastemakers of all kinds. He also was a great Asiaphile who tirelessly promoted Asian cinema at a time when it was difficult to get most festivals and critics to seriously engage with it.
Since his first visits to Hollywood in the early 1960s, Rissient had always forged close connections with the giants of old Hollywood, notably with Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks and many of the blacklisted talents.
So revered was Rissient by the Telluride Film Festival that it named one of its cinemas after him.
In 2007, I made a documentary about him called Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient, which premiered at Cannes, made the festival rounds and is about to be released on DVD/Blu-ray in France, paired with Rissient’s Cinq et la peau.
Rissient is survived by his wife, Yong Hui.
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