Man of Cinema: Rissient



Telluride Film Festival

For even the most ardent film buffs, Pierre Rissient is the most famous person they do not know. For people in the film business, he is a legend.

Put it this way: It's hard to imagine the hugely successful career trajectories of either Jane Campion or Clint Eastwood without the crucial involvement of Pierre Rissient.

But now, thanks to filmmaker-critic Todd McCarthy, those film buffs can learn about the legend. In McCarthy's perceptive and often amusing documentary "Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient," the Frenchman emerges from a welter of talking heads, snippets from famous movies and interviews with the subject to be seen as a man with a singular passion for film and an uncanny ability to spot talent long before anyone else.

The marketing challenge here, of course, is that the subject is an insider's insider. The film is a must for festival programmers and should make a cable and DVD keeper, but theatrical opportunities will be limited.

"Rissient" debuted at this year's Festival de Cannes. Since then, McCarthy has added interviews with filmmakers Claude Chabrol and Hou Hsiao Hsien and cut other material. The new version premiered at the Telluride Film Festival.

Good thing McCarthy did interview Chabrol, for he provides one of the film's salient remarks. Following a parade of filmmakers calling Rissient a "samurai" in advocating for films he adores or the "yeast in the dough" that brings films to market, Chabrol sagely adds this caveat: "No one can tell you what (Rissient) does."

Although he has worked as an assistant director, critic, publicist, film executive and a director of two films and has had a long liaison with Cannes, it's hard to pin down his unique genius. Rissient is an advance scout for unknown films and filmmakers -- or, in the case of Eastwood, an American TV actor who achieved fame in spaghetti Westerns but was pigeonholed by those "in the know." But Rissient saw a keen movie mind that one day would blossom into one of the world's best filmmakers.

Sydney Pollack makes the observation that Rissient often talks about his desire to "defend" a film on its emergence into the world, by which Pollack correctly assumes he means championing a film. Rissient flies the world over, screening new films and attending festivals in search of pay dirt. He has gotten difficult projects financed, into festivals and onto release schedules with a facility that astonishes international filmmakers. In recent years, he has increasingly championed films from Asia.

Such is his stature, as Cannes' delegate general Thierry Fremaux remarks, that Rissient is the only person who can enter the Palais without credentials or attend a black-tie gala dressed as he pleases. Anyone who knows French protocol will understand what a huge concession that is.

Through interviews, McCarthy ably traces the length of Rissient's career. Beginning as a young film enthusiast who suggested programming little-known American films to a Paris cinema operator to great boxoffice success, he later formed his own PR company with Bertrand Tavernier, now himself a world-class filmmaker. The two all but strong-armed critics into seeing and appreciating the films they handled. Rissient's mantra was that it wasn't enough for you to like his films; you had to like it for the "right reasons."

Filmmakers as diverse as Quentin Tarantino, John Boorman, Jerry Schatzberg, James Toback, Abbas Kiarostani, Eastwood and Champion speak of his enormous help launching their films at Cannes and elsewhere. The film is unable to penetrate his personal life, but this is probably because apart from cinema, he has none.

Many testify to Rissient's ability to make biting remarks about changes needed in their movies. He once told Aussie filmmaker Rolf de Heer to cut the last two reels of a film. And he offers a sample of this stern aesthetic in a trenchant critique of Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker not of the first rank, in his opinion.

Rissient undoubtedly is the only person who can get away with recommending a film to Cannes officials that he himself is representing. For anyone else this could be a conflict of interest, but knowing that Rissient never handles a film he does not care about passionately, that conflict seems to vanish.

The film suffers from repetition and the indifferent quality of some of the archival footage. An extended sequence, interspersed through the film, of Rissient strolling the beach at the Pusan Film Festival in South Korea, shot by Kiarostani no less, feels pointless. Indeed if the film were not about him, you can imagine Rissient might suggest to McCarthy that he cut the last reel.

Deep Focus
Writer-director-producer: Todd McCarthy
Camera: Gary Graver, Todd McCarthy, Alexis Bloom
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating