Sunday, September 21, 2008

Rissient: The Cannes Doctor’s Doc

Emerging from a film festival with strong buzz and a distribution deal is the dream of every filmmaker. If it seems like the fix is in for certain films, you need to find your own fixer. At Cannes, that would be Pierre Rissient, the subject of Todd McCarthy’s Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema (trailer here), now screening at the MoMA.

Essentially, Rissient is the Clark Clifford of international cinema. If your film is screening at Cannes, you need to be talking to him. In his often overlapping roles of critic, publicist, and distributor, Rissient has championed films that fired his passion. He has worked behind the lens as well, even directing two reasonably well received films of his own. However, his greatest influence seems to come through his unspecified (by McCarthy) role as an advisor to the Cannes Festival.

French director Bertrand Tavernier describes Rissient’s legendary arm-twisting, having seen it firsthand as his longtime partner in film publicity. Unfortunately, we never see Rissient get down to business with a difficult critic. We also hear Rissient is a fount of scandal regarding the international filmmaking scene, but the film never gets past the “oh, the stories he could tell” tease.

Primarily, Rissient is a tribute to the film guru by directors who have benefited from Rissient’s boosterism. This is accompanied by clips from their films, which makes Rissient something of a Chuck Workman film for the international arthouse scene (Werner Herzog! King Hu! Jane Campion!). At the time, Rissient raised some eyebrows when he campaigned on behalf of Clint Eastwood, who was then still widely dismissed as an action star. Rissient is effusive in his praise of Bird, Eastwood’s Charlie Parker bio-pic. Just as French critics were early defenders of jazz’s artistic merits, French critical reception led the way for Eastwood’s re-evaluation as a serious filmmaker, thanks in large part to Rissient’s nicely symmetrical efforts on Bird, a jazz film.

There are entertaining stories sprinkled throughout Rissient, but it does not delve much below its subject’s placid surface. While the film convinces audiences Rissient has led an interesting life, it never really makes the case that people outside of his rarified world should care about his career. Clearly, Rissient made a lot of great future films possible through his early efforts on behalf of important directors, which is undeniably a significant contribution. (Conversely, we can also blame him for paving the way for Tarantino’s Grind House.) However, this is not a point the film presses.

Rissient is the ultimate film festival film, being about festivals, as well as the people and films that are a part of them. MoMA is probably the perfect venue for it, and if you are a member it is a diverting way to spend some time, but far from revelatory. It screens through Wednesday.