Closing the D'Or

By Foundas, Scott | Variety, May 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

Closing the D'Or


Foundas, Scott, Variety


Seated at his desk in a third-floor office at the Cannes Film Festival's Paris headquarters, Gilles Jacob exudes the calm, patrimonial authority of a lion in winter - or, as Jacob likes to describe himself, a veteran fire chief who has weathered all manner of blazes. If After nearly 40 years heading the world's most important and influential film festival, there is little that can dent his Teflon exterior. As this king of Cannes prepares to exit his throne, it is not with Lear-like madness or Leno-like resentment, but rather a feeling of accomplishment and a master showman's sense of quitting while he's ahead.

"You have to know to stop before they tell you to stop," says Jacob, 83, who will step down as festival president following this year's edition.

Jacob, who has held the post since 2001, previously served as Cannes' festival artistic director for an unprecedented 22 years (1978-2000).

"Once you know the festival is on its way, that it's in good hands, that you've found a successor and that everything is going well, you shouldn't do one too many," he says, adding a reference to his countryman, the playwright Moliere. "Moliere died onstage and I wouldn't want to die on the steps."

The "steps" of which Jacob speaks are, of course, the steep, red-carpeted stairs leading from the Boulevard de la Croisette to the entrance of the Grand Theatre Lumière, where the films of Cannes' official competition unspool nightly before an audience of more than 2.000 actors, filmmakers and industry executives dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.

The Cannes stairs themselves have become so iconic that they even appear in animated form in the festival's official trailer, rising up from the depths of the Mediterranean and ascending into the sky.

"Cannes is like a Catholic liturgy," Jacob told this reporter in 2007, at the time of the festival's 60th anniversary. "And when you get to the top," he added with a playful grin, "God is there to welcome you!"

Also greeting you at the top of the stairs, since 2001, has been Thierry Fremaux, the film historian and programmer handpicked by Jacob to follow him as artistic director when he transitioned to the more administrative presidential role. And save for their mutual passion for cinema, the two men offer a study in extreme contrasts. Tall, slender and elegantly reserved, Jacob hails from a family of Jewish industrialists who ran a small, scale-making factory north of Paris, where Jacob himself worked for two decades before becoming a full-time film critic. Short, stocky and bristling with restless energy, the 53-year-old Fremaux grew up in the working-class suburbs of Lyon, put himself through college by running a pair of judo dojos, and got his foot in the door of the film industry working as an errand boy at Lyon's Institut Lumière film museum.

All of this has made it irresistible for some in the French and international press to insinuate tension and dissent in the House of Cannes over the past 13 years, though Jacob hits always been quick to quell such rumors.

"Thierry does whatever he wants, 1 don't interfere," Jacob says. "He has his personality, I have my personality. There's no anger, there's no yelling, there are no blow-ups. It's simply that he is someone who has a very difficult time changing his mind. But our relationship has been very good. In life, you have to get along, and when you work in collaboration you're condemned to finding a solution."

Indeed, when Jacob himself arrived in Cannes in 1976, invited by then-president Robert Favre le Bret to replace outgoing festival director Maurice Bessey, he found that Bessey was still very much ensconced and in no hurry to leave. …

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