National News

Pierre Rissient, Behind-the-Scenes Force of Cinema, Dies at 81

Posted May 7, 2018 7:21 p.m. EDT

Pierre Rissient, an important behind-the-scenes figure at the Cannes Film Festival and, as a result, an influential shaper of cinematic trends and directors’ careers for half a century, died early Sunday in Paris. He was 81.

His death, in a hospital, came as the cinema world was headed to France for this year’s Cannes festival, which opens Tuesday. Benjamin Illos, Rissient’s former assistant, said the cause was sudden thrombosis.

Rissient filled roles that no one could easily define but that all agreed were vital: scouting movies for Cannes, advising directors, making introductions, cultivating journalists. “A cinema guru,” “an ambassador of film” and “the Cannes-do man” are among the phrases reporters used to describe him.

When Todd McCarthy, a longtime film critic for Variety, made a documentary about him in 2007, he titled it simply “Man of Cinema.”

“He’d fight-fight-fight to bring proper attention to the filmmakers he felt worthy,” McCarthy said by email, “and was more often than not on the side of the underdogs — initially the American blacklisted screenwriters and directors and then, famously, new filmmakers from countries where there was either political oppression or underdeveloped or virtually nonexistent film industries.”

Rissient was among the first to recognize that Clint Eastwood could do more than merely act in spaghetti Westerns. He saw early that Jane Campion was a director worthy of attention and helped put her 1993 film, “The Piano,” in position to win the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes.

Among those who saw the whole arc of Rissient’s career was the director Bertrand Tavernier, with whom he worked as a press agent when they were both starting out.

“He brought to the Cannes festival, in competition or at the Director’s Fortnight, Scorsese, Kiarostami, Lino Brocka, Jane Campion and many filmmakers from Singapore, Sri Lanka, China,” Tavernier said by email. “Pierre was passionate, demanding. On a T-shirt created by the Telluride Film Festival, he says: ‘It is not enough to like a good film. One must like it for good reasons.'”

Pierre Étienne Baptiste Rissient was born Aug. 4, 1936, in Paris. His father, Étienne, was an auto mechanic who would eventually have his own repair shop. His mother, Andrée Fontaine Rissient, was a secretary and accountant.

Pierre fell in love with movies as a teenager, joining with high school friends to persuade a local movie house, the Mac Mahon, to let them do its programming.

He tried law school for a time but was more interested in movies. He wrangled a job as an assistant director on “Breathless,” Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic, and a few other films, and over the years he dabbled in aspects of filmmaking, including directing; he made two features himself, “Alibis” (1977) and “Cinq et la Peau” (1982).

But he made his real mark in promotion, working in that business during the 1960s and ‘70s with Tavernier. They were not the kind who would plug just any movie.

“We were partners during nearly 10 years,” Tavernier said, “working as freelance press agents. We were only picking films we loved.”

Among the people who caught their eye was Eastwood, then known mostly from roles in Westerns, though he was seeking to broaden his acting résumé with a Civil War drama, Don Siegel’s “The Beguiled,” and was also starting his directing career.

“In 1971, I went to Paris for only the first or second time in my life, with Don Siegel, for the release of ‘The Beguiled,'” Eastwood said by email. “We met these two maniacal publicists, Bertrand Tavernier and Pierre Rissient, who loved the picture and wanted to handle it. They were famous for pinning people up to the wall if they didn’t agree with them about something!”

The relationship Eastwood formed with Rissient would be a lasting one. Rissient’s promotional efforts gave Eastwood considerable cachet in France, which in turn elevated his career in the United States.

Also in this period, Rissient ran a distribution company that reissued foreign classics. And he became an adviser to Cannes for decades.

He had learned to be confident in his opinions while playing amateur film programmer in high school, and now, on a bigger stage, he traveled the world scouting possible entries for Cannes, trusting in own tastes.

“I did not intend to be a discoverer,” Rissient told the Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald in 1998. “But it happened that out of my impulsive reactions to some films, maybe I discovered some films, and then people — for right or wrong reasons — they started to trust me about being a discoverer.” Selecting entries for Cannes was not just a matter of seeing a good movie and bringing it to the festival.

“We try to position a film so that it has its best chance,” he told The Australian Financial Review in 1997. “In order to get the best possible selection, you have to reject films, and sometimes the pictures you reject you would love to support. The process is not intended to be destructive, but you have to deal with numerical realities.”

He knew that Cannes could not only make careers, but also shape trends. “We can’t change the market,” he said, “but hopefully we can influence it.”

In 2010, Rissient married Yung Hee Song, who survives him, as does a sister, Anne-Marie Croizé.

Rissient’s knowledge of movies was so vast that directors would seek out his opinions even before their pictures were done.

“Whenever I was making a movie, he’d always ask to visit my editing room, view an early cut and offer helpful comments,” the director Alexander Payne said by email. “He did the same with Clint Eastwood and who knows how many other filmmakers.”

Rissient saw his beloved Cannes change over the years, and in an interview with The New York Times in 2008 he waxed wistful about the good old days, when the event was smaller and more relaxed.

“It was a family of 300 people who stayed in touch,” he said. “Now, all that has disappeared. There are too many locations, too many pictures to be seen, too many entourages, and the system of security grows every year.”

He recalled in particular 1972, when Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack were there.

“Pollack came alone, and Redford came with his wife and that was it — no security, no bodyguards,” he said, “I admit it, I’m a nostalgic.”