Pierre Rissient, “Man of Cinema,” Dies at Eighty-One

On Film / The Daily — May 6, 2018

Pierre Rissient, critic, filmmaker, producer, distributor, publicist, and legendary talent scout for Cannes and other festivals, passed away on Saturday night at the age of eighty-one. Lifelong friend and fellow director Bertrand Tavernier has shared the news, which he heard from Rissient’s wife, Yung Hee.

“It is not enough to love a film. One must love it for the right reasons!” was Rissient’s immortal maxim, and he lived by it, becoming a trusted authority with his unwavering commitment to the art. When the San Francisco International Film Festival presented its Mel Novikoff Award to Rissient in 2012, Scott Foundas wrote this essential appreciation of the man, sketching an outline of a career that began when Rissient “and his band of film-crazed friends” took over the programming of Cinéma Mac-Mahon in Paris, where “the young Turks of Cahiers du cinéma” would first see films by the American directors they would eventually champion as auteurs.

Like Foundas, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn was part of Rissient’s cinephilic network, and he notes in his remembrance that as recently as Thursday, Rissient was hard at work promoting Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, both of which will premiere in Cannes in the next few days. “He was a treasured figure at the Telluride Film Festival, which named a theater after him—Le Pierre—where an outline of his bald, bulky frame adorns the walls.” That spare rendering (Thomas Sotinel has tweeted the photo above) would also appear before each screening in the theater.

In 2007, film critic Todd McCarthy’s documentary Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema gave him a moniker that’s stuck. No other job description could encapsulate such a wide range of activity and influence. And Clint Eastwood, whom Rissient called “probably the best American director alive today,” gave Rissient another one: “Mr. Everywhere.” As Bruce Bennett notes in this 2008 profile for the New York Sun, Rissient has been instrumental in raising awareness for the work of Jane Campion, King Hu, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Hong Sangsoo, Sydney Pollack, Jerry Schatzberg, Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne, and countless others. In addition to helping artists get their work seen, he would sometimes help with the casting and scripting of a film. By his own admission, his unsparing honesty was not always welcome: “If I don’t like a film, I’m not afraid to say what I think. Maybe some people are not happy with that. Maybe some people don’t like me, but that’s who I am.”

Rissient’s achievements extended beyond programming, talent scouting, and consulting—he also had a small but significant career behind the camera. He served as an assistant director to Claude Chabrol on Les cousins (1959) and to Jean-Luc Godard on Breathless (1960) and directed several shorts as well as two features, One Night Stand (1976) and Five and the Skin (1981). This year’s Cannes Film Festival will present a new 4K restoration of the latter as part of its Cannes Classics program. 

More Reading

Charlotte Pavard’s 2016 interview for Cannes with Guy Seligmann, who, with Benoît Jacquot and Pascal Mérigeau, made the documentary Gentleman Rissient.

Geoff Gardner (Senses of Cinema), Nathan Lee (New York Times), and Jonathan Rosenbaum on Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema.

Ryan Gilbey’s capsule review of Five and the Skin for Time Out.

Pierre Rissient’s ballot for Sight & Sound’s 2012 “Great Films of All Time” critics’ poll.

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