As part of an impressive career in the film industry that has seen him work as first assistant director on Godard’s Breathless and become a renowned film historian, curator, critic and programmer, Pierre Rissient also found himself working as publicist on Jacques Deray’s 1969 classic, La Piscine.
With the film now re-released in cinemas, Jonathan Melville took the opportunity to speak to Rissient about his involvement with La Piscine, the importance of celebrating the history of cinema and the directors he’s excited about today.
Jonathan Melville: Where did your love of cinema come from?
Pierre Rissient: I was 15 and still in High School. There were screenings once a fortnight in another school of films considered classics. At that time, 1951, cinema was not considered an art and I wasn’t into it but I went and it opened my eyes and I fell in love with cinema.
I attended every two weeks for 6 months and was encouraged to then go to the cinema to see even more.
Who were the directors you appreciated at that time?
The directors I first became crazy about, which was as common then as it is now, were Jean Renoir and FW Murnau. The turning point came when I saw a film that had received bad reviews but became a film noir classic, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City.
That became a great influence on me because I wondered how a film which I thought of as great could be vilified by almost everyone and it made me want to challenge established values. I was interested me in the Hollywood blacklist and over the years I became very friendly with many of its victims.
What was your first film-related job?
My first unofficial job was as an advisor of programming at a theatre in France. I was then made an apprentice director on a film by a veteran filmmaker, Henri Decoin, and through a friendship with Claude Chabrol I became assistant director on Les Cousins and first assistant director on Godard’s Breathless.
How did you come to work on La Piscine?
I’d interviewed José Giovanni, the noir writer famous for films such as Classe tous risques and Le Trou, and when he wrote the script of Rififi à Tokyo for Jacques Deray he asked if I’d like to represent the film to the press. The film was a strong critical success in France.
Then followed a film written by Giovanni and directed by Jacques Deray, called Symphonie pour un massacre, a stupid title but a good film. I’d become friendly with Deray and when La Piscine came along he asked me to be around at the start.
Deray had made two films that weren’t too successful so people were hesitating to trust him with the new film and I encouraged it as I felt it could be quite a good film.
Then Alain Delon came on board and I was at the shooting and saw the first workprint.
What did your work entail on the publicity side?
One of my jobs at the time was to create a good mood at private screenings of films, helping critics prepare for them, so my being involved with a film was a kind of signal that it would at least be an interesting one.
I took two or three journalists to the set of La Piscine and I would take a small group of critics to screenings and chat to them at the start and end of the film.
Every year there are hundreds of new films being released. How important is for older titles be re-released?
It’s important for well-known and not so well-known films. It’s important to offer perspective on new films. People who have not seen films by directors such as Anthony Mann accept what I call “TV-style” films. They’re missing out on some genre films that were modest, but great within their modesty. It’s important to create the perspective to appreciate today’s films.
What directors and films would you like to see rediscovered by modern audiences?
I mentioned the director Henri Decoin, who made a film called La Vérité sur Bébé Donge starring Danielle Darrieux and Jean Gabin. It’s a masterful film that should be put on DVD straight away.
Then there are people like Fritz Lang, Raoul Walsh and John Ford, plus directors who are less well know such as Ida Lupino. There’s a German Director called Hanns Schwarz, he’s known for at least one masterpiece, The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna. He’s pre-Max Ophüls, and I love Ophüls.
Czech director Gustav Machatý did a great film called From Saturday to Sunday and, as far as I know, it’s the first great talking film, not as stagey as many films of the time were. It’s pre-Czech New Wave, pre-French New Wave.
And which films would you like to see re-released in cinemas?
There’s a small film by Leslie Fenton called Tell no Tales from 1939, an extremely interesting film.
Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target is quite remarkable and then there’s The Great Flamarian, a film people don’t speak about enough and I believe it’s the great “lost” film of Anthony Mann.
I’d also recommend Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas in She Married Her Boss, directed by Gregory la Cava, I don’t know why it isn’t on DVD.
With regards to the recent Park Circus re-release, Gilda, I knew Sidney Buchman, who was in charge of production at Columbia. He told me that much of the reason for Gilda’s quality was due to the work of Virginia Van Upp, a producer on the film, who was behind everything. That’s not to denigrate Charles Vidor, who did a fantastic job, but Van Upp was responsible for the high quality.
What directors do you look forward to watching today?
I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne’s new film, The Descendants, is quite remarkable. I also like Jane Campion.
Is it true that you’re a good friend of Clint Eastwood and that you’re always one of the first people to see his films?
I did fly to see Clint and to watch his new film, J Edgar, about a month ago. As someone who has known Clint for 40 years, I think it’s one of his most ambitious films. People will expect it to be about J Edgar Hoover, the FBI, gangsters, etc, and those are there but in the background. There’s more scope than that. It’s ambitious and you can expect to see a very good film.
La Piscine is out in cinemas in the UK now.
Visit www.backincinemas.com for dates and venue information over the next four weeks.