Michel Ciment’s Voice

By Grégory Valens

On Sunday, November 19, we will say farewell to Michel Ciment. No doubt many of the attendees – film critics, journalists, publishers, filmmakers, scholars, representants of the State and of major institutions, film lovers – will still have the impression to hear his strong, powerful voice. That voice which, until a few weeks ago, captivated the audience of the renowned radio program “Le Masque et la Plume” on France Inter, which he had joined in 1970 and of which he had remained a permanent member ever since.

That voice which he used to conduct thrilling interviews with major filmmakers – interviews that were really conversations, in which some of the most renowned and discreet directors revealed more than on any other occasion their art and pratice. Among them, of course, Stanley Kubrick, Michel Ciment’s favorite director, who made the film that he considered, ever since he discovered it in 1968, the strongest achievement in the art of filmmaking: 2001, A Space Odyssey. Ciment’s book Kubrick (first published in 1980; final edition, 2011) has been translated in many languages. It is both an analysis of the major themes and aspects of the director’s oeuvre, and an outstanding achievement in revealing the essence of creation, by the art of a conversation nourished with artistic, cultural, sociological and philosophical references. Ciment’s other famous conversation books include those with Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan, and the recent Jane Campion by Jane Campion.

His voice which exhalated through the pages of the film magazine Positif, which he joined in 1963 and of which he was the publishing director until his last breath (he checked the final page proof of the December issue dossier on his hospital bed), concluding 60 years at the service of this publication which Martin Scorsese considers “the best film magazine in the whole world”. A voice that was also part of everyday life for those of us who had the pleasure to work along his side.

And when I say his voice, oh, my – what a voice! He could wake you up on the phone (in the era before the cell phones, when it was not that easy to put the landlines in silent mode) at 8 in the morning, because he had seen, the night before, a film that he thought you would like. When he ended the conversation suggesting that you should write about it, you would feel like Ethan Hunt in Mission:Impossible: refusing the job was not an option, and all you cared about was to be at the expected level of the task.

But he could also call you when he didn’t like something you had written on a film, or a view you had shared in a meeting of the editorial board – and in these circumstances the voice would become a complaint, a shout, even sometimes a threat. In 24 years amidst the team of Positif, I had many occasions to quarrel with Michel. However, none of the quarrels ever really mattered, because it was obvious to us both that they were driven by passion, a passion he shared with every single one of us: the love for cinema, which sometimes – every critic knows the feeling – makes us think, act or speak irrationally. Overall, I always found his absolute attempts to convince his interlocutors and gather them to his point of view – something you would also observe in his radio appearances – deeply touching.Our colleagues who were present with us at the time Michel Ciment was President of FIPRESCI – I was also, then, a member of the board and recall our vivid meetings – as well as the numerous colleagues who sat in a FIPRESCI jury with him over the decades are unlikely to forget this powerful voice. At the end of the day, even after a fight or a tense jury meeting, the impression that everyone shared was that of passion incarnated.

It is obvious that this voice shall be missed. The impressive amount of public and private messages received by his family, friends and coworkers since his passing on November 13 – from such prestigious filmmakers such as John Boorman, Jane Campion, Wong Kar-wai, Stephen Frears, Arnaud Desplechin and so many more – is there to show how important Michel’s voice was. We shall not be awaken in the morning by his penetrating voice; we shall not fight with him on whether a film shall make the cover of Positif or not; we shall not hear his debating skills in the next broadcasts.

Luckily enough, we live in a time in which a gigantic world library offers us to easily find his writings, his interviews, his radio debates. Furthermore, we can now even listen to the mythical Ciment/Kubrick tapes, as they were used in the documentary Kubrick by Kubrick by Grégory Monro (2020).

His voice will outlive his time with us and shall never disappear. A voice which last words, as received by a nurse on the night before he passed, were: “Tonight, I am going to see a film.”

Grégory Valens