Jean-Jacques Annaud, the Tamer

in BIFEST - Bari International Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

We knew the filmmaker, the wide-eyed traveler, the lover of nature, literature and new techniques. In Bari, we had the chance to discover Jean-Jacques Annaud the performer, the histrionic, engaging entertainer who can charm an audience with his anecdotes about famous film stars on set, his experience working with animals, his personal souvenirs and his reflections on technical innovation in cinema.

Before a crowded Teatro Petruzzelli, on the same stage where later that evening he received the FIPRESCI 90 Platinum Award, Jean-Jacques Annaud sat down with FIPRESCI Honorary President Michel Ciment and delivered a lively Masterclass – one of the special series organized at the Bari International Film Festival to celebrate the Federation’s anniversary. The Italian festival screened his latest film, “Wolf Totem”, which illustrates some of the characteristics of Annaud’s cinema that were discussed in the Masterclass: his use of technical innovation, his focus on animals, and the huge geographical and cultural diversity of his films’ settings.

“Technique precedes art”, he insisted, as Ciment underlined how he was often one of the first to use tools and formats that his work in advertising allowed him to experiment with very quickly. Dolby, 70 mm, IMAX (Sony built screening rooms to be able to distribute “Wings of Courage”), 3D… he has always been eager to see what they can contribute to fiction films. But he is aware of the challenge it means. For instance, he described how, in order not to provoke a headache, the transition from one shot to the next must consider how the eyes work. When working in 3D, he compared, “you’re like a painter that becomes a sculptor: it’s not the same job.”

That curiosity and keenness on facing unknown territory also has to do with his “wanderlust, the thrill of discovering” so many other places, periods and civilizations that his work has dealt with. One concrete reason for so quickly starting to shoot outside of his home country is simply because he could not finance his films in France, he explained, defining himself as an “economic migrant”. Eventually, he realized that it was good to “look at cinema from a bit farther than the Seine”, and get away from the Parisian dynamics. He has also felt a certain hostility towards his work, and therefore prefers to “work abroad, with more freedom and more friendship.”

Reviewing the places where his films have taken him, Michel Ciment joked about Jean-Jacques Annaud being a sort of Tintin. And the filmmaker gladly agreed, adding that in the sense of adventure there was also “the pleasure of fear”. This contrasts with his quiet upbringing as an only child in the Parisian suburbs. But in that calm, protected life, he recalled, there was a window to the world: when his parents took him to the cinema on the weekend. Later on, when he had to interrupt his rising career in advertising in France to unwillingly go to Cameroon for his National Service, where he taught cinema, “Africa changed my life”, as soon as he left the airplane.

This experience marked the rest of his life and his work. “I always make the same film,” he confessed, “but I try to hide it by setting it in different times and places. It’s all about a young man or woman who, at the stage of life of fully becoming an adult, is thrust into a different civilization.”

During the Masterclass, Jean-Jacques Annaud also spoke about his work as director of actors, whether human or animal. The approach is similar, he said, and he actually sees himself as an “actor tamer.” That is why he did not fear to undertake “Quest for Fire”, a film with no dialogue: he knew how body language comes first. “Working with the instinct of animals helps you to work with the instinct of actors,” he added, and amused the audience with anecdotes of his interaction with stars such as Sean Connery, who requested indications for every single detail while shooting “The Name of the Rose”, whereas his young co-star Christian Slater was much more intuitive.

Jean-Jacques Annaud explained how with most animals, like with people, the emotions are expressed through the eyes. Therefore his technique is to provoke and capture the desired emotional reaction (for instance, startling a tiger by bringing in an elephant), and then edit it together with the situations that in the film are supposed to provoke that emotion. However, he pointed out that the bear is an exception. And the director of “L’Ours” certainly knows what he is talking about. They don’t do much, so he would have to resort to the Kuleshov effect to make their deadpan faces express emotions. But the same can apply to one of France’s most iconic actors: according to Annaud, “Jean Gabin acted like a bear, he didn’t do anything!”

Masterclass Jean-Jacques Annaud, March 22, 2015, Teatro Petruzzelli, Bari.