Celebrating French cinema

Serge Toubiana on the Cinémathèque Française and his new role at uniFrance

by Anne-Katrin Titze

‪Serge Toubiana‬ with Anne-Katrin Titze: "I've known Jeanne Balibar a long time. I know Tonie Marshall since 40 years, we are very close. Isabelle Huppert - I made a documentary on Isabelle Huppert in 2002."
‪Serge Toubiana‬ with Anne-Katrin Titze: "I've known Jeanne Balibar a long time. I know Tonie Marshall since 40 years, we are very close. Isabelle Huppert - I made a documentary on Isabelle Huppert in 2002."

Serge Toubiana, president of uniFrance, shared with me during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema reception at the Film Society of Lincoln Center some background on the 25 exhibitions he organised when he was the director of the Cinémathèque Française. They included Tim Burton, Pedro Almodóvar, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Kubrick, François Truffaut, Jacques Demy, and the terrific opening installation in the new Cinémathèque building designed by Frank Gehry on Auguste Renoir and Jean Renoir - Renoir: Father and Son / Painting and Cinema.

Number One (Numéro Une) director Tonie Marshall
Number One (Numéro Une) director Tonie Marshall Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

We discussed Isabelle Huppert's theatre work with Sarah Kane, his tribute to Mathieu Amalric, which filmmaker said yes because of Costa-Gavras, Georges Méliès and Paris, and how much the new president is looking forward to his role as the ambassador of French cinema worldwide. Serge Toubiana, who is co-credited as writer for Kent Jones's Hitchcock/Truffaut began with his upcoming itinerary.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You're changing your position in cinema all the time! We never know where you might show up.

Serge Toubiana: Yes. I change my point of view on cinema because now as president of uniFrance I'm supposed to promote French movies here in New York and next week in Rome. I was in Berlin. I'm going to Cannes. And after that we go to Japan and China. It's a new job for me. It's a new way to promote all French cinema.

AKT: How is that going? Does it work for you?

ST: Yes.

AKT: Are you a good diplomat?

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema reception at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema reception at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ST: Yes. I am a good diplomat. Because I have a good relationship with artists. Because, like you, I made a lot of interviews when I was a journalist and critic of Cahiers du Cinéma. After that I was for 13 years the manager of the French Cinémathèque. We organised tributes and homages.

AKT: And beautiful exhibitions. I still remember fondly your Renoir father and son exhibit [Renoir: Father and Son / Painting and Cinema].

ST: That was the first one. We opened the new building of the Cinémathèque with this in 2005.

AKT: It was wonderful.

ST: I was curator of this. I learned about Renoir's father. At the time I went to Sacramento. A small village near Sacramento where Alain Renoir was living, the son of Jean Renoir. He died a few years after. He was like this French-American guy. He had a farm in California. And he had some Renoir paintings on the wall. That's a great memory for me. I liked doing this. I went to MoMA and I saw the Tim Burton show and I asked Raj, you know Rajendra Roy?

AKT: Yes.

Face to Face with French Cinema by Jean-Baptiste Le Mercier - Louis Garrel and Mélanie Laurent hanging in the Furman Gallery through March 18
Face to Face with French Cinema by Jean-Baptiste Le Mercier - Louis Garrel and Mélanie Laurent hanging in the Furman Gallery through March 18 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ST: I asked him and said "I want this exhibition in the Cinémathèque." He said "No, it's too expensive for you!" It was impossible. One day, Tim Burton was in Paris. He was decorated by the French Minister of Culture. And with Costa-Gavras, who was the president of Cinémathèque, I said, "Costa, it's time. You've got to talk to Tim." And Costa went to say hello. And Tim Burton said: "I recognise you! I know you!" And Costa said "We would like to have your show at the Cinémathèque française." And Burton said: "Cinémathèque Française - it's Méliès, it's Paris. No London. But Paris, yes." So after that MoMA gave us the authorization.

AKT: What were some of the other exhibits you had?

ST: We had Almodóvar. We had Dennis Hopper. Stanley Kubrick and Truffaut. Jacques Demy. 25 exhibitions.

AKT: Actually, you brought up Renoir's son. Renoir died in Los Angeles ….

ST: He lived there. He was American.

AKT: I was just quoting from your Truffaut biography two weeks ago when I was doing the introduction for Le Dernier Métro here at the FI:AF. Before reading it in your book, I wasn't aware that Renoir died a year before Hitchcock and that their funerals were held in the same church on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. So right before Truffaut edited Le Dernier Métro, Hitchcock died.

Serge Toubiana‬ on Isabelle Huppert:"I saw the Sarah Kane play she was doing at BAM. I'm very close to her."
Serge Toubiana‬ on Isabelle Huppert:"I saw the Sarah Kane play she was doing at BAM. I'm very close to her." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ST: 1980, yes. And Renoir was '79.

AKT: Certain things keep returning. I was talking to Jeanne Balibar earlier this morning and she quoted that line from the end of the play in Le Dernier Métro, the one that is itself a quote from La Sirène Du Mississippi. Loving as a joy and also suffering. She brought it up in the context of Barbara.

ST: Yes, love, "C'est une joie et une souffrance."

AKT: Exactly that. The eternal return. Is it partly the traveling in your new position that you enjoy?

ST: I enjoy to travel. I would like to say something. It's very private. I quit the Cinémathèque française two years ago because I wanted to write my book, a biography, and I did it. And I wanted most to live with my wife (Emmanuèle Bernheim). And she died. So once she died I was alone. We have no kids. And I was wondering what I will do with my life, you know.

Some friends told me, you should be presenting your candidature to uniFrance. I said okay, and I was elected in July. And now I'm very busy, busy. It's very important for me for personal reasons and also because the team is very nice, very young, very dynamic. They like me. I like them. It's a new life for me. I lose my wife. I wrote a book on her. It was published in France in January.

AKT: What is the title?

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ST: Les Bouées Jaunes. How do you say buoys? When you go to swim?

AKT: Buoy - yes.

ST: Yellow buoys - because my wife loved to swim in Brittany. We have a very beautiful house in Brittany. Now it's a new life for me. I miss her because she died ten months ago. I am very occupied by uniFrance, having meetings all the time in Paris. I'm going to Rome next week.

AKT: You're not nervous or anxious among a lot of people.

ST: No, I'm very calm. People are very nice with me. I've known Mathieu Amalric for a long time. I made a tribute to him at the French Cinémathèque before I left. He went every day to present films. As an actor he is very moving, very intelligent, very humble. I've known Jeanne Balibar a long time. I know Tonie Marshall since 40 years, we are very close. Isabelle Huppert - I made a documentary on Isabelle Huppert in 2002.

AKT: The first time I spoke with her [Isabelle Huppert] must have been around that time when she did the Sarah Kane play, 4.48 Psychose [in 2004] at St. Ann's Warehouse [in Brooklyn].

ST: I saw the Sarah Kane play she was doing at BAM. I'm very close to her.

The uniFrance and Film Society of Lincoln Center's 23rd edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York, runs through March 18. Screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.

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