by Harriet Welty Rochefort
Small wonder that as a child, film critic Lisa Nesselson was fascinated by optical toys, such as a treasured Kenner Give-A-Show Projector, a kind of glorified flashlight that displayed cartoons on any wall. Still today, she says, “What makes me happy is reflected light from a movie screen, and the bigger the better.”
Even so, Nesselson (C78) hardly could have guessed that one day she’d make her living from her passion for movement and light — in the City of Light and the birthplace of cinema to boot.
Variety’s film critic in Paris since 1991, the self-described “Chicagoan-Parisian” was a columnist for the Paris Free Voice from 1986 to 2001 and periodically produces 8,000-word pieces for Facets Features, a film web site sponsored by Chicago-based Facets Multi-Media, one of the United States’ largest distributors of foreign, classic, cult, art and hard-to-find videos.
Nesselson’s love for films is so all-encompassing that when she’s not watching them, she’s lecturing on them (at France’s film academy FEMIS and Southern Methodist University in Paris), sitting on film festival juries (close to 20) or thinking about the next film she’ll view. “The definition of a cinephile,” she says, “is that no matter how many movies you see, you always feel like you’re behind.”
France has been her home for the past 27 years, but French was far from Nesselson’s major interest in school. In fact, when searching for colleges after graduating in only three years from Sullivan High School in Chicago, she studiously avoided those institutions with language requirements. She needn’t have worried. She speaks accentless French and has translated biographies of Clint Eastwood, Simone de Beauvoir and Henri Langlois from French into English. How did she learn French so well? “By watching French movies,” she replies.
Her college quest resulted in a semester-long tour with World Campus Afloat before hitting land and Northwestern’s School of Communication. She enrolled in the Department of Radio/Television/Film, finding time to perform in the Mee-Ow Show and “take the last course Bergen Evans ever taught as well as every class offered by Alfred Appel Jr.,” she says. After graduation, it was straight to Paris, where her boyfriend (now husband), film historian Glenn Myrent (C77), was doing an independent study on silent films.
Writing about movies came naturally to Nesselson. “Glenn and I had a reputation as people who put movies first. Between helping a friend bleeding from an artery and seeing a rare Garbo film, we’d see the film first,” she jokes. “And Paris is the ultimate movie city. I saw a phenomenal range of stuff. Even now there are more than 500 films a year that come out in Paris, less than half of which are from the U.S., with the others from 40 to 45 countries.”
Fortunately she lives in the centrally located Latin Quarter, so she can just hop on the Métro or a bus to catch the “movie du jour.”
That’s one advantage of living in Paris. Another is that “as a woman I can walk around and feel safe. I can go for a run around the Luxembourg Garden at 5 a.m. and not worry.” Although she claims she’s not a runner, Nesselson capitalized on seven years of bounding up the stairs to her eighth-floor garret room with a view of Notre Dame to qualify for and participate in the annual New York Road Runners Club’s invitational Fleet Empire State Building Run-Up from 1983 to 1987 (18 minutes up the service stairway, she proudly notes).
Having studied production, Nesselson still tries to be an extra in a film every few years “so I can be reminded of just how difficult and laborious it is to get a film in the can,” she says. She has “worked” with Robert Altman (Ready to Wear) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers), among others. A few years ago this American journalist landed her first speaking part — two lines in a French movie in which she quite fittingly played an American journalist.
As an experienced film critic she sees many differences between the French and American approach to cinema. “A French director says, ‘What do I feel like making?’ whereas in the United States studios develop a property, cast it and then say, ‘Who are we going to get to direct this?’ It’s just a radically different approach,” Nesselson observes.
Unlike most Americans, the French often go to a movie for the director. The proof? “Just look at the credits on an American ad or poster,” Nesselson says. “In the United States the director’s name is the same type size as the costume designer or sound engineer. In France it may be as big or bigger than the actors’ names.”
She notes that French filmmakers aren’t shunted aside with age. “Alain Resnais, Erich Rohmer, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Claude Lelouch are all still alive and working.” And furthermore, “France is the only country where in any given year 25 percent of films are directed by women.”
The French idea that “cinema is not a commodity” is another “crucial difference,” remarks Nesselson, for whom the Hollywood practice of measuring a movie’s success in terms of money is “insane.” Since 1945, she explains, “the French government has tallied every single movie ticket sold, so it’s a cinch to see how well each release does relative to its budget. A Hollywood picture that takes in $100 million can still be a flop compared with what it cost to make and market, but since the average French film costs only a few million dollars, filthy lucre takes a back seat to self-expression.”
If the French are so ideological, why do they love Jerry Lewis? “Actually I’ve lived here almost 30 years, and there’s only been one Jerry Lewis retrospective. However, the flip side of the sophistication and elegance of the French is that they love pratfall. Corny and silly goes over gangbusters.” And, she notes, since not all humor translates, Americans rarely see this “other” side of the French.
Humor’s one thing. History’s another, and the French have a hard time discussing their history on screen, particularly their colonial war in Algeria, says Nesselson. “They greatly admire films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, made within five years after Vietnam.”
According to Nesselson, one reason France boasts virtually the only foreign film industry to hold its own against Hollywood — whose output occupies 85 percent of the world’s movie screens — is that “a few centimes are subtracted from every ticket sold — be it a U.S. extravaganza or a more modest film from France or Lithuania — to fuel a fund that makes new French films and art house programming possible. You could say it’s an unfair levy on other people’s talent, but it gives France the wherewithal to sort of fight back.”
This die-hard cinephile has one concern about the future of cinema. “Someday movie-going may become a pricey undertaking like opera,” she says, noting that even many of her “hard-core film buff friends stay home to watch movies on video now.”
But not to worry. If that happens, “Paris will be one of the last places where you can still catch a movie in a movie theater.” And you can be sure that Nesselson will be front and center.
Harriet Welty Rochefort (GJ69) is a freelance writer and book author in Paris.
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