Philip French: An appreciation

With an apt irony he would surely have appreciated, news of the death of Philip French, the great Observer film critic, reached me at the end of a movie.

It was in one of his regular spots, the Soho Screening Rooms, formerly known as Mr Young’s, one of those darkened rooms in D’Arblay Street where Philip must have easily spent thousands of hours watching his beloved films over the years.

This particular movie was Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran, a clandestine film whose closing credits consist of a brief lament from the director about the fact that, due to the Iranian government censor and his continuing ban from officially making films, there could be no closing credits to this film. The supreme irony being that Philip would always stay to the end of the credits, whatever the film. Today, it was if they cut them short in memory of him, to show what life would be like without people such as Philip French.

I spent 15 years in his company there and elsewhere. I say company, but we’re alone in the dark and I think that’s how Philip preferred it. He’d sit in that front row seat, right on the aisle so nothing could impede his view. He’d practically disappear into the picture.

I had a little sit in that seat today, and had a look round. I patted it and whispered thanks to his ghost.

Of all the film critics, Philip French was the man. His 35-year career at the Observer gave him an unprecedented platform from which he could impart his passion and equanimity on a weekly basis. Other reviews would come out first, but it was Philip’s Sunday opinion we all waited for, critics and film makers alike. His was, quite literally, le dernier mot.

He was often funny, going to any lengths to squeeze in a pun. He was always erudite, his writing bringing in references not just from cinema but from literature, theatre and even long-forgotten radio plays. He contextualised cinema for many generations and made it part of the artistic conversation. He was proud of his position as an influencer and saw the role of the critic as a vital one in shaping culture. He always stuck to that.

Philip-French2

Philip French accepting his treasured BFI Fellowship from Chairman Greg Dyke, on stage at BFI Southbank.

Consequently, Philip’s criticism was generous. He was rarely unkind or cruel and never dismissive, even when squeezed for space in the later years when new releases became an onslaught rather than a pleasure. He was on the side of the angels and would select his Film of the Week lead review on merit rather than on marketing.

The Observer would always let him lead on the obscure foreign-language film ahead of the roaring Hollywood blockbuster or over-promoted British comedy, and as such he exerted a huge influence on the success of such films, nurturing the reputations of directors he admired – one such beneficiary was Inception and Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, whose tiny debut, Following, immediately intrigued Philip (I remember seeing it with him, one late, rainy afternoon in aforementioned Mr Young’s) and he lead on it the following weekend, marking out the name of Nolan as one to remember – a typically perceptive phrase given that Nolan’s next film was Memento.

Philip loved Clint Eastwood and Westerns. He loved Woody Allen and Groucho Marx and the elegant New York wits such as SJ Perelman. He loved humanists such as Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir, the Ealing comedies and Ken Loach and admired craftsmen and literary film makers such as Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Louis Malle and Bertrand Tavernier.

He adored going to Cannes – “There, I’m like a child in a sweetshop” – which became too arduous a task in his later years and I was honoured and privileged to step into his white trainers to pound the Croisette in search of cinema gold.

I even inherited his hotel room, about which I was hugely excited until I entered a sparsely furnished garret in a faintly malodorous two-star by the station. “The festival did offer me something more luxurious,” he once told me, ” but I turned it down. I’ve no need for that – I like to be nearest the Palais and get all the comfort I need in the films.”

A few years later, I asked the festival for a bit of an upgrade and felt very guilty about it but, you know, I needed the Wi-Fi.

Philip used to say “what’s reviewed in Cannes, stays in Cannes”. Athough he was one of the rare critics to have been invited onto the main Jury (in 1986, alongside Sydney Pollack), he liked a little time to reflect, to pull all the meanings of a film together, to let it settle in that giant rolodex of a brain and take its place among the cultural ocean that rolled within.

He could name you directors and years of the most recherché films. He knew his Bergman – he loved Sweden and would summer there with his Swedish wife Kersti – as well as his Boulting Brothers.

If, at the end of a screening, any of us critics had one of those itching, Googleable questions about what a certain film reminded us of, or where we’d seen a certain actor, Philip – always the last to leave the screening room, always –  would know it instantly and add a lengthy, tangential yet fascinating addendum to anything we could possibly wish to know. He was way better than the internet. He had a heart.

I kept in touch with Philip when he left the Observer. I’d decided to leave at the same time, having cherished every time I got to deputise for him and not wishing to do it for anyone else. His shadow probably inhibited my writing – one always felt one should start with a French-esque bon mot from cinema lore, but of course I didn’t have anything like the depth necessary to do four paragraphs loosely connected to that particular film’s actor, or director or previous incarnations as fledgling scripts for, I don’t know, Faulkner or Graham Greene, one of his own great heroes.

He and Kersti sent me the most lovely card and baby grow on the birth of my first son, full of puns incorporating my boy’s name, Cy, into several film titles.

I last communicated with him just two weeks ago, after he sent me a typically warm, generous and constructive review of my new Woody Allen book. I was so glad he liked it (indeed he wrote: “I hope others enjoy it as much as I did”), my heart gave a little jump.

By then, he was lamenting his deteriorating physical condition. He couldn’t attend my book launch, having recently taken to a wheelchair and had a lift installed in his Dartmouth Park home – “rather like the one Charles Laughton has in Witness for the Prosecution.”

Of my (heavy) book, he wrote: “With my arthritis and Still’s Disease (Richard Mayne quipped some years ago that Still’s Disease sounded like the obvious occupational hazard of a film critic) the problem is reading the book without a lectern. Didn’t Bergman make a film called A Lectern in Love? Or was that the working title for his Winter Light?” Typical Philip.

After praising my book for reminding him of Woody’s cultural importance, he continued with a typical insight into his own home life: “I recall for instance showing to a small gathering  in my home cinema in the mid-90s (VHS days) a double bill of Horse Feathers and Everyone Says I Love You, and the discussion that followed, on the fascinating connection between the two films, both favourites of mine. Horse Feathers was  the first Paramount Marx Brothers picture I saw (in 1951 in a double-bill of Paramount films with Ace in the Hole). So again, thanks for the splendid book. I hope others enjoy it as much as I have.”

My heart goes out to your family and friends – thank you for everything Philip and I hope others appreciate you as much as I have….