France Honors Jim Jarmusch

June 24, 2011 | By French Culture

On Thursday, June 23, 2011, Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, conferred upon filmmaker Jim Jarmusch the insignia officer and chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in the following speech.


It is now my privilege to honor a man who is among the very best of American directors, but has also become a legend.

Dear Jim Jarmusch,

I do not want to be disrespectful or to look self-sufficient (while speaking in this French Embassy), but let me say one thing : you could be French !

More precisely, you are what we may call the quintessence of contemporary elegance and cultural chic that French people often dream of, but do not always reach…

(And it’s not a reference to the news, of course).

So it’s not surprising that you became an icon for the European audience. Not only do you have the talent of a magnificient filmmaker, and more generally of an artist celebrated all around the world : you’ve got the « attitude » - this natural gift and style that could be considered as dandyism, and which is just a way to be yourself. Actually, you’re an independant, in the full sense of the word.

Is it another way to be an artist ?

(This is a very French question, isn’t it ?)

All to say that it’s quite intimidating to meet a legend – a contemporary myth – but also a dear and precious friend of France, as we all know, and as I would like to recall you story briefly, with your permission.

Dear Jim, you discovered the world of movies at a very young age. Your mother was a film critic and would drop you off at the local movie theater in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, while she ran errands ; and just like that, your love story with cinema began.

While you loved films, books and poetry were also your great passion. In college, you chose to study journalism at Northwestern University, then literature at Columbia, where your professors included New York School avant-garde poets Kenneth Koch and David Schapiro. Your intention was to become a poet. You once confessed in an interview that you had always praised poetry not only because of the strength and beauty of its form, but because much of the innovation in language actually comes from tis literary form… It’s obvious that you actually became a poet, even though your main means of expression is the film.

We all remember, for example, the violent beauty of Dead Man, your 1995 film, in which the main character (played by Johnny Depp) is called… William Blake ! This masterpiece is full of literary quotations, and what a cast ! Johnny Depp, of course, but also John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne and Robert Mitchum, another legend, in his final role… not to mention the very special score composed by Neil Young ! Waow !

It brilliantly shows your lifelong taste for a community of friends and artists, which includes actors, writers, musiciens : Roberto Benigni, Michel Gondry, Gena Rowlands, Claire Denis, Isaach de Bankolé, Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Tom Waits…

Some of them are French, and it’s not only rhetorical to say that you have special links with France. During your final year at Columbia, you moved to Paris for what was supposed to be a summer semester exchange program. You ended up staying for seven months. You traced the steps of André Breton’s Nadja, touched Honoré de Balzac’s writing desk, read Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and discovered Reverdy, Cendrars, and Bataille ? You discovered the Cinémathèque Française, in its former and regretted place at the Palais de Chaillot, an the whole world of cinema opened up to you… French and European cinema (with Rivette, Bresson, Dreyer…), Japanese films (Inamura, Ozy, Mizoguchi, for example) and even American independant films (such as the great Sam Fuller).

When you returned to New York, you applied to the prestigious graduate film school of NYU and, despite your complete inexperience in filmmaking, were admitted on the strength of your submission of a collection of photographs and an essay about film. Your involvement with film deepened when you encountered – and eventually worked with – the Nicholas Ray who was also an NYU professor.

And it is certainly not absurd to consider for example Stranger than Paradise, your second movie (and one of my favorites, I have to confess) as a tribute to the director of Johnny Guitar and Wind across the Everglades… Nick Ray is probably the authentic godfather of American independant filmmakers and it’s good to have a genius as a godfather.

From Permanent Vacation (your first movie in 1980 : what a brilliant title to begin a career !), to the present day, your films have won you a cult status, fans across the globe, critical acclaim, and many awards and nominations. You have won awards four times at the Cannes Festival : the Camera d’Or for Stranger than Paradise in 1984, the award for Best Artistic Contribution for Mystery Train in 1989, the best short film for Coffe and Cigarettes in 1995 and the Grand Prix for Broken Flowers in 2005.

You also directed video clips for musicians (Talking Heads, Tom Waits, The Raconteurs…) and musicians appear frequently in key roles, from John Lurie to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins… Critic Vincent Canby has said that your movies have the tempo and rhythm of Blues and Jazz, even in their use, or omission, of language. You are a musician and currently have your own band called SQURL.

Dear Jim, what makes you such a special, unique and acclaimed director is the ability to use all art forms in your movie making. Your films reveal a deep and knowledgeable tast for other forms of creativity – literature, music, painting, architecture… - and a constantly renewed curiosity. This sounds perhaps pedantic, but what I forgot to mention – and what is not really explainable – is your absolutely fabulous sense of humor : a very specific tone, something like a stylish and quide unique trademark.

So, as says my old friend Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is always very useful at the end of a speech : « You should not speak about something which cannot be spoken of. »

If I cannot find the true words to explain the extraordinary enjoyment of your art, I can simply say that it is a very great pleasure for me to confer this medal on you.

Jim Jarmusch, au nom du Gouvernement Français, je vous fais Officier des Arts et des Lettres.

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