The French director Bertrand Tavernier died last week at the age of 79. He was, by all accounts, not only a great filmmaker but also a decent human being, a wonderful colleague and an extremely knowledgeable historian of the cinema. This is a rare combination for any artist. He should be celebrated on this blog for all those reasons and I’m only sorry that we haven’t featured his work as much as we should have done. The three films I have written about do, however, give an indication of the range of his interests and achievements. ‘Round Midnight (France-US 1986) is one of Tavernier’s best-known films internationally. It’s a fiction film made largely in English but set in Paris where an African-American jazz saxophonist down on his luck has a period playing in a club in the 1950s. Tavernier worked with Warner Bros. but defied the studio by casting well-known contemporary jazz players to support Gordon who had himself played in Paris in the 1960s. Tavernier had a close affinity with aspects of American culture – he also made a documentary about Mississippi Blues (1980) with Robert Parrish. But he also was one of the few French directors of his generation to recognise British cinema and in particular to champion Michael Powell and The Red Shoes (1948), which is name-checked in ‘Round Midnight. Powell’s other international champion Martin Scorsese also has a small role in ‘Round Midnight. Tavernier’s British connection also included Deathwatch (France-West Germany 1980), a well-regarded speculative fiction film with an international cast and made in Glasgow and Argyll.
Like many French cinéastes of his generation Tavernier had a strong interest in American crime fiction, the kind of literature which was often adapted for Hollywood film noir as well as French noir or polars. This interest would also have been strengthened by his early work in the film industry which included time as a publicist for both Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. For Melville he worked on promoting Le doulos (France 1963), a polar with Jean-Paul Belmondo. When he began to make his own films his filmography included Coup de Torchon (France 1981), an adaptation of pop.128, a crime novel by the hardest of hard-boiled writers, Jim Thompson – but relocated from the American South to French West Africa in the 1930s. On this blog I have written about a later film based on a crime novel by James Lee Bourke, In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009), again made in English, this time in the US and returning to the same region as Mississippi Blues. Once again, Tavernier struggled with American producers but I was pleased with the adaptation of a book I knew.
The third Tavernier film discussed on this blog is La princesse de Montpensier (France-Germany 2010), an example of the French historical drama, in this case a 16th century swashbuckler/thriller/melodrama. Tavernier proved himself capable of making very different kinds of films as well as having the ability to work in at least two languages and across different international production contexts. This was a film I enjoyed as a festival screening but which didn’t get much of a release in the UK, much like the majority of foreign language releases over the last ten years or so.
The last Tavernier film I watched was the last film the director completed, his magisterial documentary on French cinema, A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). This is an autobiographical journey through the director’s own love affair with cinema – it also became a French TV series. It is very personal but because Tavernier is so closely engaged with cinema it is also a guide, a revelation and an inspirational text. My DVD of the film runs over 190 mins and it is crammed full of Tavernier’s memories of the films he watched, the film people he engaged with and the films he made. He re-visits locations and he observes how the industry changed and why. It isn’t a dry history of French cinema with equal time devoted to each decade and to each ‘important film’. Instead it focuses on what he himself discovered and what inspired him. The result is that much of the film focuses on the period from the late 1940s through to the 1970s or between the films the director saw while he was growing up to the films he came to know during their production when he was an assistant. Of course, in discussing these films he refers to many more but his selections provide an entry into what I have always found to be a mysterious void since my own film (self) education was via the polemics of Truffaut and Godard. Truffaut in particular decried ‘le cinéma de papa‘ and the screenwriters of the ‘quality cinema’ of this period. Tavernier’s choices of detailed case studies include Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet as directors and Jean Gabin as star. I was pleased to recognise some of the films that Tavernier discusses and thrilled to be exposed to others I didn’t know. One of the first films I sought out and enjoyed after watching the documentary was Becker’s Edward and Caroline (France 1951). Since then I’ve collected more films from the period and blogged on several with more to come. Much as I loved Truffaut in the 1960s and 1970s, he was wrong to take his polemic so far. I can’t recommend the documentary too highly and it does, of course, present its great variety of clips in the correct ratio.
This last few days has seen many tributes to Tavernier. It was good to see tweets from people who knew Tavernier and who spoke of his kindness and encouragement. In yesterday’s Guardian Ryan Gilbey’s obituary included a couple of stories that I hadn’t seen before but which tie in to what I have written above:
To help him adapt [his first fiction feature] the movie [L’Horloger de Saint-Paul, France 1974] from Georges Simenon’s novel The Watchmaker of Everton, Tavernier hired two screenwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who had been eviscerated by François Truffaut 20 years earlier in the infamous broadside against ‘le cinéma de papa‘ that had paved the way for the French New Wave.
And this acute observation about one of the filmmakers he worked with:
Only the demands of Stanley Kubrick proved too much. In a cable notifying that director of his resignation from press duties on A Clockwork Orange (1971), he wrote: “As a film-maker you are a genius, but as an employer you are an imbecile.
Only last week I showed a short clip during a Zoom event. It was from Éric Rohmer’s early short film La boulangère de Monceau (France 1963). The clip had a narrator introducing the actions of the characters and it was only when I began to write this post that I discovered that the narration was delivered by Bertrand Tavernier. I certainly won’t forget his contribution to cinema and I look forward to watching more of his films and to looking again at his final documentary when I have caught up with the films he discusses.