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.
“OFFBEAT is an events-based producer connecting jazz, improv & experimental music to the world of film and the moving image.” So runs the introduction to the website of Offbeat Fest. Offbeat has produced several events in London this year which explore the world of jazz on film. The latest event was held at the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington on Sunday 11 December. The session began with 15 minutes of wonderful live jazz performed by saxophonist Tony Kofi who offered his own mélange of tunes from the soundtrack of Bertrand Tavernier’s classic jazz film ‘Round Midnight. Following a 30th Anniversary screening of the film, Kofi returned with Selwyn Harris of Jazzwise Magazine and the distributor of jazz film soundtrack records. These two took part in a Q&A about the film chaired by the jazz journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre.
This was an interesting and highly enjoyable event hosted in one of my favourite cinemas. I’m not qualified to comment on the jazz itself (except to say that Tony Kofi’s playing and his advice to the young musicians in the audience seemed very fine.) The Q&A was inevitably taken up with the jazz performed in the film and the authenticity of the representation of the quite specific period of music and the lives of the players and the musical milieu. I’ll focus my comments on the film itself.
The only disappointing aspect of the day was that this Anniversary screening of the film was projected from DVD (I’m assuming so based on the image quality). It’s a shame that there isn’t even a Blu-ray available for such a high quality film. For the opening scenes of the film, director Bertrand Tavernier opted for dark and noirish scenes which the DVD struggled to deliver. The remainder of the film worked much better, especially as both the ‘look’ and the mood of the film brightened. A decision was taken to use what I assume are the English subtitles for audiences with hearing impairments. Although the majority of dialogue is actually in English, the delivery style of the central character is quite idiosyncratic. But it is difficult to ignore subs and I did find it a little irritating – though the sheer pleasure the film invokes did overcome such irritations.
‘Round Midnight is a fictionalised story about a legendary American jazz performer who spends time in Paris in 1959. ‘Dale Turner’ is played by the real legendary player Dexter Gordon and the character’s story is based on events associated with the equally ‘real’ Bud Powell and Lester Young. Dale is a saxophonist whose profile developed through building on the work of bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, but who is now suffering from alcohol and drug abuse and shabby treatment as an artist in New York. He decides to take up an offer to play at the ‘Blue Note’ club in Paris where he is watched by a fierce landlady and the club’s owner who both try to keep Dale ‘dry’ and ‘clean’. He escapes their close attention only when he meets a devoted fan – a young French comic-book artist Francis (François Cluzet) who lives with his young teenage daughter Berangere. When Dale moves in with Francis and Berangere he finds a new contentment and re-discovers his full creativity. This in turn will help him to reflect on his life and try to come to terms with the decisions he’s made (he’s around 60 and not in the best of health).
Tavernier is a French director who has drawn on his love of the classical cinemas of Hollywood and France, as well as aspects of British cinema (an unusual trait in French directors of his era). His two bold decisions were to cast Dexter Gordon rather than a film actor in the lead and to insist that as far as possible the jazz performances in the film (which are many more than usual) should be recorded live. This proved to be one of the topics picked up in the Q&A and to be seen as one of the main reasons why this is perhaps the best example of a fiction film with jazz as a central theme. In other films about the same era and personalities, the music is played by jazz professionals and mimed by actors. The Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) was quoted as a film that doesn’t work for jazz fans because the miming removes the sense of live playing. In ‘Round Midnight, all the musicians playing at the Blue Note or in the recording studio are ‘real’ jazz players of note, albeit mainly younger ‘modern’ players interpreting the music of 1959 as arranged by Herbie Hancock – who plays the pianist in the club. Others such as Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins, John McLaughlin and Freddie Hubbard play in Paris, Lyon and New York. The performance of Dexter Gordon, both as actor and as jazz performer has been very well received. It helps that he was 6′ 6″ tall and that he towers over François Cluzet (often seen rescuing him from bars/hospitals). Gordon in the film speaks like he plays – in a languorous, breathy way (hence the possible need for subtitles). His performance is part of an overall ‘effect’ – so that the film seems to be structured, the camera seems to move and frame the action (in a ‘Scope frame) in ways which suggest a jazz composition. I’m not sure I understand jazz well enough to appreciate this observation, but Tavernier himself quotes Michael Powell:
When Michael saw ‘Round Midnight he said that he understood jazz not by what the characters were saying but by the structure of the film and the way the camera moved. He got the emotion of jazz. (Interview in the Guardian, 2002)
I’m on safer ground with Powell and there is a direct Powell connection in the film. At one point in the recording studio, one of the players tells an anecdote from Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) – which is a film (and a folk tale) about an artist eventually driven to their death through their obsession with their art. The anecdote is actually about two of the supporting characters, but all three are enmeshed in the tensions and conflicts that develop between artists, their art and the commercial demands of the art form. Coincidentally, The Red Shoes is also the favourite film of Powell’s other ardent supporter Martin Scorsese who appears in ‘Round Midnight as Dale’s sleazy and ruthless US manager/promoter in New York. What all this points to, for me, is Tavernier’s wish to place his love of jazz in the context of his own cinephilia and more general interest in the French-American cultural exchange. There is a sense in which the film consciously begins in a noir world of dingy hotels, dark alleyways and clubs. This is a noir world shot in a Paris studio with set designs by Alexandre Trauner, the veteran Hungarian migrant who entered the French film industry in the early 1930s and designed many of the classic ‘poetic realist’ films which were the precursors of film noir in Hollywood. After Dale Turner moves in with Francis, ‘Round Midnight makes much more use of location shooting around the streets of Paris (and one trip to the seaside). These sequences are closer to the freedom of la nouvelle vague – which was in full swing around the time of the setting of ‘Round Midnight. I was reminded of the scenes featuring a Paris hospital in Cléo de 5 à 7 as Francis dashes from one hospital to another searching for Dale. Tavernier’s regular DoP Bruno De Keyser handles both camera styles with aplomb. It’s not too difficult to see why Michael Powell related the look and feel of the film to the emotion of jazz. I should note that New York streets also feature and that some of the Paris scenes may actually have been shot in Lyon (Tavernier’s home city.)
In the trailer from Warner Bros. several of the above points are evident – as is the struggle Tavernier has had with his Anglophone films. The voiceover in the trailer is there to speak to the American audience and Tavernier becomes an ‘international director’. But despite this, ‘Round Midnight is a French film about the great art music of America.
Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.
In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.
There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDb has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)
The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.
Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rents Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.
It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.