Bertrand Tavernier at the Quad

On Film / The Daily — Jun 20, 2017

“Bertrand Tavernier joins a growing list of filmmakers who've made what amounts to an epic video essay with My Journey Through French Cinema, a three-hour-plus leap into notable French filmmaking from roughly 1930 to 1980,” writes Clayton Dillard at Slant. “The title recalls that of Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson’s A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, but Tavernier is more academic and analytical in his approach. . . . Tavernier doesn't experiment with form or editing in his conception of a national cinema, but rather comingles personal recollection with appreciative arguments regarding an auteur's significance for an endearing testament to the power of art and the places in which one experiences it.”

My Journey premiered at Cannes last year and then screened at the New York Film Festival in the fall, accompanied by retrospective program of films highlighted in the documentary. Opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles, My Journey will roll out across the States throughout the summer. For more reviews of note, see Critics Round Up.

New York’s Quad Cinema is presenting not only My Journey but also Film & Nothing But: Bertrand Tavernier, a retrospective opening today and running through June 29. The best introduction will be Bilge Ebiri’s for the Village Voice: “Alain Resnais once characterized Bertrand Tavernier’s films as ones where you could never tell what the next shot would be, a description that is at once perfect and somewhat misleading. Perfect because it captures the odd, ever-shifting rhythms of the director’s work, where a momentous plot development can be followed by a casual scene of characters sharing a meal. Misleading because it suggests a shapelessness, maybe even a carelessness, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Tavernier’s films walk a fine line: They are absorbing, dense, and fastidiously unpredictable.”

“Tavernier is a moral filmmaker, politically engaged, an eternal scrapper, a man obsessed with lighting up dark corners of French history,” wrote Carloss James Chamberlin for Senses of Cinema in 2003. “He is paradoxical, both a radical and a conservative. He is the president of the Institute Lumière, which aims to preserve rapidly vanishing film culture in France. He is active in the writers’ and directors’ guilds, and numerous activist organizations. If the French film survives as a distinct cultural entity in the new Europe, it will be in no small measure due to the resistance, innovation, and continuity provided in equal parts by Bertrand Tavernier.”

Let’s have a quick look at the Quad’s program, taking the films in chronological order.

The Clockmaker (1973). Fernando F. Croce: “Post-’68 France as ‘a curious country’ of befuddled fathers and obscured revolutionaries. The middle-aged Everyhomme (Philippe Noiret) is a widowed watch-tinkerer in Lyon, who gets his politics from TV news and ‘likes to be legal’ too much to cross a red light on an empty street. The necessary shock arrives: His son (Sylvain Rougerie) is on the run, having killed a factory security guard. Gallicizing Georges Simenon’s novel, Bertrand Tavernier handles the moment with control, self-effacement, and muted compassion.”

Let Joy Reign Supreme (1975). In 1977, the New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “a witty provocative, visually dazzling re-creation of French political and social life during the crucial last years of Philippe d'Orléans, regent for the young Louis XV, who was five years old at the death of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV. . . . Let Joy Reign Supreme is one of the handsomest, most densely detailed color films I've seen since Barry Lyndon.

The Judge and the Assassin (1976). As Bilge Ebiri notes, it’s “the story of a turn-of-the-century serial killer and the judge who must bring him to justice, offers a vaguely comic treatment to an incredibly dark subject, with few figures with whom we can identify; the story takes place against the backdrop of the notorious Dreyfus Affair, and the characters’ casual bigotry can be off-putting.” Dennis Grunes in 2010: “Witty, sometimes hilarious, Tavernier’s film portrays France in upheaval. Widespread vagrancy, labor strikes, anarchy, a rash of suicides. . . . Jean-Claude Brialy, brilliant, gives the best performance, as Villedieu, a wry, acute former judge—and a Royalist who decries the people of France: ‘Republican riffraff.’”

Death Watch (1979). In 2012, the late film critic for the Observer Philip French called it “an exceptional film that makes imaginative use of Scottish locations (both the austerely beautiful Highlands and the run-down grandeur of Glasgow) to tell the still urgent story of a group of people involved in a voyeuristic TV program set in what was then a few years in the future.” With Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, and Harry Dean Stanton.

A Week’s Vacation (1980). The great Robin Wood at Film Reference: “To place beside the strictly realist A Week's Vacation the futurist fantasy of Death Watch on the one hand and the scathing, all-encompassing caricatural satire and irony of Coup de torchon on the other is to illustrate not merely a range of subject-matter but a range of strategy. Each film constructs for the viewer a quite distinct relationship to the action and to the protagonist, analyzable in terms of varying degrees of identification and detachment which may also shift within each film. Nor should the description of A Week's Vacation as ‘strictly realist’ be taken to suggest some kind of simulated cinéma-vérité: the film's stylistic poise and lucid articulation, its continual play between looking with the protagonist and looking at her, consistently encourage an analytical distance.”

Coup de torchon (1981). “Out of Africa this ain’t,” writes Caroline Golum at Screen Slate. “Coup de torchon (aka Clean Slate), adapted from Jim Thompson’s 1964 roman policier Pop. 1280, transplants the shiftless lawman at its center from oil-slicked Texas to a dusty outpost in pre-War French Colonial West Africa.” And it “was the director’s most expensive (and, arguably, political) film to date, making it a bit of an outlier in an oeuvre previously populated with spry genre pictures.” More at Critics Round Up.

A Sunday in the Country (1984). In 2003, Roger Ebert called it a “graceful and delicate story about the hidden currents in a family. . . . Tavernier never forces himself or a style upon us. If there is a common element in his work, it is his instant sympathy for his fellow humans, his enthusiasm for their triumphs, his sharing of their disappointments. To see the work of some directors is to feel closer to them. To see Tavernier's work is to feel closer to life.”

’Round Midnight (1986). “Tavernier has made a fiction feature about jazz musicians without false picturesque details or corkscrew melodramatic plotting,” wrote Michael Dempsey for Film Quarterly in 1987. “Meandering and eddying like the curls and back flows of a developing jazz improvisation, the film chronicles the West Bank Parisian existence that so many black American jazzmen, fleeing homegrown racism, poverty, and neglect, too up after World War II and throughout the 1950s.”

Beatrice (1987). Noting that it’s “set in France during the Hundred Years’ War,” Michael Wilmington, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1988, remarked that it “shows us a medieval world where the rules of the game have become instruments of madness and death, where the wind of heaven has turned to a howl of rage. . . . Cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer's massively scaled frames have none of the usual picture-book prettiness of movies on the late Middle Ages. With their cold, bluish cast, they suggest an earth barely tamed, raw and teeming with natural forces that overpower the puniness of humanity.”

Life and Nothing But (1989). “Set in Verdun in 1920, the film tells of families and army officers trying to determine the fate of 350,000 French soldiers listed as missing in action in World War I,” wrote Alan Riding for the New York Times in 1990. “The families harbor hopes that their loved ones are still alive. The officers need to put names to the bodies they continue to find. . . . But it is not, Mr. Tavernier insists, a gloomy film. ‘It's about how people are learning to deal with life again, how they are trying to rediscover happiness,’ he explained in a recent interview. ‘Even if they seem lost, they are coming out of four or five years of nightmare and they're alive.’”

L.627 (1992). “Tavernier takes an impassioned inside look at the day-to-day activities of a small, ill-equipped branch of the Paris Drug Squad,” wrote David Stratton for Variety in 1992. “With extraordinary documentary realism, the director has produced one of his best and most challenging films.” And, dispatching to the Independent in 1993, Sheila Johnston observed that Tavernier “gradually moves from the fly-on- the-wall perspective to a larger, bird's-eye view of a country in chronic crisis: worm-eaten by graft and disillusion at every level, and as run down as we are by years of the same jaded old faces running the show.” Two year’s later, François Mitterrand, having presided over France since 1981, would cede the office to Jacques Chirac.

Fresh Bait (1995). “Though it's remarkably well crafted, Bertrand Tavernier's re-creation of the real-life exploits of three young Parisians (two guys and a girl) who cold-bloodedly murdered two men for their money in December 1993—the female serving as sexual bait, the males carrying out the killings—left me with a sour aftertaste,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum while still at the Chicago Reader. “This painstakingly detailed docudrama, which won the grand prize at the Berlin film festival, commands some attention and respect; I just can't go along with its antihumanistic attack on antihumanism.”

Captain Conan (1997). In 2002, Keith Phipps, writing at the A.V. Club, called it “a complicated, deeply affecting WWI drama set in the semi-official war zone of southeast Europe, where the War To End All Wars sputtered on for some time after the declaration of peace.” It’s “memorable viewing, a war film that finds humanity in inhumane surroundings.”

Safe Conduct (2002). This “rangy, irreverent, episodic odyssey through French filmmaking during the Occupation” is “one of the very best movies ever made about the life of moviemaking,” wrote Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice in 2002. “It’s typical of Tavernier that the new film’s almost beatific fondness for the industry toilers of yesteryear goes hand in hand with respect for the personal wounds of history and how they were hidden in movies made right under the Nazi’s turned-up schnozzes.”

In the Electric Mist (2009). Notebook editor Daniel Kasman in 2009: “The end hilariously, ingeniously, quotes the final shot of The Shining; the film's references to the American Civil War, to slavery, to segregation, to Vietnam and finally to Katrina in this Louisiana-set detective tale indeed aims more directly at America's bloody past than that most allusive of Kubrick films, but despite the ambition and the plot's mobility, the film cannot seem to find itself.”

The Princess of Montpensier (2010). Tavernier expands Madame de La Fayette’s 1662 story “into a sly, alluring, and at times unsettling examination of the parallels between violence in the public and private spheres, in a society where a young woman, great in beauty and wealth, may be traded as chattel and pursued as the doe in a competitive hunt,” wrote Gary Giddins for Film Comment in 2011. “He has made an intimate epic, as coolly calculated as a chess match, in which blood on the battlefield and on the bedsheets (after a public wedding consummation) is the fuel of economic and political power and masculine pride.”

Awarding it their “Golden Donkey for the most Ferronian Film at Cannes 2010,” the Ferroni Brigade, writing in the Notebook, pointed out that “Tavernier's film appears in the guise of a great swashbuckler, finessed with the expertise of a true connoisseur—it frequently brings to mind that Tavernier has written (with Jean Pierre-Coursodon) what arguably remains the best book about American cinema (it also remains sadly untranslated, which may also say something about film culture), but of course his deep knowledge and admiration of the world's other film cultures shine as well.”

The French Minister (2014). Kenji Fujishima for Slant: “With its broad performances, rapid-fire pacing, and rampant visual and verbal gags, The French Minister, Bernard Tavernier’s first attempt at an out-and-out comedy, doesn’t try too hard to hide its graphic-novel origins; it’s political burlesque through and through. . . . Tavernier manages to inject within the showily comic surfaces of the film a measure of genuine wit and curiosity about the story’s particular milieu that elevates it above most other satires of this stripe.” You’ll find more reviews at Critics Round Up.

In 2014, Max Nelson spoke with Tavernier for Film Comment “about his parallel lives as a director and film buff, his approach to structure and rhythm, his love for Howard Hawks and Jacques Becker, and the unseen logic behind the apparent chaos of a film set.”

Updates: “Tavernier’s approach is more relaxed than Scorsese’s,” writes Jordan Hoffman, reviewing My Journey for the Village Voice. “He isn’t interested in delineating historical context. There are other places to learn the ins and outs of the post-Vichy collaborator purges in the French film industry, or why Cinémathèque co-founder Henri Langlois got sacked in 1968. Tavernier would rather share anecdotes about actors, directors and composers, nipping around the edges of his subject. This leads to his film’s principal frustration, which takes about an hour to reveal itself. There seems to be no larger point. I’m not sure ‘isn’t this great?’ passes muster as a thesis.”

“Every movement, when they are doing great films, are revolutionaries,” Tavernier tells Steve Erickson at RogerEbert.com. “Renoir and Duvivier, in the ‘30s, were revolutionaries. Bresson was incredibly revolutionary. The New Wave, in a way, was revolutionary because it brought the cinema of the first person, but the British had done that first: Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson. Michael Powell was a revolution in himself.” The directors associated with the New Wave “weren’t the first French cinephile directors. Renoir loved King Vidor. They were just great self-promoters, because they had been journalists, and they convinced Americans they were left-wing, despite writing for right-wing publications. Godard wasn’t a leftist, he was a toady to the worst tyrant in the 20th century.”

“Tavernier’s performing advocacy on behalf of a strand of French cinema largely thrown out of critical respectability by the polemicists of the New Wave,” writes Vadim Rizov, reviewing My Journey for Filmmaker. “This advocacy isn’t just talk on Tavernier’s part: the process of assembling the archival footage led in some cases to active restoration of the titles under consideration, which is all to the good. If I found myself often unable to perceive the connection between some of the seemingly stodgier titles on display and Tavernier’s own stellar work—notable in particular for the speed of both its editing and camera movements, and a general penchant for the unostentatiously vigorous—it’s useful to consider the ways we’re all shaped as viewers and (not me!) makers.”

Updates, 6/22: “It would be hard to find a more fascinating body of work than Edmond Gréville’s, filmed in both France and Great Britain and utterly foreign to the rules of cinema governing each of these two countries, as well as to the aesthetic revolutions that transformed them,” writes Tavernier for Film Comment. “Gréville’s films stand apart from trends of the day, showing an obstinate faithfulness to certain formal principles inherited from the silent era, a period that marks his work indelibly.”

At the A.V. Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky notes that My Journey “stretches out to 195 minutes as casually as a weekend lunch, never feigning completism. . . . This isn’t the first time he’s done something like this; his sadly out-of-print The Lumiere Brothers’ First Films remains the best introduction to thinking of the earliest of the early filmmakers as sophisticated artists. But though this at times makes My Journey too pragmatic for its own good, what sets it apart is Tavernier’s interest in craft, which has always distinguished him from most of his filmmaking peers.”

And Tavernier’s a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show (16’12”).

Update, 6/24:My Journey is a partial, personal sketch of French cinema—some might call it erratic,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “It’s a rather male one, too: Tavernier tends to focus more on male actors, with asides for Arletty and Simone Signoret, while the only woman director to figure, briefly, is Agnès Varda. It’s just the start of the journey, however. The film ends with a dedication to Becker and Sautet, plus many, many others. But, an end caption tells us, there are many more to come: Autant-Lara, Bresson, Grémillon, Ophüls, Guitry, Tati . . . All these, you imagine, will complete a composite portrait, through his precursors, of Tavernier the director, the historian, the cinephile.”

Update, 6/25: NPR’s Melissa Block has a quick chat with Tavernier (5’04”).

Update, 6/26: “In a way,” writes Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, My Journey is “the cinematic equivalent of François Truffaut’s intoxicating book The Films in My Life, though that comparison may not be entirely to the benefit of Tavernier’s work. Imagining the same work executed by Truffaut, it’s easy to envision a consummately witty, charming and illuminating film, one that would sweep the viewer along on a tide of cinematic rapture and insight. The Tavernier version, by contrast, is sober, sincere and professorial rather than deeply exciting or revelatory.”

Updates, 6/27: Anthony Lane in the New Yorker on My Journey: “Homage is paid, above all, to Jean Gabin, who bestrode French films with a nobility that has no exact equivalent on the American screen. (Mix the long, lordly reign of Clark Gable with the dependable bulk of Spencer Tracy, plus the street smarts of James Cagney, and you’re still not there.) Gabin, Tavernier argues, lent ‘tragic substance to the notion of a people’s hero and a working-class hero,’ and every shot of him here fortifies that claim. It would be a shame if the film were to be seen only by those already interested in French cinema. Anyone with an eye for grace, industry, resilience, rich shadows, and strong cigarettes should go along.”

Fresh Bait can be perfectly summed up with two superlatives,” writes Jeva Lange at Screen Slate. “It is both ‘very French’ and ‘very ‘90s.’ The delightful combination accurately describes the time and place Bertrand Tavernier’s film was made—Paris 1995—but Fresh Bait also transcends its laser disc references by consciously building on foundations laid by movies such as Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, from the year before, and Terrence Malick’s much earlier Badlands. As they say on the playground: It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Then it’s a bloodbath.”

Updates, 6/28: “Settled comfortably on a sofa in the Beverly Hills guest house of Irwin Winkler (his ‘Round Midnight producer), the director was in Los Angeles recently, checking in with fellow devotees like Leonard Maltin and Quentin Tarantino on the way to showing his documentary to eager audiences around the country.” So the Los Angeles TimesKenneth Turan took the opportunity to interview Tavernier: “I live in a world where I see a growing ignorance about films and books of the past. People are completely taken over by the tyranny of the present.”

On the IndieWire Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Tavernier “talks about what he learned from his favorite filmmakers” (30’32”).

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.