Bertrand Tavernier’s Passion for Cinema

The Daily — Mar 29, 2021
Bertrand Tavernier

Dispatching from Paris to RogerEbert.com, Lisa Nesselson reports that when Bertrand Tavernier died on Thursday, a month to the day before he was to have turned eighty, “the most-listened-to national French radio station scrapped its planned programming to devote three full hours to honoring his memory.” By the early evening, Tavernier’s passing was the top news story on television and the pay cable service Canal Plus had made a dozen of his films available to its viewers. On Friday morning, Tavernier was on the front page of all the major French newspapers.

Outside of France, Martin Scorsese has led a round of tributes to the director of nearly thirty features and documentaries. As a critic, interviewer, and historian, Tavernier was also a tireless champion of the work of filmmakers from whom he drew know-how and inspiration. “Bertrand knew the history of cinema inside and out,” writes Scorsese. “And he was passionate about absolutely all of it—passionate about what he loved and what he hated, passionate about bringing both new discoveries and forgotten figures to light, and then passionate about the films he himself made.”

Scorsese appears briefly in one of them, ’Round Midnight (1986), a film that, as Kent Jones notes in his remembrance for the Film Foundation, allowed Tavernier “to pay tribute to his second great love, jazz, by means of his first, cinema.” Dexter Gordon plays a saxophonist who heads to Paris in the late 1950s to dry out, and it’s when he returns to New York that he has his brush with Scorsese’s character. In an interview that appears in Scorsese on Scorsese, a collection edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Scorsese recalled that Tavernier had called on him “because he said that when I open my mouth, it’s New York. I would save him a lot of establishing shots! He told me, ‘You have to play the owner of the club because he’s just like you, he’s a nice guy, but he’s ruthless.’ I said, ‘Gee, thanks.’ But I guess humor loses a lot in translation.”

Writing for Sight & Sound, Thompson recalls meeting both directors at a reception following a memorial service for Michael Powell and being “amazed by an unstoppable Tavernier easily out-buffing his American colleague with his knowledge of obscure westerns. Both men loved British cinema more than most Brits, taking up the cause of Michael Powell when he had fallen from grace after the scandal of Peeping Tom.” Two wide-ranging, deep-diving documentaries, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) and Scorsese’s follow-up, My Voyage to Italy (1999), served as models for Tavernier’s career-capping project, My Journey Through French Cinema, which premiered in Cannes in 2016 before Tavernier expanded it to a nine-episode series the following year.

Tavernier’s journey began in Lyon, the home of Auguste and Louis Lumière, and eventually, the Institut Lumière and the Lumière Film Festival, both managed by Tavernier and Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux. Born during the Occupation to René Tavernier, a literary editor active in the French Resistance, Bertrand suffered what Nick Pinkerton calls in Reverse Shot “a childhood bout with strabismus very possibly caused by malnutrition due to wartime shortages that left him with a wonky right eye.” In 1999, Tavernier told Alan Riding in the New York Times that his childhood was “marked by loneliness because my parents didn’t get along well. And it’s coming out in every movie. I’ve practically never had a couple in my films.”

While studying law at the Sorbonne, Tavernier cofounded a film magazine with a few friends and began interviewing directors. One of them, Jean-Pierre Melville, agreed to help jump-start the career Tavernier yearned to pursue and took him on as the third assistant director on Le doulos (1962)—the first assistant was Volker Schlöndorff. But Tavernier soon proved that he wasn’t ready to work on a film set, and Melville suggested that he steer his enthusiasm for cinema toward a different occupation. Starting with Le doulos, he became a press agent.

Over the next several years, Tavernier and his close friend Pierre Rissient “revolutionized the dubious trade of film publicity,” wrote Geoffrey Macnab in the Guardian in 2008. They would only represent films that they honestly felt the world needed to see, and as a team, they “helped bring directors like Ford, Abraham Polonsky, Sam Fuller, and Jacques Tourneur to the attention of the French media,” writes Macnab. Tavernier and Rissient “developed a kind of good-cop/bad-cop routine with the journalists who came to see the films they worked on,” writes Variety’s Peter Debruge. “Rissient would badger, Tavernier would coax, and together, they would try to imprint their own reasons for believing in certain directors and projects on the critics who came to their screenings.”

In 1974, ten years after directing short segments for the omnibus films Les baisers and La chance et l’amour, Tavernier tackled his first feature. The Clockmaker of St. Paul, an adaptation of a novel by Georges Simenon about a respected widower who learns that his son has killed a man, is also the first of nine collaborations with Philippe Noiret. With his droopy, bearlike physique belying a quick intelligence and moral fortitude, Noiret has been read by more than a few critics as a stand-in for Tavernier.

Ryan Gilbey notes in the Guardian that financiers offered to pay Tavernier twice his fee if he’d simply relocate The Clockmaker to Paris from Lyon. But Tavernier stood his ground. “It is impossible now to imagine the story without that picturesque city’s mix of the sleepy and the enigmatic,” writes Gilbey, “any more than Tavernier’s science-fiction drama Death Watch (1980), starring Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider, can be divorced from its imaginative use of locations in the Scottish Highlands and Glasgow, or the reportage-style drugs squad drama L.627 (1992) could be conceivable anywhere but in its urban rat-run of cramped interiors.” Tavernier made “immersive, lived-in films, privileging atmosphere and detail above narrative and spectacle,” wrote Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice in 2017. “If I’m proud of one thing in my films,” Tavernier told the Voice in 1984, “it’s that you can’t separate the characters from the specific worlds in which they live.”

On both The Clockmaker, which won the prestigious Louis Delluc Prize and a Silver Bear in Berlin, and his second feature, The Judge and the Assassin (1976), a tale of crime and punishment starring Noiret, Michel Galabru, and Isabelle Huppert, Tavernier worked with screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Aurenche also worked on Coup de torchon (1981), an Oscar-nominated adaptation of Jim Thompson’s 1964 novel Pop. 1280 transposed to a small town in French West Africa, and Bost, working with with Tavernier and his ex-wife, Colo Tavernier, cowrote A Sunday in the Country (1984), a portrait of an aging painter that nods to both Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir. These collaborations with Aurenche and Bost were something of a statement from Tavernier, given that both writers were among François Truffaut’s targets in “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” the 1954 essay that would draw a line in the sand between the cinéma de papa and the upstarts then on the verge of launching the nouvelle vague.

For all his unbridled passion for cinema and his unwavering commitment to the political left, Tavernier was no polemicist and belonged to no single school. He may have vehemently disagreed with Truffaut’s blanket dismissal of British cinema, but when Truffaut praised Marcel Pagnol as the first modern filmmaker, that was reason enough for Tavernier to delve back into Pagnol’s work. As a publicist, he enthusiastically promoted Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), but he also told Steve Erickson in an interview that ran at RogerEbert.com in 2017 that, during his Maoist phase, Godard had become “a toady to the worst tyrant in the twentieth century.”

The two major French film journals, Cahiers du cinéma and Positif, were often at ideological loggerheads, but Tavernier frequently wrote for both. Writers and editors at Cahiers “were totally wrong when they were attacking Ford and Huston,” Tavernier told Erickson. “Positif was wrong when they attacked Hitchcock and Rossellini. Positif was right to fight for Buñuel, Borzage, Huston, and some Italian directors ignored by Cahiers. Cahiers was right to fight for Hitchcock and Rossellini. Films and directors are more important than critics . . . People were writing B.S. on both sides.”

The Directors Guild of America has released two statements in response to the news of Tavernier’s passing, one from Taylor Hackford and the other from Michael Mann, who notes that Tavernier “quite literally wrote the book on Hollywood film in France with his treasured 30 ans de cinéma américain.” Cowritten with Jean-Pierre Coursodon, the book was released in 1970 and ran to 675 pages. In 1991, Tavernier and Coursodon released a new edition, 50 ans de cinéma américain, that was twice as long. They were working on 100 ans de cinéma américain when Coursodon passed away at the end of last year, but according to Elsa Keslassy in Variety, Tavernier completed it, and it should be coming out in the fall.

Todd McCarthy, formerly of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and now writing for Deadline, calls Tavernier’s 1993 volume Amis américains: entretiens avec les grands auteurs d’Hollywood “a treasure, because it contains lengthy and ultra-informed interviews not only with the expected subjects—Ford, Huston, Kazan, and others—but many interesting but less studied figures—Tay Garnett, Edgar G. Ulmer, Delmer Daves, Robert Parish, Jacques Tourneur, and quite a few of the blacklisted filmmakers; the latter represented a particular cause for Tavernier.”

McCarthy is just one of many, many critics, programmers, and all-round cinephiles to recall long nights spent talking movies with Tavernier. “Bertrand was almost always a lava flow of opinion, information, insight and, for the most part, enthusiasm,” he writes. “Once he had started, there was no stopping him.” Retired Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan “always thought there would be one more meal with Bertrand, one more email recommending some obscure but wonderful American movie only he knew about, one more superb documentary about film history as only he could present it.”

For Scott Foundas, a former critic now working as a production manager, Tavernier “embodied the spirit of cinema as robustly as anyone ever has.” And Dave Kehr, a film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, recalls meeting Tavernier in 1975. “The conversation never stopped,” he’s tweeted. “Such friends and fellow travelers are few.”

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