My Friend Bertrand
If I wanted to do justice to my memory of Bertrand Tavernier, I would have to tell half my life. That’s why I prefer to start with his films—and with the one I perhaps like the best. In Coup de torchon, Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, and Stéphane Audran star as three French people indulging in petty-bourgeois foibles in colonial West Africa, assuming that far from home everything goes and greed reigns supreme, since the land they are in is stolen anyhow (an attitude they share with Céline’s Bardamu). To call the movie great wouldn’t be quite right (Tavernier never aimed to be grand), but human, lively, and French apply—it’s a film in the tradition of Chabrol and Renoir, despite being an adaptation of a very American Jim Thompson crime story.
Bertrand adored the “veteran filmmakers,” partly out of spite for the nouvelle vague, which was so highly admired and acclaimed in his youth. He sought contact with the directors and screenwriters of the thirties, forties, and fifties who would be forgotten had he not, once he was old himself, dedicated a nine-hour documentary to them, a film that everyone in France—including children—knows. It was always his passion to discover the forgotten and to bring the repressed to light; he did this out of curiosity and also with the cunning pleasure of annoying the official film historians. Honoring Eisenstein, Orson Welles, John Ford, René Clair, and Marcel Carné may not be all that remarkable, he felt, but what about championing Jacques Tourneur (The Twilight Zone) and Delmer Daves (Broken Arrow and 3:10 to Yuma)?
He wrote about Daves in his monumental, two-volume 50 Years of American Cinema: “All of his amazing and very personal body of work rests on two great themes: education and knowledge . . . Through his films one discovers the romantic ideals American civilization is based upon, and a morality worthy of the generous Corneille.” All this (except for “American”) applies to Tavernier’s own persona, and the style is pure French-high-school-education. As a young man he set off with savings to visit Daves in Arizona. He came back with a wonderful portrait of him that at first nobody wanted to print. What he wrote did not fit in with the sectarian film criticism that was dominant then (and now?) in France (and elsewhere?). Tavernier’s texts appealed to the intellectual center, the humanists—not to the right wing, to whom he was too left, or to the left, or even to Cahiers du cinéma, whose aesthetic canon was entirely different. This pattern was repeated later with the reception of his films—but this didn’t harm him, because his audience was not dependent on reviews.