The Man Who Lived Movies: a Tribute to Bertrand Tavernier

If I’m a little late to the wake with this tribute to Bertrand Tavernier (1941-2021), that has nothing to do with my feelings about the man or his films, and everything to do with other obligations. I’ve been pleased (and not a little surprised) to see his passing marked so widely with obituaries and remembrances, because I’ve always felt that Tavernier’s achievements were rather underrated, given how many fine movies he made. Perhaps that comparative neglect had something to do with his unassertive (albeit deeply assured) style of filmmaking, with his versatility and eclecticism (which made it difficult to pigeon-hole him as an auteur), and with his overall preference for serious subjects, often of social, political or moral import in line with his own leftist views.

Though Tavernier began working in the film business in various capacities (mainly as a publicist, with his friend Pierre Rissient) during the heyday of the French New Wave directors, his films were quite unlike theirs, which were made partly in antagonistic response to the despised ‘cinéma de papa’ as practised by their predecessors. Instead, Tavernier happily contributed to the humanist tradition best represented by the older directors he particularly admired, notably Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker and, especially, the likewise underrated Claude Sautet.

Perhaps even more than his New Wave friends, Tavernier was an obsessive cinephile, and in addition to directing features, documentaries and shorts, he co-wrote with Jean-Pierre Coursodon an encyclopaedic reference book on the American cinema. He also ran, with his friend Thierry Frémaux (now famous as the director of the Cannes Film Festival), the Institut Lumière and the Lumière Film Festival in Lyon – Tavernier’s home town and, for some at least, the birthplace of cinema. But movies were not his sole concern, and the breadth of his interests and knowledge can be found in his work. In conversation it soon became clear that he was very well informed about history, politics, philosophy, religion, literature, music and the other arts; moreover, his capacity for processing and remembering all sorts of facts and figures, anecdotes about film folk and moments from movies was extraordinary. He also had an infectious sense of humour. It may be true that he was more of a talker than a listener, but the talk was usually terrific.

My own encounters with Tavernier were relatively few but always enjoyable. I interviewed him just twice: firstly, for Time Out about his 1995 film The Bait (L’Appat), when I had an hour with him and managed to ask just one question, so lengthy was his response; and secondly, years later on the stage at BFI Southbank, after a screening of his marvellous 2016 documentary feature My Journey Through French Cinema. It was perhaps fitting that the last time I saw him in person was at the cinema formerly known as the National Film Theatre, because that had also been the location of my first meeting with Tavernier. It was at a reception held there after a memorial service for Michael Powell in St James’s Piccadilly (Tavernier had been a supporter of the British director’s work for many years). After the service, some of us went over to the NFT for the reception and – hard to believe now, perhaps, but it’s true – after a while I found myself sitting at a table outside the bar, under Waterloo Bridge, with Bertrand Tavernier, Martin Scorsese and my friend David Thompson. David, in his Tavernier obituary for Sight & Sound, has written of his surprise that even Scorsese – no mean cinephile himself, of course, and not prone to taciturnity when among others who like discussing old movies – appeared to be outdone by his French friend’s garrulous erudition at that particular get-together. Needless to say, I shared David’s surprise, and was pleased to be there, mainly listening. 

Apart from the evening at BFI Southbank, the last of my several encounters with Tavernier was in 2009. He was in London and, knowing I had liked his director’s cut of In the Electric Mist, which had recently screened at the Berlin Film Festival, invited me to take tea with him at the house he was staying in. I expected him to want to tell me at length about the problems he’d had with the producer insisting on releasing his own, inferior cut of the film, but as it turned out, after the first few minutes Tavernier asked me if there were any films I’d seen recently that I could recommend. I can’t recall now how I answered, but it eventually led on to an expansive discussion – or, finally, more or less a monologue – about British cinema. Tavernier, who knew considerably more about the byways of British film history and culture than most British critics and historians, easily outdid me on that occasion, as he had Scorsese so many years earlier, but I had no regrets. The talk, again, was mostly terrific.

Still, even more than for his tireless advocacy of his chosen medium, Tavernier should be remembered for his own movies. He was superb with actors, a master of eloquent mise-en-scène and, while he certainly won’t be recalled as an innovator, he was one of the first directors to use Steadicam excitingly and expressively (see Death Watch). Most importantly, perhaps, many of his films feel fresh, quite different from those of most other filmmakers, because they just don’t fit into any particular genre. They’re grown-up films for grown-ups. They’re about life, about people, and not, for all his cinephilia, about movies or movie-moments. I’ve listed a dozen of my personal favourites below (with some regrettable omissions, of course); they’re all well worth watching if you can find them. And do note that the final entry refers not only to the three-hour feature released theatrically but also to the nine-episode TV series broadcast the following year. Magic…

The Watchmaker of St Paul (L’Horloger de St Paul, 1974)

Christine Pascal and Michel Piccoli in

Spoiled Children (Des Enfants gatés, 1977)

Death Watch (La Mort en direct, 1979)

Sunday in the Country (Un Dimanche à la campagne, 1984)

Clean Slate (Coup de torchon, 1981)

’Round Midnight (Autour de minuit, 1986)

Sabine Azéma and Philippe Noiret in

Life and Nothing But (La Vie et rien d’autre, 1989)

These Foolish Things (Daddy Nostalgie, 1990)

It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui, 1999)

Safe Conduct (Laissez-passer, 2001)

Mélanie Thierry and Lambert Wilson in

The Princess of Montpensier (La Princesse de Montpensier, 2010)

My Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage à travers le cinéma français, 2016-17)

Philippe Noiret and Bertrand Tavernier relaxing during the shoot of Clean Slate

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