A life in focus
Director Betrand Tavernier was able to admire both blacklisted directors and those who named names
This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Of the world’s great directors also known for their cinephilia, the foremost are Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Bertrand Tavernier, who died at the end of March, aged 79. But unlike his more famous confrères, Tavernier was also a writer. Indeed, in his native France he has been described as a “graphomane”, which translates as compulsive writer.
He contributed reviews and interviews to Cahiers du cinéma, Positif and Cinéma, especially of American films and directors, and Martin Scorsese has acknowledged that it was Tavernier who spearheaded the critical re-evaluation of the great English director, Michael Powell.
A master of the widescreen format, his style embraced fluid, long takes and striking close-ups
His book Amis Américains is sumptuously illustrated and contains insightful interviews and correspondence with a number of American directors that Tavernier admired: not only well-known names such as John Ford and John Huston, but less feted figures such as Tay Garnett, Edgar G. Ulmer, Henry Hathaway, and Delmer Daves. It is remarkably easy to read, if you have some knowledge of French, and is worth every penny. The book’s postscript (with a title that translates as “My love of cinema has given me a reason to live”) is even available as a separate paperback for £8.27.
Then there was his Trente ans de cinema américain, co-authored with Jean-Pierre Coursodon (1970), which he later expanded to become the two-volume Cinquante ans de cinéma américain in 1991, and republished as 50 ans in 2003. This 1,250-page book contained essays about almost 600 directors and screenwriters. His posthumous legacy will be the publication of 100 ans de cinéma américain.
Born in Lyon, the city that produced the Lumière brothers, Tavernier wanted to be a film director from his early teens when he watched John Ford’s Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and realised that Ford painted with moving images.
He was studying law at the Sorbonne, where he founded his own cinema magazine, L’Etrave, and interviewed the director Jean-Pierre Melville. After finishing his course he went to work for him as an assistant director. Thinking himself inadequate at the job and finding Melville tyrannical, he followed the director’s suggestion to become a press agent instead. In that role he not only promoted the New Wave directors, but also American masters.
His first feature as director, The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974), based on a Georges Simenon novel, won the Prix Louis-Delluc. Among his own 22 features there were swashbucklers, war movies, thrillers, a French police procedural in L.627 that foreshadowed The Wire and Spiral, social issue films, family dramas, black comedies, and even a dystopian science fiction film set in Scotland.
A master of the widescreen format, his style embraced fluid, long takes and striking close-ups, with subtle nuances of tone between drama and comedy. His films can be located within the tradition of poetic realism, but with dissonant, expressionist flourishes.
As Jean Gabin was a touchstone for Jean Renoir, so Philippe Noiret was Tavernier’s choice for six leading roles, starting with his first film. Dirk Bogarde, who starred in Tavernier’s 1990 film Daddy Nostalgie, said that the director understood “every inch, every angle, every technical trick” and that where acting was concerned he “knew how to get the yolk out of your egg”. Bogarde even wrote one of his scenes in that film, which was his last.
He directed three outstanding documentaries on subjects other than cinema: Mississippi Blues (1983), co-directed with Robert Parrish; La Guerre sans nom (1992), about the Algerian War of Independence; and De l’autre côté du périph (1997), about France’s immigration problems.
Just as Scorsese has curated two wonderful documentaries about cinema, A Personal Journey Through American Movies (1995) and My Voyage to Italy (1999), so Tavernier did something similar, though even more magisterial, with My Journey Through French Cinema (2016, 201 minutes) and his nine-part TV series Journeys Through French Cinema (2017, 459 minutes), available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber (in one episode he ingeniously juxtaposes the visual grammar of Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson.)
He always felt the admiration for the New Wave directors was overdone at the expense of other French directors deserving praise, such as Jean Grémillon, Claude Sautet, Henri Decoin, and André Cayatte. Indeed, he was rightly suspicious of classifying directors as belonging to schools or movements, believing that each auteur should be appreciated in and of themself.
Tavernier didn’t fade away, as so many directors do. He died with projects unfinished
In 2019 his Lumière Festival in Lyon featured a retrospective of films by his beloved Cayatte, one of the directors dismissed by Truffaut in a notorious banner-planting Cahiers essay of 1954, which scorned la tradition de qualité (quality tradition) and le cinéma de papa (daddy’s cinema).
A moderate Leftist, Tavernier was a great rehabilitator, able to admire the blacklisted directors and screenwriters and at the same time admire Elia Kazan, who had been “cancelled” (before the term became familiar) for naming names during the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s: “I think America, America [his film about an Anatolian peasant trying to emigrate from Turkey] is a masterpiece and I think that out of his guilt he made some of the best American films.”
Tavernier didn’t fade away, as so many directors do. He never ran out of things to say or do. He died with projects unfinished. There was a proposed film adaptation of a Russell Banks short story, Snowbirds, with Susan Sarandon already cast, and there was another book, European Friends, intended as a complement to Amis Américains.
Tavernier chose as the title of his last published work, Le cinéma dans le sang (Cinema in the Blood). There was no one with such an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema — not even David Thomson — nor with such unbridled passion about it. “He was so passionate,” Scorsese has said, “that he could exhaust you.”
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