In his memoirs, he writes of his ambivalence towards the air raids. At first he took shelter, but as the raids became more familiar he began to look at them as spectacle: “I simply adjusted the full length mirror by the window in my room so I could lie in bed and watch the approach of the enemy aircraft, enjoying the pageant of light as it developed in the sky above me. The raids which he describes as ‘a forbidden mystery, a feast of metallic beauty’ seem almost to have amounted to a sort of aesthetic training. Interestingly, the full length mirror allowed him to experience the action at one remove – just as photography would do (1).
– From Ian Jeffrey’s essay on the Japanese photographer Tomatsu Shomei
The idea of voyeurism as a defense from an overwhelming reality, is something that every citizen of the 21st century now understands. The endless, artless video looping of the twin towers recorded a micro-Hiroshima and Nagasaki that unfolded in world consciousness in real time, but the machine buys us time to deal with the reality of instantaneous death. La Mort en Direct. Or Death, Live.
These days we have reality television, virtual reality and the Jean Baudrillard comic book versions, The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) and The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999). But Bertrand Tavernier made a movie on this subject back in 1979, set in the near future, which is to say our vulgar present. In Deathwatch, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) is dying in a world where science has banished the angel of death. Roddy (Harvey Keitel), a television director, has a camera implanted in his eye to secretly record the process of death for an American network.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tavernier is very concerned with the morality of representing certain acts or images. A camera does not give you a “safe conduct”, it demands responsibility. A filmmaker, in his view, can never be vigilant enough:
Roddy is becoming a living camera. I felt a kinship to that. The fear I feel as a director is of two sorts. It sometimes seems that everything you see, you immediately unconsciously transport into terms of filmmaking. That can be very dangerous because you can witness something sad or close to you and suddenly think, my God, that would be great in a film. It’s horrible. I did that a couple of times and felt ashamed. I wrote a line for the movie about the second fear. Roddy’s wife says ‘He understood things only when he was filming them.’ Sometimes I feel I’m only real, I’m only open, only noticing things when I work and not when I live. That is a danger which I think a lot of artists feel (2)
– Bertrand Tavernier on Deathwatch
Secular art creates a space for people to reflect on their lives. It is a parallel universe, which serves the same function as Tomatsu’s mirror. If we are too distracted to notice beauty, too numb to feel pain, if we don’t have mindfulness of our lives, art can give us back a piece of that lost world. That is the seductive power of art. But it can also alienate us from the people we love. In ‘Round Midnight, Francis makes (presumably silent) films of Dale, trying to stay the moment, to savor the music in his head, to the exclusion of everything else.
This phenomenon is not limited to the film era. Art is a kind of savage platonism. The ideal takes no prisoners. An example from the life of Berlioz: a Shakespeare company had come to Paris for the first time, upon the stage the tragedy of Hamlet was enacted; Hugo, Dumas, and Delacroix and Berlioz are in the audience. Though none of them speak English, they are thunderstruck by the experience. Berlioz is infected by an insane passion for Harriet Smithson, the second rate actress who incarnated Ophelia. He pursues her for the better part of five years. He composes the Symphonie Fantastique for her, which is a morbid fantasia of a spurned lover who kills his beloved and is sent to the scaffold. Strangely enough, Miss Smithson at last agrees to marry him. The marriage is a disaster, for having crossed the dreamline, Berlioz finds his ideal all too human, his love sublimated in the Fantastic Symphony, and Harriet Smithson becomes a kind of mad Ophelia.
Lulu (Didier Bezace), a narcotics cop, undergoes a similar experience in L.627 (1992). The film is an unflinching portrait of the daily lives of an urban drug squad. Dysfunction is the name of the game. Swamped in mindless paperwork, we witness the casual racism of the squad. The “body-count” mentality of Dodo, the aptly named leader, leads to pointless suffering. But there is no relief, for the flics live in a sullied world of alcoholism, tenuous camaraderie, and divorce. Lulu, who once applied to film school, moonlights as a wedding videographer. We watch him trying to edit his way into the real world. Watching normal people at the wedding, we know instinctively that this is a world that Lulu can only watch, never fully participate in. But Tavernier blows no trumpets, he passes over this moment, like Wittgenstein, in silence. L.627 is filled with Brechtian moments. Lulu is consumed with his work, he films drug deals, watches them over and over at home. In an eerie moment, Tavernier SHOWS US a junkie falling in stupor, but Lulu, in contrast, points his camera away saying “That, I don’t film.” Tavernier wants to make us accessories after the fact.
“I feel as if I know things better when I film them,” Lulu tells his wife. It’s nearly the same line from Deathwatch. His wife asks why he’s never filmed her. There is a strange charge to the moment, a lovely, weird intimacy between them, that makes us feel like we’ve intruded. He also has a tortured intimate relationship with Cecile, a junkie and a HIV+ prostitute. He needs her for his redemption. She is his Ophelia, if he can get her off the drugs, he can justify his existence to himself, forget the failures. The climax of their relationship is a harrowing scene where Cecile takes off her clothes, her ribs sticking out. She tells him to look at her. Lulu pretends to admire. We are allowed to gaze for a moment, and then Lulu vents his fury and revulsion at what she is forcing him to give. Tavernier is constantly pushing and pulling the boundary of acceptable representation, forcing the audience to move fast, or risk getting lost.
But at the end, Cecile is able to escape her life, for the moment, but Lulu is trapped. Along with her address, he has lost his soul somewhere along the way. Welcome to the Tavernier universe.
Profoundly rooted in a national culture, they refuse all spirit of insularity, serving as proof of an openness of spirit, a curiosity and almost unique breadth of vision…His intentions go beyond everyday naturalism, and lead to an irrational, metaphysical intensity which bears innumerable visions. You don’t follow a plot, you dive into a universe… (3)
– Tavernier on Michael Powell
The experience of plunging into Tavernier’s film-universe is unsettling. You seem to know all the landmarks, are comforted by the apparent naturalism and narrative structure. Then growing more alert, even nervous, begin to notice strange displacements. You begin to barrage yourself with questions: Who’s speaking the voiceover? Aren’t voiceovers bad? Shouldn’t we know more about these characters by now? Is this a political movie? What is he trying to sell?
Tavernier loves and understands the nature of Hollywood’s expressionism more than most of us. Expressionism is a kind of romantic warping of reality, an aesthetic compression of landscape, character and emotion into the dense matter of the story. It is an arranged and violent marriage of few words between the camera and the world. Sometimes out of it a great love is born, but not often.
But there has always been a dissident tradition in the film image. It is more in the manner of a long courtship with the world. It is reverent, mindful, awake, empty. It is the art of Jean Giono, of Chris Marker, Jacques Tati, and Yasujiro Ozu.
Tavernier’s films are both at once, and it is a mark of his characteristic rigour that neither is ever sacrificed to the other. Bertrand Tavernier has never made a movie except by choice, and his restless choices seem like a cunning dance to avoid the traps of genre, formalism, complacency, and fashionable nihilism. Confluence seems to be his supreme aesthetic principle. He aims to be the river rather than the channel.
But he’s no Zen master. Tavernier is a moral filmmaker, politically engaged, an eternal scrapper, a man obsessed with lighting up dark corners of French history. 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 organisations. 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.
Lyon – Inheritances
Lumière had his first studio in Lyon. It is the birthplace of film. René Tavernier’s journal of resistance and culture was called Confluences, and was born where the Saone and the Rhone flow together. Bertrand Tavernier too was born in Lyon, on April 25, 1941. Thus, Confluence is a theme in his life and work. During the war, the Tavernier home was a refuge and a salon for the anti-Vichy intelligentsia. Louis Aragon spent a few months in hiding there. Tavernier père, the writer and poet, fought a number of skirmishes with the Vichy censors, but managed to publish one of the few aboveground independent wartime journals in France. In 1946, the Taverniers moved to Paris, but for Bertrand, Lyon would remain a much loved touchstone, which he would return again and again.
An Attack of Cinema
Paris after the war meant one thing for Bertrand: the Cinema. He haunted the long gone cinemas, the Studio Obligado, the Pathé Cinema, and the California. At the age of fourteen he had already decided to direct films. His favorite film: The Wake of the Red Witch (Edward Ludwig, 1948). In a scrapbook he kept a kind of cine-diary, of pasted photos, comments, and carefully underlined, the names of the first directors that struck his consciousness, Bill Wellman, Henry Hathaway, and John Ford. With his lycée buddy, Volker Schlörndorff, who had a job writing subtitles for German films at a theatre on the rue d’Ulm, Tavernier saw everything he could see.
How not to direct movies: Melville
Of course, he went to the Cinémathèque instead of preparing for his law exams. With a couple of friends he founded his own cinema magazine, L’Etrave, and the cine-club Le Nickel-Odeon. Exasperated, his parents demanded he pay rent. He needed a job fast. Impressed by Bob Le Flambeur, he interviewed Jean-Pierre Melville, who was impressed by the young film fanatic, and gave Bertrand a job as assistant director on Léon Morin, Pretre. Melville was the archetype of the director who thrives on chaos and discord. One day, Bertrand, impressed by Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), told Melville he should see it himself. The next day, Melville, who hated the film (or pretended to), called the crew together and with imperial hauteur ordered them not to speak to the hapless Bertrand for three days. Tavernier, caught in the middle of psychological warfare, called himself the worst assistant director in the history of cinema and offered to quit. Melville, having none of it, gave him a job as press agent, on his next film, Le Doulos (1962), and unsolicited, went to his parents to persuade them to allow their son to continue in the film business. Now it’s hard to find a pure soul who’s not in the film business, but then…
A Long Apprenticeship
Upon the recommendation of Melville, Tavernier went to work as a press agent for the legendary producer, Georges de Beauregard. Bertrand hawked tirelessly for the New Wave: Cleo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1961) , Adieu Philippine (Jacques Rozier, 1963), Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), La 317ème section (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1965), Les Carabiniers (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), L’Oeil du Malin (Claude Chabrol, 1962)…
He had a front seat at every stage of the productions: he watched the shoot, the cutting, and talked shop with the directors. It was better than film school. He wrote pieces and interviewed for all the film magazines, including Positif, Combat and Cahiers du cinéma during Rohmer’s reign. With Pierre Rissient, he went freelance as a press agent, fighting for films and directors he believed in. Losey, Fuller, Claude Sautet, Chabrol, as well as the old lions, who were starting to be forgotten in their home countries, Ford, Walsh, Hawks, Powell. New talents like John Boorman, Ken Loach, Robert Altman, and Alain Tanner were introduced to French audiences by Tavernier and Rissient. De Beauregard gave him his first break. He made two short anthology thrillers, Le Baiser de Judas and Une Chance explosive. Tavernier dislikes these films intensely.
He then wrote screenplays for a few films in the late 1960s, and adapted Stevenson’s “The Beach at Falesa”, and talked Jacques Brel and James Mason into starring, but no one was willing to take a chance on the neophyte director. Riccardo Freda introduced Tavernier to Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who had written a draft of a Simenon novel “The Clockmaker of Everton”. Tavernier was interested.
Five Proto-Tavernier Films
Five films that Bertrand Tavernier would have to make if they did not exist already:
Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
The Edge of the World (Michael Powell, 1937)
The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
Un Grand amour de Beethoven (Abel Gance, 1936)
The Films He Made Instead
Tavernier rewards skeptical voyeurism. The more films you see, the more you have to see. The more you watch, the more the films open up. With Tavernier, each film acquires a dialectic charge from the last. His films are experimental, part of an ongoing search in the name of a personal and poetic realism. The films fall into three movements:
Cleaning the Slate: First Movement (1973–1981)
The Clockmaker / Que la fête commence… / The Judge and The Assassin / Deathwatch / A Week’s Holiday / Clean Slate
Tavernier’s first seven films are widely diverse in subject and theme. In the Aurenche period, protagonists are “apparently” more isolated, less supported, foregrounded, drawn against the background rather than integrated organically into the background. The light shines on them more than on others. Storytelling is slightly more traditional. The period ends with the shock of Clean Slate, which Tavernier made as a deliberate affront to his growing reputation as a noble “humanist” filmmaker.
“Was I good…?” Second Movement (1982–1994)
Sunday in the Country / ‘Round Midnight / The Passion of Beatrice / Life and Nothing But / Daddy Nostalgie / L.627 / D’Artagnan’s Daughter
Starting with Sunday in the Country, which would bring him international acclaim, Tavernier’s storytelling becomes darker. We are faced with characters who are pulling the meaning of their lives out of abysses of doubt. They doubt that they have the energy to go on. No matter what the surface of the film, the subtext is always: “Was I good?” Dexter Gordon’s impish smile hides the pain and the doubt that mars his Last Hurrah. No one can die for you. No one can live for you. That is what these characters keep saying to themselves. On the other hand, the social or familial context of the characters is growing more crucial, the lines between foreground and background are dissolving. This period ends with a seeming departure for Tavernier, with D’Artagnan’s Daughter, an underrated genre film that was prepared by the legendary cape and sword director Riccardo Freda, but which unavoidably became a deeply personal film.
“Faire Face – Face Up” – Third Movement (1995–Present)
The Bait / Captain Conan / It All Starts Today / Safe Conduct
In the recent period, Tavernier turns to people in their own generation, either fighting or succumbing to insane, dehumanising systems. They are assailed from all sides. Societal microcosms make unanswerable demands: hypercapitalism, the nightmarish occupation, a wrecked educational system, the pathologies of wartime. The center cannot hold, even for a moment, and the moral confusion that marks a film like Clean Slate is now rampant. The “invisible” systemic violence can only be answered by resistance, but what form should it take? Like Aurenche’s girl says in Safe Conduct (2002), she likes the characters because they face up, no matter what.
WHAT MAKES A TAVERNIER FILM?
The Tavernier Montage
Montage in Tavernier is a direct shot of the stuff of life. A transfusion of reality. This is very clever and original. He’s using a classic device of expressionism, and subverting it, to enlist it for a deeper kind of naturalism. It gives his films other dimensions, the artful illusion of the longeurs that make up daily life.
Tavernier and Scope
Where most filmmakers are irritated by the “extra space” or the flatness of the image, Tavernier delights in cinemascope. As for Ichikawa, widescreen was a godsend. They both favor alienated protagonists navigating highly social milieus. Tavernier likes to pack a crowd into the long frame. Widescreen allows Tavernier to better emphasise his characters’ loneliness in a fluxing, real time tableau. You must now search out the people in the frame, which renders their isolation truer, more vivid. The most radical example of this is his use of widescreen in Daddy Nostalgie (1990), which is a chamber piece for three characters, a drama of distances and shifting allegiances. Whether they fight or connect, Caro, Miche and Daddy have nowhere to hide. Conversely, Tavernier is ill at ease with his back to the wall. He suffers from artistic claustrophobia. Cramped urban spaces limit his options, the tyranny of the narrative closes in around him, the options dwindle.
In movies you see people start to eat, a fade and then the meal is over and the “real” event begins. In Tavernier, the meal is a communist/catholic symbol, of the rituals of life, and of the bonds between people. The meal transubstantiates tensions among a variety of characters, and functions as a kind of tabula rasa that takes us away from the bipolar drama of the two-shot.
Tavernier and History
No one does period better than Tavernier. Everything else is a pale joke, a badly glued moustache, stilted expositional dialogue, and antique furniture. To watch his films is to lift the gauze film from your eyes, to smash the wobbly proscenium of the historic. There is only now, the moment we are experiencing.
What is the nature of anachronism? What makes a film like Gangs of New York seem utterly phony? Leaving aside the well intentioned Cinecitta production design, the howlingly bad dialogue, it still seems like a Victor Mature bible picture. Period movies try too hard to seem relevant, fresh, etc. It’s the kiss of death.
In order to render a historical reality, the audience must first be alienated; we need to believe that we are nothing like these people. There is no shortcut to period, detail must accumulate slowly, the way one furnishes one’s own house. Flaubert said a character needed three strokes to come to life. Certain items must acquire a dramatic reality, a weight. Irene’s car in Sunday in the Country is clearly a novelty, but its arrival shapes the story as much as Irene herself. And the Vierge in The Passion of Beatrice, with its pagan crudity, tells us more about the harsh light of God in those times than ten thousand pages of dialogue. The Vierge is not a piece of decoration; it is a character.
The Two Phillippes
Tavernier has been instrumental in the careers of two crucial French actors of the last 30 years: Phillippe Noiret and Phillippe Torreton. He has made six films with Noiret. In France, to say their names together is to say Herzog and Kinski. There is even a DVD box set of their collaboration. Noiret’s generous early faith in Tavernier gave him the confidence to pull off what is, for me, one of the great debut features. In turn, Tavernier offered Noiret “dangerous” roles and the freedom to execute them. Tavernier speaks of Noiret as his autobiographical actor par excellence. They are some sort of hybrid; Though Tavernier is quite eloquent either in French or English, Noiret’s Michel Descombes and Dellaplane articulate Tavernier’s slow burn of outrage, perhaps better than he does himself.
Tavernier discovered Phillipe Torreton on the stage of the Comedie Française. At the time, he had no film experience. Small but crucial roles in L.627 and The Bait led Tavernier to cast him in the lead of Captain Conan, for which Torreton won a César for his force of nature performance. And smashing the mold immediately after, Tavernier destroyed the archetype they had made by casting Torreton as a kindergarten teacher whose everyday strength is no match for the crescendo of petty defeats he must face.
The Essential Films
The Clockmaker (1973). One of the great feature debut films. Focusing with Dostoyevskian intensity on a simple man, Michel Descombes, whose world is turned upside down by his son’s arrest for murder. A portrait of a kind of heedless love that seems to indicate the mystery of God’s love. Related Films: A Week’s Holiday (1980).
Clean Slate (1981). The other Tavernier. Based on a Jim Thompson novel. Africa. 1938. The French colony of Bourkassa, or is it hell on earth? The local sheriff starts preaching salvation through the barrel of his gun. Robert Bresson meets Sam Fuller. Existential despair can be funny.
Sunday in the Country (more detailed analysis below)
The Passion of Beatrice (1987). Tavernier’s darkest, most psychotic film. Imagine a post feminist Searchers, but with Martin Pawley running around in a dress, and Debbie hunting Ethan Edwards with a knife, forcing him to acknowledge his and her savage patrimony.
Life and Nothing But (1989). 1920. The War to End All Wars is over. It is one man’s job, his obsessive mission, to identify the dead. He cannot allow himself to feel a thing until the dead are at peace. Love is a particular danger to a man like that.
D’Artagnan’s Daughter (1994). Another drama of paternity. The comic sword and cape companion to The Passion of Beatrice. Tavernier’s most openly “Fordian” film, strongly reminiscent of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The pathos of old comrades facing a quiet death. D’Artagnan (Noiret) must acknowledge his daughter (Sophie Marceau) as his heir both in wit and swordsmanship.
Capitaine Conan (1996). Bulgaria 1920. A French unit fights a dirty war no one cares about. Their leader, Conan, is a savage with a genius for guerrilla warfare. But when the action is over, these killing machines are still deadly. A parable about the decommissioning of men.
On one occasion, on describing to him a terrible family tragedy of which I had been a witness, Conrad became visibly ill-humored and at last cried out with exasperation: “Nothing of that kind has ever come my way! I have spent my life knocking about on ships, only getting ashore between voyages. I know nothing. Nothing except from the outside. I have to guess at everything” (4).
– From Gerard Jean-Aubry’s life of Joseph Conrad
If being at sea is an apt description for fiction, then for Bertrand Tavernier, making documentaries is his time in port. He is re-energised by his documentaries. After Clean Slate, he discovered a need to pay homage to life before returning to storytelling. Movies have a vicious way of distorting reality, so periodically it is necessary to be instructed by life, rather than to be forced, like Conrad, to guess at it.
I need a sense of adventure when making a film, I need a break from everyday life. Fictional characters are so invasive that I need to do documentaries to take a break, to return to reality. Making a film is taking a trip and never coming home (5)
– Bertrand Tavernier
When Tavernier began to make documentaries, it altered the nature of his fictions. Ford and Stevens came back from the horror of the war with a stronger resolution to engage, to develop, to strip away the unnecessary. The same is true with Tavernier. All the films, both fiction and nonfiction, interlace to an astounding degree. You could almost call the structure symphonic.
A Symphony: Sunday in the Country – Daddy Nostalgie – ‘Round Midnight
Three old men see their death approaching. Three gymnopedies of autumn. The melody is similar, but developed with striking, subtle differences.
The novel Sunday in the Country was Pierre Bost’s meditation on the road not taken. The famous subject of Truffaut’s attack on the old cinema probably agreed with the young jackal. And Truffaut wound up even more conservative and nostalgic than the courtly Bost. A solid and mutual irony.
He was an extraordinarily humble man, but I think the book was very autobiographical. He saw himself as a novelist and playwright, who despite several successes — plays produced by Jouvet, and discovering Queneau, Giono, Marcel Aymé — was not really successful overall. Out of a certain puritanical modesty, he chooses to depict himself and his appearance in a comic light…I feel he saw himself as having missed out on a movement. I don’t know if he would have been capable of joining if he tried (6)
– Tavernier on Bost
M. L’Admiral (Louis Ducreux) is a classical painter, decorated, dedicated to painting coin d’atelier, a specialist in corners, into which he has ably painted himself. It is 1912, as Cezanne is giving way to Picasso and Duchamp, and in the full bloom of spring, M. L’Admiral feels a hand of death reaching for him. He is wondering if he should have joined the prior avant-garde. The proper subject of comedy, you might say. But Tavernier sustains a tone of pathos throughout the film, while hermetically sealing out any thought of the apocalypse of 1914. In this film, it is life and not death that is threatening the battlements of his heart. The painter needs his children around him; the house is haunted by his wife, an intensely practical woman whose voice serves as a leitmotif for the film: “Irene, when will you stop asking so much of life..?”
Tavernier has said that the real subject of this “satire of circumstance” is his own Father, René Tavernier, who had perhaps played it safe in a similar way.
Irene, his daughter, arrives, seemingly like a breath of fresh air. The film, for many international audiences seemed quintessentially French; “Ah, dejeuner sur l’herbe, the Fauré score, jolly good.” Amelie circa 1984. It is possible to read this film in a perfectly stupid way. It goes like this: has-been artist is shaken up by his free-spirited daughter, and discovers the resolve to try something new. But the Taverniers (Colo (7) wrote the script) introduce a few Chekhovian complications.
The “life loving” favourite daughter (Sabine Azema) is in fact morbidly obsessed with death. She is superstitiously convinced that her niece will die an early death. When Mireille gets stuck up in a tree, Irene is paralysed. The look of foreboding on Sabine Azema’s face is almost funny. It is the stolid Gonzague (Michel Aumont) who must rescue her. When Mireille is rescued, she rejects her mother for the comforts of her aunt, who is in no position to offer much help.
Gonzague, the good dutiful son, too has a vision, of his father’s death. He turns away and puts on the dead man’s hat. He is painfully self conscious of M. L’Admiral’s apparent frailty and his half jokes about death. During the siesta, Gonzague tells his sleeping wife that he himself wasn’t a bad painter. Gonzague, who has feared disappointing his father his whole life, has strangled his nature into that of a colonial businessman, who indeed gives the old man little pleasure. He would have liked to go to the colonies, but his wife forbids. Like father, like son.
Irene is also a bit of a mooch, her “independent woman” persona compromised by her relentless search for items to sell in her shop. Gonzague’s “Fordian” stare at his sister speaks a smoldering resentment. He is Cain to her Abel. She is hysterically clutched in the “romance” of an affair, also thoughtless and sentimental in a way that would be incomprehensible to M. L’Admiral. After promising to take the whole family back to Paris in her car, to extend the day together, she gets the lover’s phone call summoning her back. She drops everything and is gone, leaving of a whirlwind in her wake. M. L’Admiral is clearly hurt, he loses his temper with the boys, who he has previously indulged. A pall has been cast over the rest of the day.
He returns from the train station, alone. The corner of the atelier is wrecked, the still life disturbed by Irene’s covetousness. Such is the swath that Irene has torn in his heart. M. L’Admiral abandons the painting and faces perhaps for the last time a bitterly white, blank canvas. It is an ending of profound ambiguity. What does he see there? All the paintings he might have painted? A painting with some real life? Or just the relentless approach of death.
Daddy Nostalgie bookends Sunday in the Country. Daddy (Dirk Bogarde) is a kind of Life Artist. The ever-elusive bon vivant, the life of the party is dying at last. And like a fox, he doesn’t want to be caught, not in the trap of love or death. He snaps out of a doze, as death has brushed him by. “Is it cold?” he asks, his eyes bulging with fear. His daughter Caro (Jane Birkin) has some vague idea that she can save him, keep him alive. She does this by indulging him in a marathon of nostalgia, which dredges up conflict in her because it forces a gap between her humdrum experience of abandonment, and her father’s exotic narcissism. To live in Daddy’s world, in the ideology of this family, is really to live. The real world is pain, and death.
Daddy’s long suffering wife Miche seems to have hardened into a rock that he periodically ties up to. When Caro tells Miche to talk to Daddy about the past, to give him pleasure, she refuses because “it would bring me pain.” Odette Laure’s performance is a tour de force. She is at once an Olive Carey, an old battleaxe, a titanic crone with her daily Coca-colas, and yet at the same time, we can see her as someone who might have held Daddy in her thrall for a long while. But the facade is shattering, her apparent refusal to live in Daddy’s world is a carefully constructed lie. She is as vulnerable to him as Caro is.
Caro confronts her father, and wins a concession, a moment of connection. Hard work for so little return. But Caro has stayed too long already, she knows she’s leaving Daddy’s world for the last time. Daddy leaves a message, struggling to speak his love. Soon after, he is dead. Because of a transit strike, Caro cannot leave till morning, and she walks around the city, lost in thought. The implied spell is broken, she must now turn to her mother.
‘Round Midnight (1986) is the same melody in blues. Again, people seemed to take it as a sentimental exercise in jazz nostalgia. Jazzman Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) flees to Paris, hoping to shake the death trip his life has become. Over in New York, Dale has heard the funereal theme, it is up to him to compose the final improvisation. Some grace notes: An obsessed French fan, his daughter Berangere, an old flame Darcey Leigh, and his estranged daughter Chan. Dale, drug and booze dependent, has sewn these people into his life, with a vital force; Francis Borier (François Cluzet) has become the devoted gatekeeper, pulling him out of bars and hospitals, getting him to gigs. Midwived by Francis, a final autumnal blaze comes out of Dale’s horn. He records. The arc of a sentimental fable.
Francis has sacrificed everything for his idol. There is something utterly frightening about his devotion. Francis is making a new family, of which Dale, not Berangere is the center. His daughter, as lonely as Caro ever was, waits alone in their tiny apartment. Like a haze, there is the implication that his Algerian service is at the root of his alienation from his wife and child. Dale is a convenient “out” for him. Dale is also a mirror, having sacrificed his own daughter, Chan, somewhere along the way. Tavernier deconstructs the acolyte along with the “hero”. Francis invites Dale to his parents in Lyon, another meal scene where a crucial balance shifts. It is Berangere’s birthday and her doting grandparents have made her a cake. Berangere makes a wish, but immediately notices that Dale has drawn into himself, desolate. Berangere, wanting to sweeten things for Dale, gets a piece of cake with a lit candle. Dale must now make a wish. And he teeters, dazed. “…a wish?” he says, puzzled. He cannot reveal it, but his wish is to die.
By returning to New York and playing Chan’s song for his daughter, Dale is able to release the reluctant Francis back to his life. He does not allow Francis to follow the full trajectory of death, to get the full taste of it in his mouth. The tragic hero has done his job, laid down his life for another’s.
The War without Name: Tavernier vs. the Critics
Safe Conduct, Tavernier’s most recent feature, is the story of Continental Films, the German company that made films in French, for French audiences, during the occupation. His revisionist take was meant to fill a mysterious ellipse in the history of French film. Continental’s films were not crude propaganda, and in fact, Joseph Goebbels worried that the output of the French company was shaming official National Socialist cinema. Thus the filmmakers at Continental were forced to work miracles with increasingly dwindling resources. Tavernier has said that the film was motivated by his own question: What would he have done in a parallel situation? In his examination of the meaning of resistance, Tavernier actively draws parallels between the plight of French cinema then and now. Faced with the homogenisation of Hollywood’s neo-Stalinist model, how must a country with a rich and independent film history resist the violence of blockbuster cultural trends?
In France, this is not an academic or theoretical matter. The arguments are close and bloody. Tavernier’s long mutual association with Positif has found him on the barricades on more than a few occasions. Most recently of course, there has been the infamous “Affaire Leconte”, a battle royal between members of the director’s guild and the country’s film critics.
Back in 1999, prompted by a fiery letter written by Patrice Leconte, the French director’s guild (Association de Regisseurs Producteurs) gathered to discuss the state of criticism in France. Tavernier was instrumental in producing a draft document, a kind of wish list, which was passed around, and added to. It was a work in progress. Due to either error or schism in the guild, it was leaked in its most corrosive form to the media outlets, who pounced like hyenas on the most self-evidently ridiculous of the ideas. The ARP asked for a temporal kind of self-censorship, proposing that no negative reviews of a film appear before Wednesday, and also expressed the wish that they hold them until after the weekend, to let the market decide. The idea is dangerously muddled, but it seems the directors wanted to, in effect, extend the Exception Culturelle to the field of criticism. The directors were issuing a frustrated reminder that they and the critics are in fact on the same side in the culture wars. This was extremely naive, as the resulting firestorm was to prove.
Michel Ciment of Positif has called the trio of Le Monde, Liberation, and Cahiers “the Bermuda Triangle” (8) for French films. He rails against the tendency of these journals’ critics to rely on the soundbite, the cruel riposte, and pretentious pseudoscientific jargon exhumed from their Lyotards. The tendency in the world of theory is that the critical experience is more important than the “text” itself. This is not criticism, it is narcissism. The critic is today’s auteur; the filmmaker is just the serf who raised the money to make the film–object.
The brawl between the filmmakers and the critics in France has been simplified into good reviews vs bad reviews. The critics had a field day: commercial filmmakers were rebuked as spoiled children who, after years of state dependency, cannot handle a little constructive criticism. They need to wake up to the real world. They cannot hide forever behind the “Exception Culturelle”, which offers a measure of economic protection from the predatory Hollywood blockbuster.
For their part, French directors talk of having their films “assassinated” on Wednesday, the day Le Monde‘s saturation coverage appears (in France, films are generally released on Wednesday). In a series of interviews and letters, Tavernier issued an impassioned attack on the state of film criticism in France. He accused critics, lost between the savage tastes of the public and their own self importance, of employing a cynical triple standard, giving a free pass to virtually all the Hollywood blockbusters, championing marginalised filmmakers from around the world, while ignoring or dismissing French commercial cinema.
Speaking from personal experience of a producer of his own and others’ films, Tavernier explained how the tremendous pressure to globalise the European film industry was making film financing ever more volatile. Hand in glove with the French culture of anti-Americanism is its opposite; the blind worship of America’s anarchic energy. In The Bait Tavernier has the teen killers mouth the lines from DePalma’s Scarface like it’s the gospel. For Tavernier, Nihilism has now surpassed all else as the United States chief export, and it seems everybody in the chain, from the cinemagoer in his seat, to the boardrooms of Vivendi and Le Monde, is buying.
Tavernier’s ultimate response was to make Safe Conduct (9). This rich film focuses on the filmmakers who made films for the German company Continental Films, their complex web of motivations and is of necessity laced with historic ironies. Many of these men and women suffered greatly during the epuration, the orgy of accusation and revenge following the war. Each had his reasons for working at Continental. Jean Devaivre, an active resistant, reluctantly joins Continental for a safe-conduct, the pass that will allow him freedom of movement during the occupation. The safe conduct cannot ultimately guarantee his safety or that of his loved ones. Tavernier suggests that there is always a middle path to resistance, and that men like Devaivre exemplify it. Eventually Devaivre had to flee to the maquis. That the ambiguity of his stance was ultimately not sustainable is not lost on Tavernier, whose position as an artist in France has been the same kind of deliberate tightrope walk.
I hope that I have begun to make a solid case for the importance of Bertrand Tavernier. His narratively subversive films are deceptively user friendly. But their nature is elusive; the films are likely to explode in your face and, as Tavernier said of Powell, when they do, they bear innumerable visions.
The Clockmaker (The Watchmaker of St. Paul / L’Horloger de Saint-Paul) (1973) written by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost with Tavernier
Que la fête commence… (1974) Written by Jean Aurenche and Tavernier
The Judge and The Assassin (Le Juge et l’assassin) (1976) written by Jean Aurenche with Tavernier
Spoiled Children (Des enfants gates) (1977) written by Christine Pascal and Charlotte Dubreuil with Tavernier
Deathwatch (La Mort en direct) (1980) written by David Rayfiel with Tavernier
A Week’s Holiday (Une semaine de vacances) (1980) written by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan and Marie-France Hans, with Tavernier
Clean Slate (Coup de torchon) (1981) written by Jean Aurenche with Tavernier
Mississippi Blues (1983) documentary codirected with Robert Parrish. [Tavernier and Parrish intended to go to Oxford Mississippi to make a film on Faulkner, but somewhere along the line it became a meditation on the south and blues music. Also known as Pays d’octobre (longer Version) (1984)]
Ciné citron (1983) documentary
La 8ème génération (1983) documentary
Sunday in the Country (Un Dimanche à la campagne)(1984) written by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan with Tavernier
‘Round Midnight (Autour de Minuit) (1986) written by David Rayfiel with Tavernier
The Passion of Beatrice (La Passion de Béatrice) (1987) written by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan with Tavernier
Life and Nothing But (La Vie et rien d’autre) (1989) written by Tavernier and Jean Cosmos
Daddy Nostalgie (1990) written by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan with BT
La Guerre sans nom (The Undeclared War) (1992) documentary [Interviews with conscripts from the town of Grenoble, who fought themselves fighting a savage war without precedent in Algeria. Ken Loach, with tongue in cheek, called this film the best film on Northern Ireland.]
L.627 (1992) written by Tavernier and Michel Alexandre
D’Artagnan’s Daughter (La Fille d’Artagnan) (1994) written by Jean Cosmos and Michel Leviant with Tavernier
The Bait (L’Appât) (1995) written by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan with Tavernier
Captain Conan (Capitaine Conan) (1996) written by Tavernier and Jean Cosmos
It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui) (1999) written by Tiffany Tavernier and Dominique Sampiero with Tavernier
Histoires de vies brisées: les ‘double peine’ de Lyon (2001) documentary [A film on immigrants convicted of crimes who served their terms only to be deported upon release.]
Safe Conduct (Laissez-passer) (2002) written by Tavernier and Jean Cosmos
Holy Lola (2004)
Philippe Soupault (Philippe Soupault et le surréalisme) (1982) written with Jean Aurenche
Lyon, le regard intérieur (Lyon, Inside Out)(1988) [A personal journey into the secret heart of Lyon, with, Rene Tavernier as guide.]
De l’autre côté du périph (The Other Side of the Tracks) (1998)
Les Enfants de Thiès (2001)
“Le Baiser de Judas” (1963) episode 2 from Les Baisers [Two short films made for Georges de Beauregard. Tavernier felt that these films were slavish imitations of American thrillers.]
“Une Chance Explosive” (1964) segment from La Chance et l’amour
Contre l’oubli (Against Oblivion) (Aung San Suu Kyi segment) (1991) [A film for Amnesty International.]
Lumières sur un Massacre – La Lettre (1997) television [One of ten segments of a film against anti-personnel mines. Sandrine Bonnaire reads a letter describing the effects of a mine on its victim.]
Writings on Tavernier:
Sergio Arecco, Bertrand Tavernier
Danièle Bion, Bertrand Tavernier, Cinéaste de L’émotion, Editions Hatier, 1984.
Dirk Bogarde, A Short Walk From Harrods. Penguin, London, 1992. [Bogarde’s diary on Daddy Nostalgia.]
John Boorman and Walter Donohoe (eds), Projections 2: A Forum for Filmmakers, Faber and Faber, 1992.
John Boorman and Walter Donohoe (eds), Projections 9: A Forum for Filmmakers, 1999. [Michel Ciment’s interview with Tavernier on Sunday in the Country.]
Lydia Bundtzen, “Interview with Tavernier on ‘Round Midnight”, Film Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 3, Spring 1987.
Jean-Luc Douin, Bertrand Tavernier, Biography, Editions Ramsey, 1997.
Stephen Hay, Bertrand Tavernier, The Filmmaker of Lyon, 2002. [Good film buff book on Tavernier's films. Concentrates on his directing style.]
Kerstin Mehle, Blickstrategien im Kino von Bertrand Tavernier
Jean-Claude Raspiengeas, Bertrand Tavernier, Editions Broché.
Emily Zants, Bertrand Tavernier, 2003. [A more theoretical and analytical investigation of Tavernier's narrative “strategies”.]
Writings by Tavernier:
Henri Agel, (ed.), Le Western, Etudes cinématographiques no. 12–13. Collected by Henri Agel, Tavernier wrote pieces on the Western Serials, Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar, Véra Cruz, The Last Hunt, and River of No Return.
Bernard Eisenschitz (ed.), Humphrey Bogart, Editions Eric Losfeld, 1967. [Tavernier wrote on San Quentin, Crime School, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Deadline USA, Battle Circus, Beat the Devil, The Caine Mutiny, and The Harder They Fall.]
Edmond T. Greville, 35 ans dans la jungle du cinéma, Editions Actes Sud / L’Institut Lumière. [Tavernier wrote preface.]
Michael Powell, Une vie dans le cinéma, Editions Actes Sud / L’Institut Lumière. [Tavernier wrote preface to French edition of Powell memoir.]
Patrick Rotman and Bertrand Tavernier, La Guerre sans nom : Les appelés d’Algérie (1954-1962) [Interviews with the conscripts of La Guerre sans nom.]
Bertrand Tavernier, Amis américains, entretiens avec les grands auteurs d’Hollywood, Editions Actes Sud / L’Institut Lumière. [Tavernier's collected 1960s interviews with Hollywood directors.]
Bertrand Tavernier, Qu’est-ce qu’on attend? Editions du Seuil. [Tavernier’s film journal from the shoot of L.627.]
Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon, 30 ans de cinéma américain, Editions Omnibus, 1970.
Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon, 50 ans de cinéma américain, Editions Omnibus, 1995.
Le Western, 10–18 Editions Tel-Gallimard, 1966, reissued 1993. [Tavernier wrote pieces or entries on Richard Bartlett, Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, Allan Dwan, Burt Kennedy, Henry King, George Sherman and Raoul Walsh.]
Jeux d’auteurs, mots d’acteurs, (Authors’ Games, Actors’ Words), Editions Actes-Sud / Institut Lumière. [A survey of French screenwriters 1930 to 1945. Tavernier wrote the entry on Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost.]
Tavernier’s own site. French only. Click on the Bears for the different sections. Contains a biography, filmography for both the director and Little Bear Productions, a little online store, links, and some reflections by Tavernier.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
The Critical Exception
Cinemascope interview with Jean-Michel Frodon, where he explains his side of the story.
The website of “L’Institut Lumière”. French only. Tavernier is the president of the film culture preservation organization.
Tavernier talks about Safe Conduct.
Another Guardian Story on the Safe Conduct controversy.
An interview with Bertrand Tavernier
1999 Richard Phillips Interview with Tavernier at the Sydney Film Festival focusing on Ca Commence aujourd’hui.
Click here to search for Bertrand Tavernier DVDs, videos and books at
- Ian Jeffrey (ed. and intro.), Shomei Tomatsu, Phaidon 55, Phaidon Press Inc., 2001. Tomatsu is Japan’s greatest postwar photographer. His strange symbolic koan-photographs are the kind of snaps the Buddha would take on a vacation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- Judy Stone, Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, Silman-James Press, 1997. Tavernier interviewed around the time of Deathwatch.
- Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon, 50 ans de cinéma américain, Editions Omnibus, 1995. From their entry on Powell and the Archers.
- Gerard Jean-Aubry, The Sea-Dreamer: a Definitive Biography of Joseph Conrad, London, G. Allen & Unwin, 1957.
- John Boorman and Walter Donohoe (eds.), Projections 9: A Forum for Filmmakers, Faber and Faber, 1999. Michel Ciment’s Interview with Tavernier on Sunday in the Country.
- The screenwriter Colo Tavernier O’Hagan is Tavernier ex-wife, a frequent and valued collaborator. Their children, Tiffany and Nils, have appeared in many of their films. Nils, now a director, was given crucial roles in L.627 and La Passion de Beatrice. Tiffany cowrote the scenario to Ca Commence Aujourd’hui and is a novelist.
- From Ecran Noir <http://www.ecrannoir.fr/dossiers/critique/ciment.htm>. Mathilde Lorit interviews Michel Ciment of Positif on the state of cinema criticism. Originally published in the Nouvel Observateur.
- Safe Conduct kicked up some dust over in France. The film was somewhat perversely viewed as a back-to-the-future style attack on the New Wave. Tavernier was quick to point out that there were no New Wave figures portrayed for ill or good, anywhere in the film. It did no good. At the same time, Tavernier had a public falling out with the real Jean Devaivre, who demanded a pile of argent, implausibly claiming that he believed that his reminiscences were for a documentary, not a feature film. It is of course possible, that as an ex-ace press agent, Tavernier is manipulating these disputes for the sake of generating extra heat for his films. If that is the case, we should be doubly impressed.