Local media hardly acknowledged the death of Bertrand Tavernier but his death severs one of the last links with the golden age of movie enthusiasts - a group for whom attending the Paris Cinémathèques had been the central act of their lives.
Bob Swaim American director of La Balance explained that he went to Paris in the sixties because it was the best place in the world to see movies. Carlos Clarens said the same thing and I found myself falling into step with “The Children of the Cinémathèque” there, frequently the only place in the world where important titles would screen. There was the feeling of being among the last people in the world seeing them, certainly in original thirty five millimeter copies like the breath-catching Way Down East still missing the pieces taken out for the Lillian Gish tour, the 1933 tinted La Tête d’un homme in 1:2 or the four colour 1936 La tendre ennemie printed on stocks that were no longer manufactured, all right speed, right format.
In the sixties, using my Films & Filming connection, I’d shown up for the Paris press preview for the belated release of The Red Badge of Courage, introduced by John Huston in person, and was talking to friends afterwards, when a voice asked in impeccably accented English “Do you know Richard Whitehall?” (who had just published a Delmer Daves career piece in the magazine). It was Bertrand Tavernier.
He made it his business to meet everyone in the enthusiast scene. We did a couple of good lunches. I ran Victor Seastrom’s Under the Red Robe for him (he liked the design aspect) and I watched him mix a reel of L’horloger de St. Paul bubbling with delight at having gotten his first important feature. He provided loving detail on the menu for the meal he had prepared for the leads to eat on screen. When the film came out, I did his first interview in English, for “Film” magazine. Sight and Sound had rejected that one.
L’horloger de St.Paul was a good foundation for a career. The Simenon opening “Your son has killed a man” is an attention getter and the blazing car remains a striking image. Five decades later, his Vingt Heures obit kicked off with that. Philip Noiret had had to beg the producer to let Tavernier direct and he and Jean Rochefort handled the leads in the director’s early films. These were presentable Boulevard features but with 1984’s Un dimanche à la campagne a greater maturity entered. Tavernier himself saw the departure point as the Natalie Baye Une semaine de vacances.
In Dimanche Sabine Azema’s daughter character became one of the cinema’s most memorable, eclipsing Michel Aumont as her stolid bourgeois brother who brings his family to visit aging father Louis Ducreux. She can’t wait to get away. Tavernier took out the underlining scene where Ducreux comments on the event-packed weekend only as “My daughter came to see me.”
Taverier’s English saw him through five features including Round Midnight which transcribed to the jazz scene his time as a publicist promoting Raoul Walsh and John Ford on visits to Paris. In with Dimanche..., La Vie et rien d'autre and Le Capitaine Conan these made him a front runner. The late career association with Philippe Torreton was particularly rewarding. It was a great pleasure to find my own enthusiasm reflected back when using these in screenings.
Few filmmakers ever accumulated a comparable body of work.
Tavernier had been one of the people who had hardly missed a night at the Cinémathèque and this exposure marked his work. It gave him an inexhaustible reserve of material to re-cycle. Choosing instances at random - Michel Aumont’s family traveling second class repeating the “like a lady” incentive offered Odette Joyeux in Douce, the ending of M. Verdoux, where the convicted serial killer is contrasted with the court which condemns him representing a society which has killed thousands in the War. That comes up again with Philippe Noiret and Michel Galabru in Le juge et l’assassin. Compare the scene of Captain Conan reconstructing the events of the combat from the terrain where it was fought with Victor Fleming’s 1931 Renegades where Warner Baxter is told about the battle he missed as they cross its field, indicating where men he knew died. There’s Noiret as the statistician who calculates the time the WW1 dead would take to pass in La vie et rien d’autre.
|Philippe Noiret, Michel Galabru, Le juge et l'assassin|
Now if that wasn’t enough, Tavernier never abandoned his identity as an enthusiast. He fronted a Julien Duvivier-Harry Baur retrospective or screenings of items like of Michael Curtiz’ little known The Strange Love of Molly Louvaine and even made it to Sydney with an impressive season of French WW1 movies to contextualise Le Capitaine Conan. Tavernier was behind an initiative to re-stage La Sortie de l’usine Lumière on its anniversary in its original setting in his Lyons home town, using weather records to establish the time of day. There was hardly a movie documentary that didn’t offer his face fringed with his now white mane of hair, expressing an opinion.
His own 2016 Voyage à travers le cinéma français and the expanded TV series can be considered the most revealing commentary on French film making and we haven’t even touched his published criticism.
It’s an effort to reconcile Tavernier’s senior cinema statesman persona with the twenty year old coming down the Chaillot steps radiating delight in a rediscovered Marcel Herbier but they are both there in his impressive body of work.
Without the ever amiable Bertrand Tavernier as participant and commentator, the cinema will not be the same, even if his films do remain as an imposing memorial.