Bertrand Tavernier Appreciation: In French Film Maven, American Cinema Found One of Its Greatest Champions

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Peter Debruge
·7 min read
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As a critic committed to maintaining a certain professional distance with those whose work I might review, I don’t often play the fan in the presence of filmmakers. But with French director Bertrand Tavernier — who passed away at the age of 79 on Thursday — I made an exception.

Knowing that Tavernier would be attending the Cannes Film Festival, as always, I once stuffed my suitcase with his “50 Years of American Cinema” — a two-volume, 1,247-page encyclopedia of classic film history — then lugged it to his hotel so that this éminence grise might sign it. The book, like Tavernier’s even heavier but more personable “Amis Américains” (a massive collection of interviews with his favorite Hollywood artists, not all of whom are remembered or respected by the establishment), serves as proof that, apart from Martin Scorsese perhaps, the great authority on American cinema is in fact a Frenchman.

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Like Scorsese, Tavernier’s “day job” was as a director. He worked for decades, but the best among them are arguably “Coup de Torchon” (1981), about the slow-motion implosion of a colonial police chief, and 1986’s “Round Midnight,” in which an alcoholic American sax player relocates to Paris (featuring a cameo by none other than Scorsese, as it happens). But it was his staggering sense of film history that has always impressed me, since Tavernier made a second career of sharing that knowledge with the world. In a way, the role of champion was actually his original calling, since Tavernier started — as so many French filmmakers have — covering the industry as a reporter and critic.

It was on that beat that Tavernier met and interviewed the great Jean-Pierre Melville, a belligerent but gifted outsider who offered the aspiring helmer his first film-industry job, as an assistant. Tavernier talks about his memories of that time in one of the extras on Criterion’s “Le Doulos” DVD, and while I can’t be certain of this, it sure sounds as if Melville was molding the young film fan in his own image, and that he may be responsible for seeding Tavernier’s own interest in Hollywood (though it’s just as likely that this shared fascination explains why they clicked in the first place). Melville was obsessed with American cinema and American culture: He wore a Stetson hat and drove a Cadillac convertible, and he devoured Hollywood movies, dragging along his young acolytes (Tavernier, Volker Schlöndorff and others) and then subjecting them to long debates afterwards.

I worship Melville’s movies (“Le SamouraÏ” and “Bob le Flambeur” in particular), and so, when I first met Tavernier, I made it a point to ask him about this period: Melville was difficult — this I’d always heard — but Tavernier was a sponge, he told me. At a time before film schools had been established, he credits that period with his own intensive film education, learning from a strong-willed director willing to share his opinions and a bit of on-the-job experience. Tavernier was not, however, suited to the job, and sensing that his protégé’s enthusiasm for the medium was stronger than his aptitude for assisting, Melville suggested that Tavernier become a press agent instead.

And so he did, partnering with Pierre Rissient for several years as a publicist. The pair developed a kind of good-cop/bad-cop routine with the journalists who came to see the films they worked on. Rissient would badger, Tavernier would coax, and together, they would try to imprint their own reasons for believing in certain directors and projects on the critics who came to their screenings.

Eventually, Tavernier succeeded in getting his own films off the ground, and these have enjoyed a certain level of success at festivals (he won a Silver Bear at Berlin for his debut, “The Clockmaker of St. Paul”) as well as with the public. But unlike the revolutionary class of critics-turned-directors just a decade or so older — Truffaut and Godard et al— Tavernier did not seem to adhere to the auteur theory in its strictest sense. His films are classical, humane and far more interested in the characters than in imposing the hand of their maker.

A gentle film such as “A Sunday in the Country” could fairly be lumped in with the polite “cinéma du papa” (or fuddy-duddy French studio films) that the French New Wave were reacting against. A slice-of-life family portrait in the spirit of the impressionist painters who inspire (and perhaps also intimidate) its more classical-minded protagonist, an elderly artist visited by his two grown children for the afternoon, the pleasant portrait draws a line between Renoir père (“Luncheon of the Boating Party” painter Pierre-Auguste) and Renoir fils (“Rules of the Game” director Jean), but seems not at all interested in the formal radicalism of the Nouvelle Vague.

Tavernier fashioned himself less on those rebels than on a director like John Huston, excluded from the “auteur” camp, who graces the cover of his “Amis Américains” book: Both saw themselves as being open to all kinds of material, adapting their style to the project at hand — not quite journeymen, and hardly hacks, but professionals who put the material first. Like Huston, Tavernier understood the importance of a good screenplay as the foundation for any project, and he respected classical techniques, which have served his oeuvre well in the long run. Revisiting his films decades later, they hold up in part because he respects the grammar of the greats, whose work he dedicated so much of his life to studying — and sharing.

Together with his close friend (and Cannes artistic director) Thierry Frémaux, Tavernier launched the Lumière Festival, dedicated to the restoration and celebration of classic cinema in the town of Lyon, where (the French believe) the medium was founded. The year I attended, Tavernier was fired up about a director named Julien Duvivier, little known in the States beyond his 1937 film noir “Pépé le Moko” — although now, thanks to Tavernier’s enthusiasm, I can recommend “Panique” (1946), in which mass hysteria turns a community against an innocent Jewish man; B-movie double-crosser “Deadlier Than the Male” (1956); and an excellent yet nearly-impossible-to-find reform school drama called “The Sinners” (1949), which incorporates an actual flood into its finale.

Offline as in social media, all trends start somewhere, and in the years after the Lumière retrospective, interest in Duvivier exploded: His films were shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles, released by the Criterion Collection and rediscovered by an entirely new generation. Tavernier was not solely responsible, of course, but the phenomenon showed how he had never stopped playing press agent for other artists he admired — often quietly behind the scenes, but whispering in the right ears, like those of my former colleagues Todd McCarthy and Scott Foundas, who both considered Tavernier a friend.

Perhaps this is why I felt safe playing the fan with Tavernier at Cannes, since he had been it the same position so many times, meeting his idols, trading opinions. For those fortunate to be counted among his “amis américains,” it was a gift — though I’d be remiss not to mention how much this generous soul’s friendship meant to his peers in France. Over time, Tavernier’s brand may have become linked with classic Hollywood (he was a regular fixture on DVD extras and vintage re-releases, curating and commenting on box sets by Sidonis), but he was equally committed to his native cinema.

His magnum opus — the last one to see the light of day before his death — was the three-hour-plus documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” and the eight-part followup TV series “Journeys Through French Cinema” (due to be released on Blu-ray this coming Tuesday from Cohen Media Group). Essentially the Tavernier equivalent of Scorsese’s own guided tours through American and Italian movies, the epic undertaking brings his expertise and insight back around to France. Appropriately enough, it puts Tavernier at its center, not in an egotistical way, but as a humbler admirer. Nothing was more personal for Tavernier than cinema, and for any who have yet to witness how much the medium meant to him, it’s by far the best place to start your own journey.

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