RIP Bertrand Tavernier, a stalwart of social-minded cinema

A life-long torchbearer for the cinema, the bearish director and sometime critic, publicist and historian applied his leftist political commitment to a sweep of styles, including a handful of prize works.

Updated: 30 March 2021

By David Thompson

Bertrand Tavernier on stage at the National Film Theatre
Sight and Sound

▶︎ My Journey Through French Cinema is available to rent on BFI Player.

With the death of Bertrand Tavernier, the film cultures of France, the USA and Britain have lost one of their greatest advocates. For if only a handful of the films he directed have found a place in the highest canon, few in his profession were as passionate and as outspoken about the art itself.

Tavernier was a self-proclaimed ‘film buff’ from the outset, working alongside fellow cinephile Pierre Rissient to distribute and proselytise about the more marginal American cinema of the post-War era. Born in 1941 in Lyons – itself arguably the birthplace of cinema as the base of the Lumière Brothers – in his youth he would seek out movies everywhere (including regular excursions to London). He worked as a journalist as well as in various capacities in the industry, notably as a publicist.

After a false start, his real directorial debut was a Simenon adaptation, The Watchmaker of St Paul (L’horloger de Saint-Paul, 1973), a sombre story of a father – played by Philippe Noiret – coming to terms with his politicised son accused of murder. Noiret, his lugubrious features disguising a surprisingly anarchic spirit, went on to appear in seven more of Tavernier’s films as a kind of sly surrogate for the director.

The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul (L’horloger de Saint-Paul, 1973)

Following the acclaim this first film received, Tavernier sustained a career mixing features with documentary projects, mostly related to his political and social interests – he was very much a man of the left and always spoke out for the underprivileged in society. In the cinema he covered a wide range of genres, from decorative period dramas (Que la fête commence… / Let Joy Reign Supreme, 1975; The Princess of Montpensier / La Princesse de Montpensier, 2010) to gritty contemporary stories (L.627, 1992; It All Starts Today / Ça commence aujourd’hui, 1999).

One of Tavernier’s great strengths was in discovering cities and locations and showing them afresh: a gloomy, mysterious Glasgow in Death Watch (La Mort en direct, 1980), his sci-fi story about reality television; a bleached-out Equatorial Africa in his Jim Thompson adaptation Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate, 1981). He had no fears about exploring different centuries, from the cruel, barren landscapes of The Hundred Years’ War in La Passion Béatrice (Beatrice, 1987) to the impressionistic gardens of early 20th century France in A Sunday in the Country (Un Dimanche à la campagne, 1984). His wide-screen recreations of the Great War in Life and Nothing But (La Vie et rien d’autre, 1989) and Captain Conan (Capitaine Conan, 1996) were wholly convincing.

Nine films directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Que la Fête Commence… (Let Joy Reign Supreme, 1975)

When I interviewed him about the latter film, he was keen to point out how much inspiration he had drawn from the westerns of John Ford, and it was in large part this all-devouring obsession with the cinema of the past that informed the artistic decisions he made. This made him a French counterpart to Martin Scorsese, who he cast in a small role in his wistful tribute to past jazz legends, ’Round Midnight (1986), because, as he expressed it, when Scorsese spoke, he personified New York. I once sat in their presence at a reception following Michael Powell’s memorial service, amazed by an unstoppable Tavernier easily out-buffing his American colleague with his knowledge of obscure westerns.

Dexter Gordon and Martin Scorsese in ’Round Midnight (1986)

Both men loved British cinema more than most Brits, taking up the cause of Michael Powell when he had fallen from grace after the scandal of Peeping Tom. Tavernier was proud of his casting of a crotchety Dirk Bogarde in These Foolish Things (Daddy Nostalgie, 1990), and wasn’t afraid to challenge the actor when he tried to rule the set, thereafter earning his respect (years before, Tavernier had also dared to confront Stanley Kubrick, who drove him crazy when Tavernier was working as a publicist for A Clockwork Orange).

Odette Laure, Jane Birkin and Dirk Bogarde in These Foolish Things (Daddy nostalgie, 1990)

A tall and forceful presence, Tavernier’s bearish personality could be felt in his films, so that while often deeply moving they could also seem baggy, heavily paced and over-length. But in his direction of actors, he invariably brought out their strengths and guided them to fine performances.

Laissez-passer (2002)

One of his most personal films was undoubtedly Laissez-passer (Safe Conduct, 2001), which examined the French cinema of the Occupation and made a hero of the little-known Jean Devaivre, a director who collaborated with his new German masters while working for the Resistance. Sadly, Devaivre himself was unhappy with it, not because of his portrayal but because his contribution to the script was not given due recognition.

A legal battle ensued, with Tavernier also being accused of criticising the New Wave in the film for his defence of the screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. While Francois Truffaut had once attacked them as exemplifying the moribund cinema de papa, the old guard who the New Wave were keen to supplant in the 1960s, Tavernier had long taken a different view, employing both as writers on The Watchmaker of St Paul. He also courted outrage for defending such directors as Claude Autant-Lara and Henri-Georges Clouzot, who were tainted by their willingness to work on during the war.

Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister, 2013)

Tavernier attempted to change gear with his last film, Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister, 2013), a breezy satire on French politics with a script based on a graphic novel. The result was mildly amusing but lacked the emotional investment that had distinguished his work even at its most over-extended.

More significant was his final production, a documentary and television series examining the history of French cinema, A Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage a travers le cinema français, 2016). Tavernier’s approach was unashamedly personal, following the line of Scorsese’s explorations of American and Italian cinema, with an authoritative voiceover binding together a huge range of film extracts. This seemingly never-ending project revealed both his strengths and prejudices, as Tavernier made little reference to the silent period and had no apparent sympathy for anything escapist. Just as in his own films, Tavernier was only really interested in a cinema that demonstrated a social or political engagement. It was an attitude from which he never wavered.

A Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage a travers le cinema français, 2016)
  • Bertrand Tavernier, born 25 April 1941, died 25 March 2021

Correction (29 March 2021): an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tavernier worked as a publicist on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Originally published: 26 March 2021