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A Household Name in France: Celebrating Bertrand Tavernier

French film director Bertrand Tavernier has died, a month short of his 80th birthday. He’s a household name in France. So much so that the most-listened to national French radio station scrapped its planned programming to devote three full hours to honoring his memory by speaking with his friends and colleagues. His passing was the lead story on the radio and TV news starting at 5 PM and stretching to midnight. And that’s on a day when the Covid-19 infection statistics were through the roof. He’ll be on the cover of all the newspapers tomorrow. Some publications will even stop the presses to incorporate the news.

I think he’d love that—it’s cinematic.

There’s not an editor in France who would say, “Yeah, OK—Tavernier died. Write something but keep it short.”

People of all ages can only agree that the nation has lost a priceless and talented human resource.

There’s a saying that each time a person dies, a library burns. In Tavernier’s case that’s especially true. His knowledge of French and American cinema (and Italian, Japanese, you name it) was absolutely encyclopedic. He was the President of the Lumière Institute in his native Lyon—named for and housed in the residence of the Lumière Brothers who pioneered motion pictures 125 years ago.

He wrote two thick volumes about American cinema (by thick I mean the same size as the compact edition of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, in a slipcase), and reams of criticism. He has seen to it that countless books by and about filmmakers have been translated and published.

He was an assistant to Jean-Pierre Melville and he really got his start as, of all things, a publicist—although he decided at age 13 that he wanted to direct because he loved American Westerns so much as a kid. He handled publicity for Jean-Luc Godard on his film "Le Mepris/Contempt." Working with Melville and Godard as a young man would be like getting your first jobs in the theater working for Shakespeare and Molière. I’m exaggerating, but not by much.

He was unapologetically on the Left and incorporated social issues into many of his films—from colonial corruption in "Coup de Torchon/Clean Slate," to young people bereft of moral compasses in "L’appat’/ The Bait."

He made costume pictures, including “Life and Nothing But” with frequent collaborator actor Philippe Noiret, about the hard work of identifying the remains of soldiers after WWI.

He made several films in English or partly in English. "Round Midnight" was the story of a Black American jazz musician in Paris. Herbie Hancock’s score won an Oscar for Best Original Score.

Jazz is one of the art forms French people cherish. So how could Tavernier miss by putting the likes of Dexter Gordon, Hancock, and Wayne Shorter on screen? Not to mention John Berry, the American director-in-exile who fled McCarthy-era America.

“Death Watch,” a sci-fi film he directed in 1980, was already concerned with the eventual impact of reality TV. (Tavernier was not shy about saying that he never watched TV. It was more than a question of being too busy watching and making movies. He pointed out that TV news gave him the heebie jeebies, “since the anchor’s tie or haircut is considered as important as what’s being reported.”)

Romy Schneider starred in “Death Watch” as a woman who believes she is dying—in a future where people rarely die anymore—and she is followed around by a cameraman played by Harvey Keitel who has had an operation to turn his eyeballs into video cameras. But if he’s not exposed to light for a certain period, he’ll go blind.

Light reflected onto our retinas makes motion pictures possible, light reflected off a screen makes a shared art form possible.

As the third lockdown affects over 21 million French residents, surveys say that the second thing people most look forward to—after having a drink in a cafe—is going out to a movie.

Tavernier had a state-of-the-art home cinema set-up but could still be spotted in Latin Quarter art houses enjoying a revival of a Hollywood musical like “Funny Face.” “If I watch it at home,” he explained, “I’m by myself or with my wife. Most films are meant to be seen with others.”

In 2009, Tavernier made "In the Electric Mist" with Tommy Lee Jones, an atmospheric bayou-set mystery. It was never released theatrically in the U.S. but drew viewers and accolades in the rest of the world. It’s one of the best examples I know of how a foreign director making a decent film in English with prominent American actors is no guarantee of courteous treatment in the English-speaking sphere. Maybe the ghosts of the Civil War that figure in the film had something to do with it.

Tavernier also made one of the rare early documentaries about the Algerian war. He tackled the education system in underprivileged rural French communities and addressed the fact that local police departments don’t have enough manpower or funds to do their jobs.  

As a producer, his company Little Bear helped make Marcel Ophuls’ elaborate and wrenching 1994 doc “The Troubles We’ve Seen” about the war in ex-Yugoslavia.

He had minimal tolerance for the lunacy we now group under the heading of “cancel culture.” He gave a fine interview to the World Socialist Web Site when Ohio’s Bowling Green State University decided to remove pioneering actress Lilian Gish’s name from its film theater on the grounds—advanced by a handful of students—that she was “racist” because she had appeared in D.W. Griffiths’ "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915. Everything Tavernier has to say on the matter is wise, but that human encyclopedia quality is especially helpful when, working from memory, he points out that in the years after Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” he depicted “the first interracial romance on screen.”

Tavernier’s most recent films included "Quai d’Orsay/The French Minister"— adapted from a best-selling graphic novel about Dominique de Villepin preparing an historic speech to stand up to US hegemony. That doesn’t sound riveting but it was. And funny.

And he made a wonderful documentary series called “My Journey Through French Cinema” which started with his childhood in Lyon and explained why he loved the work of certain directors. I defy anybody to watch it and not want to seek out the films of which he speaks so well.

Fellow director Claude Lelouch called Tavernier “the greatest film buff among French directors.” Much like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, Tavernier loved, loved, loved movies and seemed to have seen all of them. We tend to assume that most directors are cinephiles but that’s not always true, oddly enough. Tavernier personally cast the over 100 speaking parts in his “Laissez-passez”/"Safe Conduct" in 2002, which was based on a French film technician and a real-life French screenwriter straddling the German Occupation and the Resistance.

And Tavernier also loved film score, and worked to have forgotten film music performed by full orchestras.

To situate his influence, within four hours of his death, the pay cable channel Canal Plus sent out a press release to say that they’re making a dozen of his films available to viewers. If cinemas were open (France’s 6,000 screens—that’s 25% of all the movie screens in Europe—have been shut since October 30, 2020), there would be complete retrospectives of his work within a few days. While the library in his head may have burned with his passing, his work—a link between classic directors of the studio era and the vicissitudes of modern life—has been bequeathed to anyone who cares to read or watch.

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