From the Nov./Dec. 1998 Film Comment, an article titled “The Filmmaker of St. Paul”: Four movies (released together as a home-vid set from Kino) by director, critic, and mensch Bertrand Tavernier.
Movie directors become brand names; it’s one of the peculiar things about the business of film watching and film comment. Such a level of recognition can come from a body of work, of course, but it helps if the filmmaker creates a sharp, strong, single work at the beginning of his or her career—the way 400 Blows and Breathless fixed the names Truffaut and Godard in the cultural imagination. Regardless of the vagaries of their subsequent working lives, they could always be identifiable from those first-strike masterpieces. It doesn’t have to be the debut. Lars von Trier is a secure brand name now, having had his breakthrough movie at a young age; he can stumble a few times over the next decade, but he’ll always be “the guy who made Breaking the Waves,” a singular, original movie personality.
If a director becomes a brand name, it’s easier to talk about him or her, easier to organize a film series at the art museum or university, easier to write an article that paints a portrait of the artist. For some reason I feel bad when a really interesting talent lacks that identifiable, defining movie (though they may well be better off not being a brand name, for all that’s worth). I want more people to know about, for instance, the English director Michael Winterbottom, the young and disgustingly prolific director of Family and Jude and Welcome to Sarajevo. Winterbottom hasn’t put it all together yet for a breakthrough film, yet he certainly deserves more attention than “the guy who made The Full Monty,” or a dozen other under-forty British directors. Alerting people to someone like this is one of the uses of the supposedly dead craft of film criticism, as Michael Atkinson proved in his excellent appreciation of Winterbottom in the Jan-Feb 98 issue of Film Comment.
Though he had some arthouse success and earned a great deal of respect over the years, Bertrand Tavernier was never blessed with a brand name. He was not a fast starter, for one thing: born in 1941, just nine years after Truffaut, he worked as a publicist and a critic, made short films, and directed his first feature in 1973. He wasn’t as obviously iconoclastic as his predecessors in the French New Wave, with a style that tended toward invisibility and a wide-ranging taste in subject matter. (Once when I proposed Tavernier as the subject for a film series—this was around the time A Sunday in the Country came out—a colleague placidly asked, “Wouldn’t that be sort of boring?”) It was not until 1986, and the release of Round Midnight, that Tavernier had a film that could be characterized as a breakthrough, and even then the attention focused on the jazz milieu and Dexter Gordon’s performance. He might have had an interesting Franco-American career as “the guy who made Round Midnight,” but his films since then have included a brutal look at the Hundred Years’ War (Beatrice), two challenging World War I pictures (Life and Nothing But and Capitaine Conan), a rambling reverie of a father and daughter (Daddy Nostalgia), and two or three films that have barely registered in the American market. Nothing that fits a single style, and nothing as easy as a recognizable “Tavernier movie.” The two WWI films, for instance, couldn’t be more different from each other; Life is a flowing, deliberate contemplation, while Conan is barbaric and chaotic.
Tavernier is also a film buff, an author, and a fixture on the festival circuit. A lot of people seem to think of him like Octave in The Rules of the Game: big, bearlike, full of enthusiasm. Like Octave, however, there is more to Tavernier than that image. I interviewed him in 1997, while he was in America doing publicity, and it was great fun to talk about our shared appreciation of the lusciousness of Julia Adams, that fine-boned blond Fifties starlet from The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but Tavernier also burned with very committed political fire. The word he kept using during the interview was “fight,” as in fighting for the release of a small film, fighting for the continued existence of French cinema, fighting for a more compassionate government. Tavernier’s film often have such a civilized, elegant veneer that we might not identify the director as a fighter. But it’s always there in Tavernier’s work, the fight for a cause or a person, or just the tough trench warfare within families trying (or refusing) to understand each other.
Getting Bertrand Tavernier in focus is easier now, thanks to Kino on Video’s new foursome of Tavernier movies. A new letterboxed version of the director’s first feature, The Clockmaker (L’Horloger de St.-Paul, 1973), leads the collection. A Georges Simenon story of a Lyons clockmaker (Philippe Noiret) whose son is accused of a murder, The Clockmaker deftly balances the generic necessities of a mystery plot with a thrumming interest in politics. And a political undercurrent is common in Tavernier’s movies—not necessarily a Godardian explicitness, with diatribes against the right, but a quieter, no less agitating insistence that the choices one makes in life are political, whether one knows it or not.
For instance, watchmaker Philippe Noiret talks politics with his friends at the café, in the time-honored tradition of French discourse. But his own life is mild and fastidious—he dresses in conservative brown and waits for the lights to change before crossing the street, despite the absence of traffic. (“Are you Swiss?” chides a friend.) This portrait of a complacent bourgeois shaken by family tragedy is beautifully captured by Noiret, who would go on to become the director’s alter ego in many key works. Noiret is matched by Jean Rochefort, as a police commissioner who seems less inspector Javert than Lieutenant Columbo. There’s a scene between the two men, having dinner on a train, that embodies the humanity that can emerge from simple actions and rituals. The film also has a confident (and not even slightly nostalgic) view of Lyons, Tavernier’s home town.
A Sunday in the Country (Un Dimanche a la Campagne, 1984) ought to have nostalgia, yet this is a film that spikes its golden bittersweet subject matter with a generous dollop of country vinegar. An elderly, renowned painter named Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux) welcomes his children to his country house in the early years of the century. On this Sunday he is disappointed by them, as we suspect he is always disappointed by them. The son, a man who keeps his jacket on during a stifling hot day, is living a tidy middle-class existence, which clearly horrifies the father; yet we eventually see how similar they are. Ladmiral’s own career, parallel to the Impressionists, did not advance and grow in the way his contemporaries’ did, probably because of his own fear of changing or experimenting.
Ladmiral’s daughter Irene (Sabine Azema), his favorite, is an unmarried woman caught in her own melodrama of huge passions and l’amour fou. She drives an automobile, she speaks on the telephone to an indifferent lover. Her father dotes on her, and she encourages his attention. Their relationship is caught in a heart-rending moment: as Irene chatters in the garden, she reaches to pluck a rose. Tavernier cuts to a second-long shot of Ladmiral, about to tell her not to take the flower—then cuts back to Irene, thoughtlessly snapping off the stem and slipping the red rose into her dress. The old man, wounded and charmed and defeated, never says anything.
Even to name these themes and undercurrents is to disturb the delicacy of Tavernier’s design. Much of the uneasiness of the family comes from things not spoken, and the director simply withdraws to allow the rhythms of a Sunday to unfold in their usual way, without great revelations or explosions. The Kino video, though nice to see in letterbox, doesn’t quite capture the luminescence of the film’s sun-drenched summer garden.
L.627 (1992) is a policier that unfolds to an engagingly staccato beat. The film is crammed with the stuff of a narcotics cop’s life, but without the usual through-line; there’s no great case to be solved, and the peripheral characters are picked up and dropped like numbers in a case-book. The hero, Lulu (Didier Bezace), doesn’t look like a cop, he looks like a schoolteacher, all glasses and frizzy hair, but he can beat up a suspect as well as anybody in his ramshackle precinct.
This cop is married, but he has a tender and somewhat mysterious relationship with an HIV-positive prostitute named Cecile, with whom he may or may not have had an affair. Away from his job as a policeman, apparently to make extra money, Lulu videotapes weddings. During a touchy scene in which he asks his wife to undress while he films her, she teases him about being a voyeur. Tavernier draws a parallel between being a cop and being a watcher, which adds an autobiographical tinge to the film. When we first see him, Lulu is on a stake-out, watching life go by through the smoked windows of a van; and like a voyeur, or a movie watcher, he jumps from one story to the next without getting involved too deeply in the lives that pass in front of him. Until he loses track of Cecile.
The film’s roundabout way of not tying up its loose ends is both a fresh approach to genre storytelling and a way of suggesting the frustrations and absurdities of the big-city police system. The title refers to a kind of Catch-22 in the police code, a rule about the treatment of drug users that basically guarantees the continued survival of a miserable status quo. L.627 is bracing enough on its own terms, but there is something especially exciting in realizing that, in his sixth decade, a director capable of the lyrical meditations of A Week’s Vacation and A Sunday in the Country is also happy to blow the roof off the joint. And there’s nothing studied or academic about L.627’s harshness; this isn’t slumming.
Even more raw is Capitaine Conan (1997), transferred by Kino in an especially crisp widescreen version. Tavernier has said that he wanted the battle scenes to have the confusion and immediacy of actual warfare, where you don’t know where you are, where the enemy is coming from, or what direction to look. He succeeds almost too well, as the early scenes in Conan are a largely bewildering experience. The fighting is truly frightening, with scenes of hand-to-hand combat and shrapnel flying at the camera that bear comparison to the visceral warfare Spielberg creates in Saving Private Ryan. This film prefigures Private Ryan in a few ways: the quickness of death, barely acknowledged before the camera moves on to something else, and the convention of the cowardly soldier, who, given a chance to come through in the clutch, utterly fails to redeem himself.
Conan (a ferocious performance by Philippe Torreton) is the leader of a fearless band of commandos in the Balkans during the Great War. They go on fighting after the war, too; though the armistice ends, it suits the French army to continue battling the Russian troops. Conan is contrasted with Lieutenant Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), a student of literature, who is cajoled into becoming a military prosecutor. Conan sees this as a betrayal, since some of his own wild men will be on trial, but Norbert is an idealist, believing that he can actually help more people by being a part of the system. An echo of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance here: Conan and Norbert are like the John Wayne and James Stewart characters, representing the old ways of lawlessness and the new ways of civilization—though it is an open question as to which is more damaging. Their rocky friendship culminates in a beautiful epilog scene in which Norbert visits the retired Conan in a bar in Conan’s village. The tiger has been de-clawed; he practically disappears into the shadows. This is where cowboys go to die.
Like another filmmaker-scholar, Martin Scorsese, Tavernier often makes movies that seem open-ended, slightly incomplete. He admires the classical form, but he can’t quite believe in it for himself; it’s one of the things that make him a modern. Perhaps it is less important to create a perfect work than to carry on the overall fight. Probably Tavernier sees himself more as the modern Norbert than the barbarian Conan, but he surely appreciates the importance of the Norberts, the men who do not get movies named after them yet have their role in the struggle. So for Tavernier, the fight goes on.
(For more on Tavernier: a review of Coup de Torchon at my other website.)