News and Commentary – Bertrand Tavernier at Seventy-Five
At Mid Century Cinema we are slaves to the academic calendar, which means that the last month has been an especially hectic one, something we note by way of apology for letting Bertrand Tavernier’s seventy-fifth birthday slip by on April 25th without proper notice. But better late than never, especially for one of our favorite directors, the liberal-humanist-historian of French filmmakers. Tavernier’s movies reflect the best of these attributes: steeped in (and curious about) the past and the indelible influence of its shadows, deeply invested in the lives of fully-drawn characters, and characterized by a liberalism of questions and puzzles, not lectures and answers.
Tavernier, who (from a distance, of course), comes across as a warm and thoughtful man, is also a passionate cinephile, and is the co-author of a massive sourcebook on American Films. (A list of his favorite films can be found here, and a recent interview engaging many of these influences here.) He got his start in the business working for Jean-Pierre Melville—which could not have been easy. But Melville must have seen something in his young assistant; it was he who approached Tavernier’s parents to convince them to allow their son to abandon the legal career that they had hoped he would pursue.
And luckily for us Tavernier chose the right path, or we would not have his films to treasure. On this festive (if belated) occasion, let’s take a moment to recognize five of his best. The Clockmaker (1973), his debut feature, is a thoughtful film of astonishing beauty, maturity, and subtlety that rewards multiple viewing. The adaptation of a Simenon novel, it features two giants of French cinema, Philippe Noiret (Tavernier’s go-to leading man) and Jean Rochefort. One of the essential films of the 1970s (that is pretty high praise around here), it is worth reading not just one, but two reviews of this masterpiece.
A Sunday in the Country (1984) is the beautiful, melancholy tale of an elderly painter visited by his family in the weekend quiet of 1912. Of this film Roger Ebert wrote “to find comparable attention to the subtle forces within a family, you would have to turn to Yasujiro Ozu.” (You should also code that as pretty, pretty high praise.) Life and Nothing But (1989), another film of stunning beauty (and another great performance from Noiret), takes place in the ruins of the First World War. (As David Thomson observed, “it is characteristic of Tavernier that he should approach the history of the Great War . . . from the perspective of its aftermath”), with a film that displays deeply sensitive attention to small dramatic moments and political nuances. Safe Conduct (2002) is an ambitious and sophisticated – and riveting – treatment of the French film industry and the French Resistance under German occupation. Two sensitive and challenging topics—one terrific movie.
Finally, let me close with the first Tavernier film I saw, and which rivals The Clockmaker as my personal favorite—Round Midnight (1986). Most people think the film (written by Tavernier with David Rayfiel) is about jazz, and that may be. But more than anything it is about the friendship between two men. And that moment when Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) exits the frame, and he is not coming back, and finds the only words he can to express the depth of his gratitude for all that Francis (François Cluzet) has done for him: “You know, Francis, there’s not enough kindness, in this world.”
Life and Nothing But