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the adventure of a cinephile who became a major director

“With his wife Sarah, his children Nils and Tiffany and his grandchildren, the Lumière Institute and Thierry Frémaux have the sadness and the pain to inform you of the disappearance, today, of Bertrand Tavernier”, tweeted the institution dedicated to the 7th art. Director, writer, historian and thinker of cinema, Bertrand Tavernier died this Thursday, March 25 at the age of 79.

Film buff since he was twelve years old, he became critic, Stanley Kubrick’s press secretary, then director in 1974. Since then, he has not stopped filming, fictions and documentaries, revisiting the thriller (L.627), the story (Let the party begin), the war (Captain Conan), the drama (Life and nothing else)…

Born in 1941 in Lyon, the city of the Lumières brothers, Bertrand Tavernier is also the heir to the history of the Resistance during the Occupation. His father René Tavernier, resistance fighter and writer, published Eluard and Aragon, the latter living upstairs with Elsa Triolet (resistance fighter of Russian origin, Prix Goncourt 1945). Young Bertrand grew up in a cultural and humanist environment, which his films would echo.

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Pique of cinema since he was twelve years old, arrived in Paris in 1950 with his parents, he attended the Cinémathèque, created a Ciné-club in 1961, collaborated with Telerama, The Cinema Notebooks, Positive, Cinema 59-60, and becomes press secretary.

He earns his stripes as assistant director on Léon Morin priest (1961) by Jean-Pierre Melleville, with Jean-Paul Belmondo, then shot two segments of films at Sketchs in 1963-64. A lover of popular films, Tavernier is a fan of Italian director Ricardo Freda (The Dreadful Secret of Professor Hichcock, 1962) and will participate in its Coplan opens fire in Mexico City (1967). Loyal to Freda, he will call on her to assist him in the filming of The Beatrice Passion (1987) and will offer him to realize The Daughter of d’Artagnan (1994). But a dispute between Freda and Sophie Marceau, who plays the leading role, forces him to direct this parody of swashbuckling films, a genre the Italian director was fond of.

Tavernier waited until 1974 to release his first feature film, The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul, according to The Everton Watchmaker of Simenon, which he moves to a Lyonnais district, as if to return to his roots.

For his first feature film, Bertrand Tavernier chooses Philippe Noiret as principal performer. They will shoot five other films together: Let the party begin (1975), The Judge and the Assassin (1976), Wipe (1981), Life and nothing else (1989) and The Daughter of d’Artagnan (1994). These films, all historical (the Regency, the Vacher affair, the colonialist 1930s, the First World War, the 17th century) reflect the director’s close link with history.

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With Noiret, Tavernier has found his actor, while the first is in full glory and the second young director. The filmmaker recognizes in Noiret the ease to play Philippe d’Orléans, then the meticulous judge trapping Vacher, the madness of a 1939 Colonist in Africa, the vacillating righteousness of a senior soldier responsible for finding the corpse of an unknown soldier. for the memorial tomb of the Arc de Triomphe. The director and the actor go through very different eras and subjects that are just as different.

To the maximum of his means, the actor adapts perfectly to his compositional roles (he was the first actor to be awarded the title in 1976 for The Old Gun by Robert Enrico). If the subjects are serious, Tavernier and his writers lead to laughter, often black, except in Life and nothing else, where the tone is solemn. The Daughter of d’Artagnan is a pure comedy, but minor, after a laborious implementation.

From a generation close to the Chabrols, Godard and Truffauts, Bertrand Tavernier is not among the creators of La Nouvelle Vague. He defends and rehabilitates the great screenwriters and dialogue writers of French cinema from the 1930s to 1950s. Tavernier favors storytelling, above all telling stories. He was nonetheless the press attaché for Georges de Beauregard, producer of La Nouvelle Vague, who gave him his first chances as a director with The kisses (1963) and The Chance of Love (1964).

French producer Georges de Beauregard (1920-1984).  (CHRISTOPHEL / AFP COLLECTION)

His absence from the screens from 1964 to 1974 proves that he had not really found his place in this cinema. He was then full-time press officer, notably for Stanley Kubrick on 2001: a space odyssey (1968), Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975).

When he wrote his first film, The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul, Bertrand Tavernier calls Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost to adapt Simenon. Aurenche to co-script Hotel du Nord (Marcel Carné, 1938), and with Bost The Devil in the Body (1947) by Claude Autant-Lara, or Forbidden Games (1952) by René Clément… classics.

If Tavernier appealed to “papa’s cinema” denounced by the New Wave, his films are nonetheless in tune with the times. Death Live (1980), an anticipation film starring Romy Schneider and Max von Sydow, forty years ago predicted reality TV and the intrusion of the Internet into our daily lives in the 21st century.

In L.627 (1992) the director almost sticks to the precepts of the New Wave. He shoots outdoors the chronicle of a narcotics brigade in Paris, camera on the shoulder, like a documentary. He films their dilapidated premises, interventions in the metro, hideouts… according to the testimony of ex-cop Michel Alexandre. L.627 also tells a story, but to the rhythm of scattered events, and not of a plot.

The Bait (1995) adapts the Hattab-Sarraud-Subra affair of 1984, where a young woman seduces, at the request of relatives, a supposedly rich young Jew, to rob him, and kill him under torture. The affair caused a stir at the time and Tavernier revived his interest in various facts since The judge and the murderer. The director stages his film as a closed-door, Polanski style, revealing at the same time Marie Gillain, Olivier Sitruk and Bruno Putzulu, alongside Richard Berry and Philippe Torreton, to whom he has been faithful since L. 627.

Time is at the heart of Bertrand Tavernier’s cinema. It is no coincidence that the hero of his first film is The watchmaker of Saint-Paul. The reference to time in the title and the filming in Lyon where he was born, is tinged with nostalgia. It is at the heart of Sunday in the countryside, evocation of a family afternoon at the Belle-Epoque, which refers to Jean Renoir, to whom Tavernier feels close, just like the directors of the Nouvelle Vague elsewhere.

The film takes place just before the declaration of war in 1914, like a final round of happiness before the disaster. In Captain Conan (1996), he films this disaster, the two films making up a diptych, a before and an after. Atypical, Tavernier does not locate Conan on the French front as is often the case, but in the Balkans. He uses the conflict to confront two officers having to judge the acts of their troops, still active after the demobilization of 1918, left to their own devices. The subject is not limited to the First World War, but to war, as Kubrick in The Paths of Glory (1958) and Full Metal Jacket (1987).

Pass (2001) tells the story of director Jean Devaivre (The eleven o’clock lady, 1947), in a biopic which allows him to talk about French cinema under the Occupation. The film turns out to be a synthesis between his cinephilia and the spirit of resistance, resulting from his Lyon youth. It is not for all that backward-looking. Tavernier retraces a forgotten history which defends the spirit of independence of the creators vis-à-vis the occupier, or any form of constraint, a question still relevant today. At the same time, he gave one of his best roles to Jacques Gamblin, in full rise.

But for questions of rights, Pass created discord Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Devaivre, whose director was filming part of his life. A discord that calmed down before Devaivre’s death in 2004, but from which they came out bruised.

The filmmaker is a cinephile and his references to the 7th art are numerous. Specialist in American cinema, he published in 1970 with Jean-Pierre Coursodon 30 years of American cinema (CIB editions), then 50 years of American cinema in 1991 which refer. In the electric haze (2009) is his love letter to the American film noir, directed in the United States with Tommy Lee Jones. Another major American figure for Tavernier: jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon. He directs it in Around midnight (1986), considered one of the most beautiful films on jazz (1987 Oscar for best music).

After this tribute to his American loves, Bertrand Tavernier returns to his passion for historical films by adapting in 2010 The Princess of Montpensier based on the work of Madame de La Fayette. If the action takes place in the 16th century, the director (also an adapter with Jean Cosmos) gives the text a contemporary light in the independence of the princess and rejuvenates the protagonists. It reveals in passing Mélanie Thierry, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Gaspad Ullièl and Raphaël Personnaz. The film competing at Cannes is hailed by critics and audiences alike but rleft empty-handed.

If the drama dominates with Betrand Tavernier, it also has humor. His latest fiction is a political comedy: the comic book adaptation Quai d’Orsay by Antonin Baudry and Christophe Blain (Editions Dargaud). Baudry recounts his months spent as adviser to the Minister of the Interior, then Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin. Tavernier takes over Raphaël Personnaz for the role of adviser and gives Thierry Lhermitte that of minister.

Lhe filmmaker will only make one documentary in 2016, Journey through French cinema, screened in Cannes and became a documentary series on television. Bertrand Tavernier proclaims his love for films and filmmakers who rocked his childhood and his cinephilia. From 1930 to 2008, the 3:15 film compiled 594 extracts covering 94 feature films, chosen and commented by the director-cinephile.

Bertarnd Tavernier returns to this cinephilia as a guest at Radio France, which in 2019 offers him carte blanche for a series of concerts devoted to the soundtracks of French films. From 1933 (July 14th, by René Clair) to 1975 (The Old Rifle, by Robert Enrico), through Contempt, My uncle… Bertrand Tavernier rehabilitates film music, a neglected art that he knows with erudition. Like a swan song.

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