One can never say that Bertrand Tavernier let his audience off easy, but it’s not fair to say that his films feel like homework, either. Intellectually dense and ideologically provocative though they may be, they deliver rich presentations of human relationships that one feels deeply. His stark but never preachy criticisms of French society are always accompanied by stunning visual landscapes that are often breathtaking.
Tavernier died recently, so recently that this piece was well on its way to completion when the news broke. Despite him being a respectable if not ancient age of 79, it came as a shock to his fans: in many ways, he made films like a confident old man from the beginning. We all thought he was going to be another Manoel de Oliveira and keep churning out quiet but passionate cinematic poems well past his own centennial celebration.
The child of the French resistance, Tavernier was born in the city of Lyon, whose beauty he often highlighted in his films, and grew up with intellectual leftists and happily followed in their footsteps. Attending law school with the intention of saving the world, he found he loved writing film criticism and decided to pursue that instead, a generation behind the Cahiers du Cinema writers who moved from writing to filmmaking in the Nouvelle Vague.
Tavernier’s style wasn’t one that developed over time. He had plenty to say about French society (particularly French class structure) from the start, laying bare his political leanings. (He was a member of the Trotskyist French political party OCI for a few years in the seventies.) Never one to lecture, however, it is the contemplative nature of his films that make them so humane, his characters drawn with the complex hues that are featured in his uniformly gorgeous cinematography.
The Criterion Channel’s collection of Bertrand Tavernier films is missing a few essentials (his closest thing to a Hollywood crossover, the Oscar-winning ‘Round Midnight, and the sumptuous Princess of Montpensier, among others) but does span most of the important highlights of his career, including the painterly beauty of A Sunday in the Country, for which he was awarded the Best Director prize at Cannes. Here are the films in the Criterion Channel’s Bertrand Tavernier collection in order of preference:
Coup de Torchon (1981)
Bertrand Tavernier moves Jim Thompson’s Pop 1280 from Texas to French-controlled West Africa in the late thirties in this expertly filmed period drama. Philippe Noiret is the police chief in the fictional Senegalese town of Bourkassa who is respected by no one. The town’s pimps treat him like a fool and his wife (Stéphane Audran) cuckolds him in his own house. His only real connection is with a sexpot housewife (a spirited Isabelle Huppert) with whom he shares mutually delightful diversions, but his lazily foolish personality spills over into insanity when he decides to stop taking everyone’s guff. He goes on a killing spree of those who bother him, hiding behind his reputation as a buffoon to stay out of trouble, eventually seeing himself as a kind of avenging angel. While other period epics of the eighties showed colonial projects as a meeting of superior European minds taking the rich resources of faraway lands, Tavernier describes a lawless breeding ground for corruption and gangster law.
A Sunday in the Country (1984)
Tavernier won the Best Director prize at Cannes for one of his subtlest and most exquisite films, which is set in 1912 and about an aging painter who happily greets his son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons at his country estate for their regular Sunday visit. On this particular occasion, sister Sabine Azéma (in a brilliant, spirited performance) makes a rare appearance and brings up old resentments with her brother and disappointments with her father. Everything starts out ringing with the sound of bucolic nature drowning out urban woes, then as the day progresses, the flowers fall silent as the family members begin to reveal their conflicts. The film is expertly performed and brimming over with elegance.
A Week’s Vacation (1980)
Lest he be accused of too much intellectual navel-gazing, Tavernier applies a breathtaking panoramic visual style to this sensitive and generous investigation of a woman on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Nathalie Baye is lovely as a Lyon schoolteacher who is physically and emotionally unable to return to the classroom without a break, taking a week off to walk the city, visit her mother in the country, have dinners with the father of a student with whom she has become friends, and reflect on the memories of her work that have led her here. Her boyfriend (Gérard Lanvin) is well-meaning but ill-equipped to help her as she straightens out the wrinkles in her feelings about life and work. The film avoids any bold summaries of the meaning of life and instead presents the negotiation of pleasure, relaxation and responsibility as spheres that we are constantly navigating and hopefully keeping in relative balance. It also looks so great–the widescreen shots of that gorgeous city bursting with colours and vibrant, crowded life.
The Judge of the Assassin (1976)
As with Clockmaker, The Judge of the Assassin is another story focusing on the relationship developing between two men against the background of a criminal case. This time. Bertrand Tavernier sets the drama in the late nineteenth century and bases it on the true story of a serial killer who cut a grisly swathe across the bucolic fields of France and raped and murdered two dozen young boys and girls. Philippe Noiret is the upright judge who now has the man in his prison and is fighting against his defense of insanity (and therefore irresponsibility) while in the distance, the Dreyfus affair rages through the country and fans the flames of anti-Semitic conservatism. A twenty-three year old Isabelle Huppert makes one of her first major film appearances as Noiret’s mistress. Sumptuously filmed and provocatively thoughtful, this film is based on the real life case of Joseph Vacher.
Daddy Nostalgia (1990)
Jane Birkin leaves her busy life as a screenwriter in Paris to head to the Riviera to spend time with her father (Dirk Bogarde in his final film role) after his life-threatening surgery. They enjoy dinners out and the odd glass of wine while his wife (Odette Laure) fusses over him in her fear that he will do himself harm. As conversations progress, Bogarde must face the fact that his adventurous life and great accomplishments came at the expense of a better intimacy with his family. Heartbreaking in the quietest and most graceful way, this film is a lovely tribute to a great actor, an unremarkable but lovingly sentimental film.
The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974)
Tavernier’s debut stars Philippe Noiret as an unassuming clockmaker who is informed by the police that his son has committed murder and is on the run. Immediately besieged by the press who exploit the situation for all it’s worth, Noiret follows police detective Jean Rochefort where he leads. Through their lengthy conversations about the situation, he comes to realize the tragedy of never having really known his son. It’s a sober film, with Tavernier confidently emphasizing an anticlimactic, literary feeling on his first time out.
Captain Conan (1996)
Fighting on the Macedonian front during World War I sees Captain Conan lead his warriors bravely to success on the battlefield. However, when their battalion is sent to Bucharest after armistice, he and his men find themselves unsuited to peacetime. Neither demobilized nor at war, they become confused about conflict, masculinity and military culture, committing crimes that require Conan’s friend Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan) to take on his defense in court. Travelling further to Sofia gets them involved in the investigation of a meek young soldier who is accused of desertion and whose aristocratic mother has arrived to beg for his pardon, then the film is capped off with the men once again in battle against the Bolsheviks on the Danube River. Tavernier directs the action scenes with exceptional flair and elicits terrific performances from his leads, both members of the Comedie Francaise, though he has no patience for explaining the contextual details of most of what is happening and non-history buffs will be frustrated by much of it.
Death Watch (1980)
“Everything doesn’t have to mean something,” Max von Sydow tells Romy Schneider in this drama set in the near future, in which disease has been mostly eradicated and the few people left who die of illness are a subject of fascination. Schneider is told by her doctor that she is terminal and she is immediately set upon by a television producer (Harry Dean Stanton) who wants to make her the subject of “Death Watch”, a highly rated program that observes people as they expire. She runs away but is joined on her journey across a barren wasteland by Harvey Keitel, who she doesn’t know has a camera surgically implanted in his eye and is broadcasting her every move. Clever and smart in set-up, this is a rare Tavernier failure. Death Wish has a plot that wanders in the last half that, while it may not need to find any deep meaning, certainly doesn’t find much that’s interesting, either.