Friday, June 25, 2021

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Bertrand Tavernier, versatile and acclaimed French filmmaker, dies at 79


Bertrand Tavernier, a French filmmaker who earned international acclaim for his humanistic, character-driven style and startling versatility, as well as for his tenacious efforts to promote and preserve cinematic history, died March 25 at his home in Sainte-Maxime, on the French Riviera. He was 79.

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Tavernier was president of the Institut Lumière, a French film organization, which announced his death but did not give a precise cause. "His films will remain as masterpieces of French cinema," former French interior minister Gérard Collomb said.

Mentored by directors Claude Sautet and Jean-Pierre Melville, Tavernier worked for more than a decade as a film critic, assistant director and publicist before making his first feature, "The Clockmaker of Saint-Paul" (1974), which he adapted from a Georges Simenon novel and shot with a handheld camera in his hometown of Lyon.

A contemplative drama about a widowed father who learns that his teenage son has murdered a factory foreman, the movie earned a runner-up prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and established Tavernier as a leader of a new generation of French filmmakers, succeeding the New Wave directors of the late 1950s and '60s.

"His work is an abundance of invention and generosity, and in a way the opposite of the auteur theory that he once supported, since Tavernier never forces himself or a style upon us," film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2003. "If there is a common element in his work, it is his instant sympathy for his fellow humans, his enthusiasm for their triumphs, his sharing of their disappointments. To see the work of some directors is to feel closer to them. To see Tavernier's work is to feel closer to life."

Tavernier directed more than two dozen features and documentaries, including "Death Watch" (1980), a science-fiction fable starring Romy Schneider and, with cameras embedded behind his eyes, Harvey Keitel; "Coup de Torchon" (1981), a black comedy that received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film; and "A Sunday in the Country" (1984), a poignant family portrait about an elderly painter.

The winner of five César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, Tavernier worked with actors including Isabelle Huppert, Julie Delpy and Dirk Bogarde, whose last screen role came in Tavernier's bittersweet "Daddy Nostalgia" (1990), about a dying man visited by his estranged daughter, played by Jane Birkin.

Tavernier also emerged as a leading evangelist for international cinema, organizing the Institut Lumière's annual film festival in Lyon, co-writing a 1,200-page history of American film and publishing a book of interviews with directors such as Robert Altman, Roger Corman and John Ford.

He was perhaps best known in the United States for "Round Midnight" (1986), about an American jazz musician - Dale Turner, played by saxophonist Dexter Gordon - who travels to Paris to play at a club named the Blue Note and is taken in by a French fan. Loosely based on pianist Bud Powell, Turner struggles with alcoholism and drug use, even as he remains consumed by a lifelong love affair with jazz.

"My life is music," he says. "My love is music. And it's 24 hours a day."

Tavernier co-wrote the screenplay, as he did for most of his films, and insisted on casting Gordon, who had spent years in Paris and struggled with addiction himself. The actor wrote many of his own lines and received an Oscar nomination for best actor; pianist Herbie Hancock, who performed on-screen with Gordon and other real-life musicians, won the Academy Award for best original score.

"In most films, characters take the journey from A to Z," Tavernier told the New York Times in 1985, while shooting "Round Midnight." "In mine, they go from A to B." His protagonists were often timid and hesitant, gradually moving toward moments of realization or acceptance while looking back on their lives.

Tavernier let them take their time. Many of his films were slow and meditative; in "Round Midnight," musical interludes sometimes seemed to say more than the dialogue itself. "When I make movies," he explained in the Times interview, "I like to explore, to dream."

René Maurice Bertrand Tavernier was born in Lyon on April 25, 1941, nearly a year after the Nazi invasion during World War II. His mother was a homemaker, and his father wrote poetry and founded the literary journal Confluences, which "became the vehicle for dozens of writers actively engaged in the resistance movement," according to the Virginia Quarterly Review.

After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Tavernier spent part of his childhood at a sanitarium. He began going to the movies daily while at high school in Paris, accompanied by another student, Volker Schlöndorff, who later directed "The Tin Drum." Tavernier went on to found a film club while studying at the Sorbonne, then dropped out of school after interviewing Melville, who offered him the chance to work as an assistant director.

He later said he was terrible at the job, perpetually frightened by his boss, who "behaved like a tyrant on the set." But he found his footing in the industry after Melville suggested he become a press agent, a job that enabled him to work with French, Italian and American filmmakers, including Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh.

Tavernier's early films included "Let Joy Reign Supreme" (1975), a political satire set in 1720s France, and "A Week's Holiday" (1980), starring Nathalie Baye as a brooding, dissatisfied schoolteacher who takes a brief vacation to reexamine her life.

His later works included "Life and Nothing But" (1989), about a group of French soldiers sifting through the soil around Verdun to identify victims of World War I; "L.627" (1992), about a police narcotics squad in Paris; and "Safe Conduct" (2002), which examined the French film scene during the Nazi occupation.

Tavernier's first marriage, to screenwriter and collaborator Claudine "Colo" O'Hagan, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Sarah Tavernier; two children from his first marriage, filmmaker Nils Tavernier and writer Tiffany Tavernier; and a number of grandchildren.

In 2016, Tavernier released "My Journey Through French Cinema," a three-hour meditation on film, which explored some of the movies that had offered him direction when he was a boy recovering from tuberculosis.

"I wanted to say thank you to all those filmmakers, writers, composers for the way that they enlightened my life," he told NPR. "They gave me dreams, gave me passion. And I think I survived - I survived because of the cinema. It gave me hope. The cinema gave me a reason to live."

Published : March 27, 2021

By : The Washington Post, Harrison Smith