Q&A: Bertrand Tavernier

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Prolific French director Bertrand Tavernier has made more than 20 features in more than 35 years in the business. The legendary filmmaker is a master of social commentary and drama and, above all, a time traveler who has taken audiences from 18th-century France ("Let Joy Reign Supreme") to World War I ("Capitaine Conan") to the post-World War I period (1990's "Life and Nothing But") to World War II ("Safe Conduct") and just last year to the American Deep South during the Civil War era ("In the Electric Mist"). Tavernier's latest film "The Princess of Montpensier," based on a short story by Madame de La Fayette, is a romantic tale of forbidden love that follows the tragic fate of a princess in 16th-century France. Tavernier joined THR's France correspondent Rebecca Leffler in 21st century France to talk about princesses in love, crazy tales of Cannes festivals past and why the 69-year-old director isn't about to stop making movies anytime soon.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide to tell this particular story?

Bertrand Tavernier: It was actually my producer who proposed the idea to me. I was very, very touched because I saw a magnificent love story. I really wanted to film a love story. It's the portrait of a young woman who is complex, strong, touching and who is torn between her duty and her passion. For me, this was a real heroine.

THR: So she's a modern woman even if the story takes place in the 16th century?

Tavernier: Yes, it's complicated. She wants to be loyal to her husband, but she's in love with another man. Not to mention, there are other suitors. In that day, they taught men to fight, and they taught women to sew. But the princess wants to learn how to write, which was rare at the time. She's a woman who fights, who loves and all of that touched me a lot.

THR: You've made more personal films and more historical films. Are there autobiographical or personal elements in this historical epic?

Tavernier: I hope so. I think that one can't make movies if one doesn't put a lot of oneself into it. It may be hidden or less obvious, but I definitely identified with many of the characters in this film. Whether it was Lambert Wilson's character or Melanie Thierry's character, I felt very close to them. I understood all of their desires and their feelings.

THR: You first came to Cannes to present a film in 1980 with "Une Semaine de Vacances." How has your work changed since then?

Tavernier: Each time I've been to Cannes with a film, they've been very intimate projects. This is the first time I'm coming with a historical movie. I haven't been back in 22 years, other than brief appearances for an homage to Philippe Lioret and for Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. I have the impression that the films I made in the '90s had more of a sense of urgency -- they were less meditative because those were the times we were living in. Change is perpetual. All of the films I've made, even over the last 15 years, feel like first films. Every time, I try something new. I don't want to follow the same routine. I've made historical films, more intimate films and also several documentaries.

THR: Your 1992 documentary "The War Without a Name" focused on the Franco-Algerian conflict. What do you think of the media storm surrounding your colleague Rachid Bouchareb's Competition entry that also deals with this controversial period in French history?

Tavernier: Taboos still exist. A deputy asked to prevent the film from being screened before he'd even seen it. We need to give a special prize to people like him, people who talk without having seen a film. It's imbecility. It's arrogance. It's sordidness. As long as there are imbeciles like that, there will be taboos. Rachid Bouchareb is someone who I really admire. Now, the deputy has become a publicist for the movie since we're talking about it 10 times more than we would have otherwise before the screening. It proves that politicians should be dealing with unemployment or salary problems, not talking about films they haven't seen. That's something that's very French.

THR: How do you feel being back in Cannes after all this time? Is there anything you're not looking forward to?

Tavernier: I hate having to put on a bowtie and climb the red carpet steps. I'm all of a sudden very shy. Of course, the shyness disappears if the audience likes the film. I'm always a bit scared going into it. There's always a tension during the screening. I'm the same as I was when I presented my first movie. I haven't changed. Nothing is ever certain. I'm still just as enthusiastic and still feel just as happy to see people who like the movie. I don't feel any competition whatsoever with the other filmmakers.

THR: What is your fondest memory in Cannes?

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Tavernier: There are two incredible moments that I'll never forget. One night, I was on the Croisette and someone called out to me -- 'Bertrand! Bertrand!' He told me 'Your film is magnificent, incredible, it's one of the best I've ever seen.' I turned around and it was Stanley Donen. I said to him, 'Stanley! Be quiet! You're on the jury." He said, 'I just had to tell you how much I loved the film.' I couldn't believe that this man who I'd thought to be so cold was actually so warm and kind. Then, when I received the prize for 'A Sunday in the Country,' I sat down and John Huston put his hands on my shoulders and said, "Great, kid." That was better than the prize.

THR: Are there any other anecdotes from days of Festival de Cannes past that you want to share?

Tavernier: There are so many. I remember one year, they screened a subtitled version of a Kirosawa film. The subtitling was so bad -- it was a mix of very old French, almost incomprehensible for an audience with words coming from the middle ages and very, very vulgar French. In one scene, the man said "Go and fuck the courtisane." Meanwhile, it's a very beautiful film. I still remember that screening. Then there was a film whose French title translated to "The Education of Love," so I thought I was going to see a film about sex and was really looking forward to it. Turns out, the publicist messed up the title translation and it was meant to say "The Love of Education" so we were forced to sit through a two-hour melodrama. We were duped.

THR: You filmed your last movie "In the Electric Mist" in the U.S. Was it different working there than in France?

Tavernier: Yes, the film crews are much more enormous and more hierarchical. I was incredibly impressed by the work of the American actors in the film. I even brought the same cameraman from that film to France to work on "The Princess of Montpensier." In fact, Tommy Lee Jones just sent me a congratulatory message when he heard about the film being selected for Cannes.

THR: You're very prolific. What's next on your busy agenda after Cannes?

Tavernier: I need to rest a little bit. I just released two books -- one is 900 pages. I want to take one-two months to go and swim on vacation with my wife.

What's your greatest cinematographic accomplishment?
Tavernier: To have made very, very different films. To have passed from documentary to World War I to a film about teachers in the north of France to World War II or a film noir in Africa. My greatest sense of pride is that the people concerned by these subjects find them very accurate. Historians found my films about World War I to be ahead of their time, teachers wrote me hundreds of letters to tell me they loved "Life and Nothing But," and people who lived through World War II wrote to say I was right about how things were with "Safe Conduct." I'm proud to have an open spirit, a curiosity and an ability to absorb worlds that are very different from each other and also from what I've lived myself.

THR: What is your greatest regret?

Tavernier: Never having made films with Jean Gabin and never having met Gary Cooper. When I was 14 years old, I wanted to make movies so that I could meet Gary Cooper one day and I never met him.

THR: You've been making films for more than 35 years. Are you tired?

Tavernier: Not at all. I still have the same enthusiasm and passion when I create a story, go on set, edit or work on the music. My life is making films. I love to read, to listen to music and to write. I love working on a subject with actors. Both the excitation of a movie and the anguish associated with it are equally interesting. I've had a very, very happy life. 98% of the films I've made, I've chosen to make. I initiated them and co-wrote them -- that's not bad.

THR: How do you want to be remembered?

Tavernier: As a filmmaker and as an optimist.
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