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Bertrand Tavernier, the filmmaker, cineaste and critic who emerged in the wake of the French New Wave with such classics as The Clockmaker of St. Paul, A Sunday in the Country and ‘Round Midnight, died Thursday. He was 79.
Tavernier died in Sainte-Maxime in the Var region of southeastern France, relatives told the newspaper La Croix.
Renowned for the movies he made with actor Philippe Noiret, including The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974), Coup de Torchon (1981) and Life and Nothing But (1989), Tavernier directed nearly 30 features and documentaries in a prolific career that began in the early 1960s and continued for the next 50-odd years.
A five-time César Award winner (two prizes for directing, three for screenwriting), he was accomplished in a wide variety of genres and epochs, from gritty crime movies (1992’s L.627, 1995’s Fresh Bait) to ambitious war flicks (1996’s Captain Conan) to intimate historical dramas (1976’s The Judge and the Assassin, 2010’s The Princess of Montpensier) and music films (1983’s Mississippi Blues, 1986’s ‘Round Midnight), highlighting his love of American jazz and blues artists.
Alongside his directing projects, Tavernier was an avid film writer and critic, with his reviews appearing in Cahiers du cinéma, Positif and Cinéma. His encyclopedic book 30 ans de cinéma Américain (written with Jean-Pierre Coursodon and updated in 1991 to encompass 50 years of movies) has long been considered a reference on Hollywood film in France, and his massive 2008 volume Amis américains featured interviews with such legendary directors as John Ford, John Huston and Elia Kazan and the more recent auteurs Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne.
A native of Lyon, where he presided over the Institut Lumière film foundation along with Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux, Tavernier was a lifelong cinephile whose final film, the illuminating documentary A Journey Through French Cinema (2016), explored the history of Gallic movies by focusing on less-championed auteurs including Jacques Becker, Claude Sautet and Hollywood blacklist victim John Berry.
“We at the DGA mourn the loss of Bertrand Tavernier, a great director and a great friend of directors,” DGA past president and Franco-American Cultural Fund board member Taylor Hackford said in a statement. “Our guild’s strong bond with Bertrand dates back four decades as we joined together in our advocacy of the filmmakers’ right to be in control of the integrity of their work, beginning with our shared fight against the colorization of black and white films. I had a running dialogue with Bertrand for many years — he knew as much about cinema as anyone I’ve ever known.”
“In Bertrand Tavernier we have lost one of the most prestigious and influential figures in the French film culture of the second half of the twentieth century,” said Venice Film Festival Director Alberto Barbera in a statement. “French cinephiles have lost one of their symbols, the cinema of one of their most original and esteemed authors.” Tavernier won Venice’s 2015 Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and screened over the years screened three films at the Lido: The Judge and the Assassin in 1976, Round Midnight in 1986, and the police drama L.627 in 1992.
“The legacy of films that he has left us are a fascinating, eclectic, and non-conformist body of work that we will never forget. We will miss his intelligence, his lucid and passionate critical vision, his absolute dedication to the cause of cinema,” said Barbera.
Born in the midst of World War II on April 25, 1941, Tavernier was the son of Geneviève Dumond and the writer and resistance fighter René Tavernier. In 1950, the family moved to Paris, where the young Tavernier began frequenting the Cinémathèque Française. One of his friends in school was future director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), and along with other cinéphiles he founded the film club Le Nickel Odéon in 1961.
When he graduated high school, Tavernier was hired by director Jean-Pierre Melville as a production assistant on the 1961 religious drama Léon Morin, Priest, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. He then worked as a publicist for legendary New Wave producer George de Beauregard, whose stable of auteurs included Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda and Jacques Rivette. (Tavernier worked in tandem with fellow film buff and future Cannes programmer Pierre Rissient, who died in 2018.)
After directing several shorts and writing scripts for other filmmakers, Tavernier made his feature debut with The Clockmaker of St. Paul, adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon. It would be his first of many pairings with Noiret, who in this film starred as a lonely single father whose teenage son is accused of murdering a factory watchman.
The film, which was made in Lyon and also featured Jean Rochefort as a police chief in pursuit of the killer, featured many elements that would characterize Tavernier’s best-known work: fluid handheld camera movement sticking closely to the characters, a melancholic tone mixed with flashes of humor, and a script (in this case, written by classic Gallic screenwriters Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche, the latter whom would work on several Tavernier projects) exploiting traditional genre tropes in untraditionally intimate ways.
Released in 1974, The Clockmaker sealed Tavernier’s reputation as an auteur to watch, and went on to win the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the prestigious Prix Louis-Delluc in France.
Tavernier worked steadily in the decades that followed. His best-known features are the colonial thriller Coup de Torchon, adapted from Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 and featuring Noiret as a policeman who slowly kills off the people in his West African town, with Isabelle Huppert co-starring as a young and abused bride; the 1912-set painter drama A Sunday in the Country (1984), which garnered Tavernier a best director prize in Cannes and won three Césars, including best adapted screenplay; the Paris-set policier L.627, whose attention to procedure and the daily grind of narcotics detectives predated The Wire by a good decade; and the epic battle saga Captain Conan, about French soldiers fighting in the Balkans during the end of WWII.
An avid fan of American movies and music, Tavernier made the documentary Mississippi Blues along with editor Robert Parrish (All the King’s Men), exploring the heritage of gospel, blues and William Faulkner in the Deep South; the Warner Bros. drama ‘Round Midnight, starring tenor saxophonist (and non-actor) Dexter Gordon as an aging jazzman in Paris who strikes up a friendship with a young French fan; and the 2009 bayou-set thriller In the Electric Mist, adapted from the James Lee Burke novel and featuring Tommy Lee Jones as a detective in post-Katrina New Orleans. (Mist was released directly on DVD in the U.S. in a version disavowed by the director.)
At the end of his career, Tavernier did a handful of well-received features spanning various genres, including the historical drama Safe Conduct (2002), about French film workers surviving under the German occupation; the period piece The Princess of Montpensier, starring Mélanie Thierry; and the political satire The French Minister (2013), about real-life foreign affairs minister Dominique de Villepin.
Survivors include his son, actor and filmmaker Nils Tavernier (The Finishers), and his daughter, the novelist and screenwriter Tiffany Tavernier, who co-wrote her father’s movies It All Starts Today (1999) and Holy Lola (2004).
In 2011, Tavernier released the interview book Le cinéma dans le sang (Cinema in the Blood) in which he reflected on his long life as a film lover and filmmaker. Dishing out advice to aspiring directors, he said, “If you want to work in this profession, which is much more a passion than a profession — something vast, stimulating and powerful — you need to have a solid sense of humor, because you’re going to catch hell.”
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