Thursday, September 26, 2013

Remastering the Film: Bertrand Tavernier


While I am still at it, my list of unfinished business reminds me that I have yet to finish a modest project that I started in 2011, Remastering the Film, a series of profiles of what I consider to be the world's greatest filmmakers.

Some people seem born to make films. Vigo, Fellini, Kurosawa. What would they have done with themselves, I wonder, if they hadn't been filmmakers? Others, like Bruce Beresford, Zhang Yimou, and the man I celebrate today, Bertrand Tavernier, seem to go about their business as filmmakers more deliberately and methodically. It's easy to imagine them excelling at some other pursuit, like philosophy, the Law, or even politics.

If one discounts the critical argument levelled by François Truffaut at the legendary script-writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (1), which was one of the many strange ways in which the Cahiers du Cinema critics cannibalized their national cinema, Bertrand Tavernier is easily the best French filmmaker of his generation. Tavernier saw the sheer idiocy and injustice of Truffaut's argument, and got the elderly Aurenche (2) to write the the scripts for his first three feature films, Let Joy Reign Supreme (1974), The Clockmaker (1974), and The Judge and the Murderer (1976), three first films whose brilliance and uniqueness rival those of Truffaut himself. Tavernier later adapted a novel by Pierre Bost for his luminous film, A Sunday in the Country (1983).

After such a brilliant start to his career, it would've been predictable if Tavernier had slid into a sharp decline, as just about every notable French director (Including Truffaut) had done before him. He did experience a somewhat self-indulgent phase, with Des Enfants Gates (1977), the often charming but slight A Week's Vacation (1980) and the clever but terribly arch Coup de Torchon (1981). He regained his sure footing with the exquisite A Sunday in the Country, which explores the world of a painter of the Impressionist era.   

Of all his films, I've seen, I am sad to say, only eleven. It's difficult for me to choose a favorite. The Clockmaker portrays a loving father's inability to deliver his son from evil. The Judge and the Murderer shows us how clumsily human justice punishes the worst crimes. A Sunday in the Country opens for us the heart and mind of an old artist. It All Begins Today (1999) delineates the heartbreaking inadequacy of compassion.

I recently had the pleasure of viewing one of his latest films, The Princess of Montpensier (2010) (3), based on a story by Madame de La Fayette and starring the stunning Mélanie Thierry. As in his earlier earlier La Passion Beatrice (1987), Tavernier breathed life into past lives and a bygone era with subtlety and great art. Tavernier's latest film, Quai d'Orsay, is a comedy starring Thierry Lhermitte. It was shown at the Toronto Film Festival last month.


(1) The essay was published in 1954 and centered on a treatment the team had written of the Georges Bernanos novel Le Journal d'un Cure de Campagne, which was rejected by the director Robert Bresson. Due partly to the essay, and the decline of the directors they had worked for, they found little work in the Sixties.
(2) Aurenche was 71 at the time.
(3) The film premiered in competition at Cannes on my birthday. (It lost to a Thai film called Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.)

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