Bertrand Tavernier, French Filmmaker and Leader of a Generation, Dies at 79

Carmel Dagan
·6-min read

Bertrand Tavernier, the prolific French filmmaker noted for films such as “Coup de Torchon” (1981), “A Sunday in the Country” (1984) and “Round Midnight” (1986), has died. He was 79.

The director’s death was confirmed on Thursday by France’s Institut Lumière — for which he served as president — and Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux. Tavernier had struggled with a pancreatic infection for some time, but it’s believed his death was abrupt.

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Besides presiding over Lumière and organizing its annual film festival with Thierry Fremaux, Tavernier was working on a film adaptation of a book by Russel Banks, and also writing the sequel to his book “50 Years of American Cinema.”

Roger Ebert called Tavernier “one of the most gifted and skilled of French directors, the leader of the generation after the New Wave” and asserted that the director’s work represented a quiet repudiation of “the auteur theory that he once supported, since Tavernier never forces himself or a style” upon the viewer.

“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,” said Ebert. “To see the work of some directors is to feel closer to them. To see Tavernier’s work is to feel closer to life.”

His other films that drew attention outside of France include “A Week’s Vacation,” “L.627,” “It All Starts Today” and “The Princess of Montpensier.”

In 1980’s “A Week’s Vacation” (Une Semaine de vacance), Nathalie Baye played a schoolteacher who takes a week off to ponder her life, and in her sensitive performance, the actor expresses the doubts and anxieties that can plague us and demonstrates the power of rediscovery.

The following year, in “Coup de Torchon,” Tavernier took a Jim Thompson novel and transplanted it to North Africa, creating an atmospheric film with interesting moral dimensions. Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert star in the story of a broken-down police chief in a small village who opts to begin dispatching the town’s unworthy denizens with his gun. The New York Times said: “Mr. Tavernier re-creates the film’s setting and time period with great care and paints a detailed portrait of the racial tensions generated by colonialism, as well as of the moral deterioration of the colonials themselves.”

“A Sunday in the Country” (1984), set in a country house near Paris in 1912, was a “graceful and delicate story about the hidden currents in a family,” said Ebert. The film has “a haunting, sweet, sad quality. It is about this family, and many families. It is told by Tavernier with great attention to detail, and the details add up to the way life is.” He won best director at the Cannes Film Festival for the film.

Meanwhile, “Round Midnight” explored the world of jazz in the way that only a lover — and student — of American culture could. The Washington Post said: “It’s the eleventh hour for a generation of jazzmen and ‘Round Midnight’ sounds a requiem for be-bop. It’s a simple-sounding word for a demanding discipline, notes Dexter Gordon, whose 40 years in the groove give credence to his role as a winded saxophonist in this eloquent ode by Bertrand Tavernier.”

Scripted by Tavernier’s ex-wife Colo Tavernier O’Hagan (“Story of Women”), “Daddy Nostalgia” (1990) was Dirk Bogarde’s last film, and Tavernier elicited a performance worthy of the final performance of a great actor.

“Life and Nothing But,” in which Noiret returned to play an officer charged with figuring out what happened to all the missing in the wake of World War I, won the BAFTA for best film in a language other than English in 1990 and a total of four Cesar Awards.

“L.627” (1992) couldn’t have been more different. The gritty police drama depicts the futility of the efforts of Lulu, a narcotics cop who doesn’t play by the rules. Variety wrote: “In his remarkable new film, Bertrand Tavernier takes an impassioned inside look at the day-to-day activities of a small, ill-equipped branch of the Paris Drug Squad. With extraordinary documentary realism, the director has produced one of his best and most challenging films.”

In 1995’s “The Bait” (L’Appât), which won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was based on a real 1984 event, Tavernier explores a murder committed by two boys and a girl, with the girl acting as bait. “It All Starts Today” (1999) followed a year in the life in the life of Daniel (Philippe Torreton), head of a preschool in an economically depressed former coal-mining region of France.

More recently, “Safe Conduct” (2002) explored the French filmmakers who continued to work during the Nazi Occupation. “Holy Lola” (2004) followed the efforts of a young French couple to adopt an orphaned child in contemporary Cambodia; and the feature documentary “Histoires de vies brisées” explored the double punishment levied on immigrants convicted of crimes: After serving their terms, they are deported from France.

The director’s 2010 compelling period drama “The Princess of Montpensier” finds a young noblewoman “torn between passion, duty, companionship and ambition, each quality personified by a different man,” Variety said.

Tavernier was born in Lyon. By the time he reached adolescence, he wanted to become a filmmaker. In a discussion before an audience in Australia in 2009 as part of an “On the Set with French Cinema” program, the director, according to the Socialist World website, “told the audience that every artist and intellectual had a moral responsibility to be faithful to his characters and his art and to tell the truth. This outlook, he said, had been instilled in him by his writer father, René Tavernier, who published a resistance literary journal in Lyon during WWII and had provided sanctuary for anti-Nazi intellectuals.”

Tavernier was a student at the Sorbonne when he interviewed director Jean-Pierre Melville, for whom he worked briefly as an assistant director. He ended up as a production publicist for the company that produced Melville’s films on the director’s 1962 film “Le Doulos”; he subsequently partnered with a friend to become independent press agents, working on the films that interested them.

He occasionally worked as an assistant director in Italy during the 1960s, and he directed segments of two films in 1964, but Tavernier made his feature directorial debut on the poignant, emotionally complex mystery/crime film “The Clockmaker of St. Paul” (1974) — which won France’s prestigious Prix Louis Delluc as well as the Silver Bear Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival — and worked steadily as a director after that.

Tavernier penned a guide to U.S. film history whose first edition was called “20 Years of American Cinema”; it was subsequently expanded to “30 Years…” and then “50 Years of American Cinema.”

The director’s other book on U.S. cinema is called “American Friends.” “This has interviews with many American directors from John Ford to Robert Altman, to Robert Parrish and Roger Corman, and many others who had not been interviewed before,” Tavernier told an interviewer. “I got to know practically everybody who was blacklisted and interviewed many people — John Berry, Joe Losey, Abe Polonsky and others.”

He was married to screenwriter Claudine (Colo) O’Hagen from 1965 to 1980.

Tavernier is survived by their two children, son Nils Tavernier, a director and actor, and daughter Tiffany Tavernier, a novelist, screenwriter and assistant director, as well as his second wife Sarah.

Manori Ravindran and Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.

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