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Bertrand Tavernier - An Obituary

Bertrand Tavernier – Film director

Born April 25, 1941; died March 25, 2021 


 Bertrand Tavernier, who has died aged 79, was a filmmaker who applied an endless curiosity about human behaviour and the world it exists in to a weighty and expansive vision across almost forty features that took French cinema beyond the New Wave. Tavernier was perhaps best known in the UK for English language features that included ‘Round Midnight (1986), which starred real life jazz musician Dexter Gordon as an addict saxophonist. Over forty years as a director, his range embraced everything from slow burning cop dramas to historical period pieces, all driven by a political sensibility that loomed large.


This was clear from his debut as a director on The Watchmaker of St Paul (1974), which drew from a story by Georges Simenon in its study of a father and the detective searching for his teenage son after he apparently killed someone. Corps de Torchon (1981) was adapted from Jim Thompson’s pulp noir novel, Pop.1280, transferring the story’s setting to West Africa in a tale of colonial corruption starring Isabelle Huppert Both films featured Phillipe Noiret, who collaborated with Tavernier several times.


Closer to home, Tavernier came to Glasgow to make Death Watch (1980), a bleakly prophetic piece of dystopian speculative fiction based on David G. Compton’s 1973 novel, The Unsleeping Eye. Tavernier’s film saw Romy Schneider’s dying Katherine pursued by Harvey Keitel’s Roddy, who has had tiny cameras transplanted behind his eyes in order that his round the clock filming of Katherine’s apparent final days can be broadcast live on national television. As Death Watch presaged the all-pervasive mass appeal of reality TV a couple of decades later, the monolithic greyness of an unreconstructed Glasgow in scenes at the Necropolis and a barren looking city centre gave the film a stately melancholy. 


"I remember vividly the shock I had when I discovered Glasgow,” Tavernier told the Herald in 2012 prior to a screening of a restored print of Death Watch at Glasgow Film Festival. “I was much more moved by Glasgow than Edinburgh. It was a city which had a soul, and a past. Maybe it had problems then and it seemed rundown, but it had heart. When I saw the Necropolis, I thought I had to use it for a film set in the future. I thought it would be interesting to have a science-fiction film that used 18th- and 19th-century buildings, and that would not have any kind of fake special effects."


Rene Maurice Bertrand Tavernier was born in Lyon, France, to Genevieve (nee Dumond) and Rene Tavernier, a writer and publicist, who founded pro resistance literary journal, Confluences. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Tavernier spent part of his childhood in a sanatorium. It was here he became obsessed with film, and while at high school in Paris would visit the cinema with fellow student Volker Schlondorff, who would also go on to become an internationally renowned director. Tavernier founded a film club while ostensibly studying law at the Sorbonne, but dropped out after being hired ass an assistant director by Jean-Pierre Melville after interviewing him for his film magazine. Tavernier soon became a publicist instead for films directed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Agnes Varda, and famously wrote an angry letter to Stanley Kubrick after walking off a Clockwork Orange.


After making several shorts, The Watchmaker of St Paul introduced a talent more formal than his restless New Wave antecedents, but just as committed. A sense of place was evident in many of Tavernier’s films, which won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Herbie Hancock for the score of Round Midnight, for which Gordon was nominated as best actor. Other films included A Sunday in the Country (1984), Life and Nothing But (1990), and Daddy Nostalgia (1990), which featured the last screen appearance by Dirk Bogarde. 


Tavernier was first and foremost a film fan, who contributed to influential film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, and who championed the work of John Ford and Michael Powell in a way that saw him out-geek Martin Scorsese, who played a small role in Round Midnight.


Later films included the deeply personal Safe Conduct (2002), which looked at both the French Resistance against a backdrop of the country’s film industry; and Louisiana set murder mystery, In the Electric Mist (2009).


In 2011, Tavernier published Le cinema dans le sang (Cinema in the Blood), in which he reflected on his life in film, both as a director and a viewer. His life long love affair with cinema was cemented in his final film, the documentary, My Journey Through French Cinema (2016). In-between the two he directed The French Minister (2013), though it was his personal homage to the form itself that lingered.


“I wanted to say thank you to all those filmmakers, writers, composers for the way that they enlightened my life,” he said in an interview at the time My Journey Through French Cinema was released. “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.”


He is survived by his wife Sarah, and his two children from his marriage to screenwriter Claudine (Colo) O’Hagen from 1965 to 1980, his son Nils, and his daughter Tiffany.

The Herald, April 3rd 2021




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