Bertrand Tavernier poses for a portrait at City of Lights, the City of Angels film festival in Los Angeles on April 11, 2005. Mark Mainz / Getty Images hide the caption
Mark Mainz / Getty Images
Mark Mainz / Getty Images
Bertrand Tavernier, best known in the US for his jazz film Round Midnight, has directed around 40 feature films and documentaries. He was also a noted film historian, the author of 50 Years of American Cinema, and advocated the work of other filmmakers, past and present. He was 79 years old.
The Paris-based film journalist Joan Dupont had known Tavernier for many years. She says Tavernier enjoyed the cinema – everything. “He’s a very amazing filmmaker because he jumps from one genre to another. You never know where you’ll find him next,” she said.
The historical drama Capitaine Conan takes place in the First World War. The St. Paul watchmaker tells the story of a man in the 1970s whose son murdered a factory owner. The film, which reached its broadest US audience, Round Midnight, is about a Frenchman’s love for American jazz. Tavernier also made documentaries about the Revolutionary War in Algeria, undocumented immigrants in France and blues singers in the American Mississippi Delta.
In all of them he wanted to expand the strong American influence in the films – but make French films, like he told WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1996.
“We had films that were derived from American cinema,” said Tavernier. “We have people who are trying to make copies of American films who say they’ll sell more in the US. And I love American directors and American cinema. I just want to keep making the films I want – and I want other French filmmakers to keep track of the films they want. “
Tavernier started filmmaking in 1964. His breakthrough in the US came 20 years later with A Sunday in the Country about an aging painter and his grown up children.
Tavernier was younger than the great filmmakers of the French New Wave, although he was once an assistant to Jean-Luc Godard. But he differed from Godard and others in one decisive attitude, says the writer Joan Dupont: “He said to me: ‘They never really show you workers.’ I think he said they don’t show you people, they show you special people. I find him extremely touching in his passion and his sensitivity for what he has lived, his perception of others, because he moves and observes. “
Despite directing a number of historical dramas, Tavernier refused to treat the past as a museum. His 2010 film The Princess of Montpensier is about a very young bride in the 16th century during the fierce religious wars between Catholics and Protestants.
“If I’m not completely mistaken, I get the impression that killing in the name of religions is still something that happens today, isn’t it?” Tavernier said in 2010. “I think it makes the front page of a lot of newspapers around the world. It seems to me that treating women is still something we talk about a lot, no?”
Five years later he told me that when he was a child with tuberculosis, he first fell in love with the cinema. The staff at the sanatorium showed the patients films and he said films had saved his life back then – and also in 2015 when he was lying in a hospital bed after cancer surgery. He edited My Journey through French Cinema, his more than three-hour homage to the great French filmmakers who preceded him.
“I wanted to say thank you for the way that you light up my life.” he told NPR in 2017. “They made me richer, more passionate, more curious. For the ways they sometimes save my life. When I was very young I was sick. I was not in good health, had TB, and cinema was something – it gave me dreams, it gave me passion. I think I survive, I survive because of cinema. It gave me hope. “