With the death of Bertrand Tavernier we have lost a master, one of the seminal presences in film for most of my lifetime. I interviewed him when he came to London in September 2008 to accept the first Master award as guest of honour at the late, lamented Crime Scene festival, which also mounted a retrospective of his (mostly) crime films at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. After we met in the ICA cafe, we were led through a kitchen, up a tiny works elevator, and through a maze of narrow corridors that made me feel like Eddie Constantine navigating Alphaville, before we finally arrived in a very traditional looking English office, redolent of something from Le Carre’s Circus — no wonder the ICA keep it so hidden — overlooking St James Park and Big Ben. But once we sat down to talk, the setting disappeared and the time flew past, which was a shame because the focus was on crime films and I also very much wanted to inquire about the specifics of the whole of his career. The Watchmaker Of St Paul was the first film of his I saw, viewed in rep one afternoon not long after I moved to London, skipping out from my news agency job.
Tavernier’s is a life spent within film: as critic, publicist, director, producer; his enthusiasm for his calling remains undiminished by the vagaries of the business. If you’d like to get a sense of what this felt like in discussion, watch A Journey Through French Cinema, his 2016 film which is both an insightful introduction to its subject and an enticing portrait of the way in which he felt himself shaped by the films with which he fell in love. If you enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s similar study of American film, this one is even more involving, especially when considering French films with less international exposure.
In the documentaty, as in our interview, one idea flows into another; you can’t discuss his own films with him without his discussing dozens of others. Because we digressed so much, we actually didn’t cover all the bases, so to fill some gaps I interspersed a few quotes taken from festival director Adrian Wooten’s on-stage Crime Scene interview, which took place that evening. It remains one of my favourite interviews, and afternoons, ever.
I began by asking Tavernier about his early embrace of American crime movies…
BT: Well, I was interested in all kinds of film in those days, but perhaps because everyone wanted to write about Visconti and no one was writing about westerns, or musicals, or film noir, I was drawn to that. I was attracted by style; these crime films were saying much more than what they were supposed to say; they were full of information about the American way of life, there was lots of social context, and they were written or directed largely by progressive people, or people forced to leave their own country…
MC: SO MANY OF THE GREAT NOIR DIRECTORS ARE IMMIGRANTS
Yes, they brought things that were not existing, so much, a sense of doubt or skepticism…well, this is too simple but American cinema tends to be about affirmation, and the European was more about doubt. Directors like Siodmak, Preminger, Lubitsch, Wilder, bring this with them.
YOU COULD ARGUE FILM NOIR WAS EUROPEAN SENSIBILITY MEETING THE AMERICAN GANGSTER FILM
Oh yes, but even in France at the end of the 1930s, you had Carne, and films written by Prevert.
QUAI DES BRUMES?
YOU WERE A CRITIC BEFORE STARTING AS AN ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WITH JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE
I never considered myself a critic; I did it merely out of passion because I wanted to be a film director. But I was not a good AD working with Melville; it was a bad experience, and he was not an easy man to work with, very intimidating to people on the set. But he knew I was not suited, so he suggested I might be better as a press agent, and that proved perfect: I could learn about films without the problems of being an AD, sit in on every stage of the process, and as I became more successful in PR it was special because I could work only on films I liked: so I did PR for Ford, Walsh, Henry Hathaway, and also for Godard, Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda…the second thing I did as a press agent was to make a trailer for the Godard film.
AND FOR YOUR FIRST FEATURE, YOU ADAPTED SIMENON
Because I loved him. I had already written one screenplay, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Beach Of Falesa’, and I’d got James Mason and Jacques Brel to agree to be in it, but I couldn’t get the finance. I tried to write another screenplay, about the French Gestapo, but when I showed it to (the screenwriter) Pierre Bost he said ‘these people were scumbags, to make them into heroes is dangerous’, well, not heroes, he meant they become interesting by being the main characters.
WHICH IS INTERESTING, BECAUSE THAT’S ONE OF THE THEMES OF LAISSEZ-PASSE (SAFE CONDUCT, Tavernier’s 2002 film about the French film industry, and two very different screenwriters, during the Occupation)
Yes, and the French critics called that picture an attack on the New Wave, Godard in particular. But they didn’t know I’d worked on pictures like Pierrot Le Fou or fought for him on Le Mepris. I saw Godard at his tribute at the Institute Lumiere, and he was very nice to me. But Laissez-Passe is about the spirit of resistance, and the behaviour of people under occupation.
I THINK OF SOMEONE LIKE SODERBERGH TODAY, AND WONDER IF THE CRIME FILM HELPS PROVIDE A STRUCTURE FOR FILM MAKERS
Yes, it does, and it’s a structure that you can break or destroy — but you must have a basis. Dexter Gordon said to me once “before trying to break all the barriers, learn how to play ‘Laura’. When you know ‘Laura’ in the right mood, then you can expand.” John Boorman once said he only needed the shot of someone putting a rifle in a suitcase. After that, you can go in a lot of innovative ways, because you have that moment of danger and conflict. And in film noir they found thousands of ways, flashbacks, false flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks.
YES, I JUST SAW ‘THE LOCKET’ AGAIN
Exactly. Resnais called film noir the best school for telling a story in the most modern way, and it’s amazing how they are still very much alive and not dated. Pitfall, The Big Clock, as interesting as they were, maybe moreso. They give the opportunity for the writer to write different dialogue, always interesting. Out Of The Past has wonderful dialogue, it’s not one note, and you have the literary, very sparse, like The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave. The people doing the writing knew they could smuggle ideas in.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO THE WATCHMAKER OF ST PAUL
Yes, because Simenon is on of the most important writers in France — at least thirty masterpieces, plus all the great Maigrets. He’s often reduced to atmosphere, but suddenly he gets the essence of something, the naked man: we had this wonderful scene, when Noiret lies down on his son’s bed, after learning he’s a killer, and he’s a man deprived of what society has made of him.
PHILIPPE NOIRET CONVEYS AN AMAZINGLY LONELY MAN, WHICH I ASSOCIATE WITH MANY OF SIMENON’S CHARACTERS
Yes, he is alone. My early films are always broken families, people are always lonely. Perhaps because my parents never got along, so I was raised that way.
AND IT’S ODD TO SEE SIMENON SET IN THE SUMMER, IN LYON
Yes, he’s always done in fog and rain, but I wanted to shoot the film in summer, in great light, because the foggy atmosphere is merely superficial. In fact, about 80% of the screenplay is original, but when you add, when it’s good, it’s what Jean Aurenche called a gift inspired by the love you have for the book.
YOUR THIRD FILM , THE JUDGE AND THE ASSASSIN, COMBINED CRIME, LIKE YOUR FIRST ONE, WITH A PERIOD PIECE, LIKE YOUR SECOND, QUE LA FETE COMMENCE
I was doing a trilogy with Noiret, dealing with issues of justice, and this was based on a very famous case at the time. I was looking for the texture behind the crime story; the time of Dreyfus, the battle between religion and the state. It’s set between the death of Van Gogh and the birth of Freud. It’s never been released in Britain, and I don’t understand why. As the killer, we cast an actor, Michel Galabru, who’d done only low class bad comedy films, but he was very good; he brought the sense of uncertainty to the role.
IT’S IN CINEMASCOPE
We shot in the Ardeche, and tried to integrate the landscape. I was influenced by Delmer Daves and he saw that and loved the film. The early films I loved, of John Ford especially, rooted the heroes in their environment, and with wide screen you can show them close up with the landscape still there behind them. I love Anthony Mann, how he gets the landscape into the film, and cinemascope lets me do that.
YOU MENTION DAVES, WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE REMAKE OF 3:10 TO YUMA?
Oh I hated it! Hated it! They take a shortcut through the Apaches and discover a town full of Chinese the sheriff had no idea existed there! Really. In the original, two men are killed in the opening, and those deaths mean something; the first reverberates throughout the picture.
HIS FUNERAL IN CONTENTION THAT MORNING IS A BIG THING…
Exactly. But in the remake, they kill dozens, randomly. The town, everyone is shooting. It makes no sense.
IT SEEMED TO ME THEY DELIBERATELY INVERTED THE MOST CRUCIAL THINGS ABOUT THE FILM. THE SON IS NOW THE HERO, NOT THE FATHER…
Yes, perhaps because of the audience. They make films for children, so the big choices in this film are made by a child. And the father must die, not triumph.
THEN WE MOVE TO 1981, AND COUP DE TORCHON (CLEAN SLATE), WHICH IS MANY PEOPLE’S FAVOURITE OF YOUR FILMS AND THEIR FAVOURITE JIM THOMPSON ADAPTATION
It took me five years to adapt. At first I wanted to set it in Lyon, my native city, but it didn’t work. You can’t kill someone in France without someone else noticing, the body turning up. I asked Perec, Blier, to help, but nothing worked. Then I was re-reading Celine, and I thought Ah ha! I wanted to ask Jean Aurenche to write it, because he had lived in Africa, and he brought that surreal sense of irony — his sister was married to Max Ernst, by the way — the paying of the workers in cinema tickets for example. Though the scene of the pigs and the dead bodies, that we took from Gide.
BUT THE SURREAL IS THERE IN THE ORIGINAL TOO
Oh yes. But when the Americans adapt Jim they wipe that out, they lose the metaphysical. There is always something strange going on, you’re not walking on solid ground, that’s why I used the steadicam so much; things are not stable, you can suddenly fall into a pit, that’s what Jim’s books are about. It leaves no way out for the audience, and I decided to keep that. There is no character who the audience can embrace at the end.
WHICH IS TRUE OF THE GRIFTERS, TO AN EXTENT, AS WELL
Donald Westlake, who wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, said he thought Coup de Torchon was the best Jim Thompson, and Westlake is a very very great writer.
IT WOULD BE ANOTHER DECADE BEFORE L627, WHICH WAS VERY DIFFERENT FOR YOU
It’s a story about someone trying to do what he’s been asked to do, in this case a cop on the drug squad, but he becomes a pain in the ass because he tries, and he’s told not to think about results.
I worked with a real detective in his office, his boss left me completely free, he showed me people dealing, explained the situation. But I made that film out of anger, because I’d had lunch with Laurent Fabius, who was minister of the interior, and he asked me for an example of something he could work on. So I told him my son had been a drug addict, and had taken me in the Metro, at Chatelet, where you could walk through an open drug market, to schools where people were selling, so I said, you could do something about that. And he said he wanted something important! I was speechless! The film created a big controversy in France, the minister of interior was angry, and said their policy was against drug dealing, but they actually did nothing, so the film was supported by the cops who understood. And it became a racial issue, because many, if not most, of the dealers were black. That was simply a fact. But by avoiding a crackdown, they opened the door for the likes of LePen, because it allowed him to then damn all blacks as dealers.
THERE IS A DOCUMENTARY FEEL, LESS LYRICAL, AND YOU’VE DONE MANY DOCUMENTARIES
Maybe it reflects the change in the social situation, the generation. My films seem to take on the energies of their main characters. All the actors were unknowns, Didier Bezace, Phillipe Torreton, Milo, and my son actually plays a young cop. But I wanted to show a hero who is sometimes doing things that are wrong, beating up suspects, because he has grown so frustrated with the so-called correct way, because it doesn’t work. My films are about people who are passionate, and that can lead him over the line, into doing things that are evil. In all my films people make mistakes.
WHICH THE SENSE ONE GETS FROM THE BAIT (L’APPAT, aka FRESH BAIT) THAT IT IS THE CULTURE, PERHAPS, WHICH HAS LET DOWN THESE THREE KILLERS
I felt it was an uncomfortable subject, how three people who would not harm anyone, but are ignorant, and dream of becoming rich in America, how could they kill people.
IT’S AS IF IT’S THE EASY WAY OUT?
They are lazy, too. And the pressure eventually turns them into killers. It was released in France on DVD, and I’m sorry it wasn’t in cinemas. The New York Times called it a French Natural Born Killers, the same subject but opposite in treatment.
WHICH BRINGS US TO IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, WITH TOMMY LEE JONES AND BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JAMES LEE BURKE. IS THERE A CONNECTION WITH COUP DE TORCHON, WITH THE AMERICAN SOUTH, THE ORIGINAL SETTING OF THOMPSON’S POP. 1280?
Not intentionally, but as you say it, I think there is a similarity. I adore Burke, and his books present something different, and like Thompson there is a surreal element to them
ESPECIALLY IN ELECTRIC MIST…
Yes, with the dreams. So I tried to shoot the dream sequences very straight-forwardly, very very realistically, with no distorted lenses or bizarre angles.
Burke is like Thompson too, in that his books have long sequences written in italics, because they are different from the real, and how do you film italics? In Thompson crime is explained by prejudice, intolerance, humilation. And the other element is Burke’s great sensitivity to social context, his sense of place. The past is always there, it’s his obsession, it explains the crimes of the present: it all goes back to slavery and the Civil War, things kept under the blanket and not dealt with.
IT’S VERY FAULKNERIAN
Faulkner was a nightmare to interview; the critics were asking all sorts of intellectual questions, and he wanted to talk story specifics. Very American. If you ask ‘is Burke intellectual?’, I don’t know how you answer. Raoul Walsh could quote any line from Shakespeare; Olivia de Havilland once said she walked in on him and he was reading Stendahl, and he hid the book lest she see it.
IF NOT INTELLECTUAL, DAVE ROBICHAUX IS AN INTENSELY REFLECTIVE CHARACTER, THE THINKING MAN’S COP, AND TOMMY LEE JONES ISN’T ALWAYS SEEN THAT WAY
Oh but for me he embodies everything about Robichaux, for me he is the best American actor. In No Country For Old Men and Three Burials he showed that side. He worked on our script, he’s very obsessive, even changing punctuation, and wrote some beautiful scenes, including one with Bootsie where he defines understanding by asking what salamanders understand, that won’t be in the finished film. But when you say ‘action’ there’s no fuss. He gives you the inside of Dave Robichaux, and I have never seen an actor who can express contempt for another character in such a restrained way; it couldn’t be more intense. Jacques Tourneur understood this: he had his actors speak very low all the time, shot them using only real light: there’s only one scream in I Walked With A Zombie; it plays like a confession.
THAT’S AN INTERESTING COMPARISON, BECAUSE THE CREOLE CULTURE IS COMMON TO NEW ORLEANS AND HAITI…
And the food! I used a lot of hot sauce there; I came back with a case of Bin Laden’s Most Devilish hot sauce. There is also a very Catholic element, very religious to Burke, but very progressive, very anti-Bush, with the post-Katrina setting.
SO IT’S TOPICAL AND TROPICAL! WHEN WILL IT BE OUT?
Sometime next year. It was delayed by the writer’s strike but I’m mixing the world version in Paris now, and the soundtrack is wonderful, Buddy Guy, Clifton Chenier.
LAISSEZ LES BON-TEMPS ROULEZ! MERCI BIEN….
We talked more about New Orleans, and Cochon, a restaurant we both adored, in which I had filmed a spot for a pre-Super Bowl feature on the city the year before. I saw Tavenier’s cut In The Electric Mist at a screening at the Royal Society of Cinematography a few months after we did this interview; I mentioned when we spoke afterwards that Betsy Blair, who was a neighbour and friend of mine in London, had died and I’d written her obituary for The Independent. He was visibly distraught; Betsy had been a guest the previous summer at the film festival in Lyon, and Tavernier regaled me with stories about how graceful and knowledegable she’d been. There’s nothing he enjoys more than talking the minutiae of film history, and he was completely in his element with her. I said to him that this came as no surprise.
Electric Mist went ‘straight’ to DVD in America, with the dream sequence (starring Levon Helm, of The Band, as Confederate general John Bell Hood) was cut out lest it confuse the audience. Tavernier’s own cut was released in Europe; it won the prize at the Beaune Crime Film festival in 2009. You need to search hard to find the complete (112 minute) version of the film now. I watched it again while writing this piece, and it holds up very well. It’s beautifully cast with character actors, and lyrically shot, with the same kind of contemplative pauses as the books themselves, but Tavernier (and Tommy Lee Jones) get the underlying rage in the character of Dave Robichaux in some ways better than Burke himself. And it also contains its own small bit of hommage to film-making itself. RIP Bertrand Tavernier.