Common Sense Connoisseur: The Critical Legacy of Bertrand Tavernier

By Christoph Huber

“Of course I’ve been influenced by all the people who were good before me.” 

—Thelonious Monk

The two most cherished film books in the pile on my bedside table are in a language my command of which is rudimentary at best. But since both Jacques Lourcelles’ Dictionnaire du Cinéma – Les Films as well as Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier’s 50 ans de cinéma américain have never been translated from French into either English or German, I gladly make do, filling the gaps with a mixture of autodidactic guesswork and occasional dictionary consultation, which for all its drawbacks has proved to be a viable method. These reference works offer riches to be found nowhere else, and are designed to be read in a piecemeal fashion and returned to for stimulating dialogue with their authors’ personal and well-considered assessments rather than skimmed for quick evaluations and then forgotten like so much of today’s on-the-surface, star-rating film culture. The English-language neglect of the Coursodon-Tavernier tome (nearly 1,300 pages in its revised 1995 edition) seems almost perverse: I am hardly alone in considering it the most useful reference work concerning Hollywood, which makes it all the more grating that it never got translated into the language of the films it is about. (Its only translation is into Spanish.)

This may have been a symptom of one of the more unpleasant side effects of cinephilia that Tavernier, as both a director and a certified film buff, steadfastly refused to take part in right up to his death from pancreatitis this March, one month shy of his 80th birthday: the recourse to polemics that drives, or at least has driven, much of film criticism, and been vital to the writing of film history in ways both negative and positive. Even as one can comprehend the motivations (some better than others) behind the battles waged between different strands of film culture, in retrospect they have often obscured the films themselves, cloaking the merits not only of those that were dismissed as enemies of “true” cinema, but sometimes also of those that were championed at a certain time (and with certain ulterior motives). While the controversy around the works themselves is dated and only of historical interest in retrospect, by taking a second, unbiased look one often finds that many once-maligned films hold up surprisingly well. When dealing with film history, which he did extensively and in ways highly visible to the general public, Tavernier became an embodiment of this non-partisan stance, exemplifying that willingness to constantly re-evaluate rash, zeitgeist-influenced assessments.

It is worth noting that Tavernier’s impartiality traces back to his beginnings in the very eye of the polemical storm—for what cinephile feud is more famous than that between Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif? Before embarking on his own directorial career in 1973, Tavernier contributed amply and in almost equal measures to both, as well as to other key French film publications of the era (all of which were at loggerheads with each other). When Cahiers embarked on its political reorientation in 1968, Tavernier switched fully to Positif—hardly surprising, since his stock in trade was interviews with American filmmakers (the kind immortalized in Tavernier’s other great tome, the interview collection Amis américains), who were no longer on the agenda of the newly radicalized Cahiers. This may explain why Tavernier was later frequently, but somewhat wrongly, linked with Positif exclusively.

Other important, but mostly unspoken, battle lines of cinephilia were defined automatically by geographical distance (and it must be said that the skirmishes they caused were mostly a more amicable affair, because one would be surprised and often invigorated by the differences in “national” or even city-based approaches to film when you visited the “enemy’s” territory). It may be a distant memory, but for a long time where you lived made a huge difference in what you could see and how cinema in general was seen and discussed. This could also lead to a certain insularity, especially in the US, since it was of course the home of that national film industry that tended to overshadow all others. Thus, the somewhat (but hardly excessive) French view on display in 50 ans de cinéma américain may have been met with skepticism by possible American publishers who knew their clientele, even as Tavernier himself admitted to being puzzled at the lack of an English translation the one time I interviewed him almost exactly a decade ago. Explaining that he and Coursodon had been certain that a respected American university press would publish an English version, he was still both disconcerted and a bit amused by “the incredible justification for its rejection: too intelligent! If they had at least given a different reason, like too expensive, or too much…”

Regardless, this points directly to the special qualities that explain why 50 ans functions so well as a reference work. Not only does it contain impressive amounts of knowledge and research, but it also rejects most of the blinders that come with ostentatiously opinionated film histories, although it is far from lacking in attitude. Rather, the authors try burrowing beyond those clichés and tenets of film history that seem to have become eternal truths merely through endless repetition, not to mention their own prejudices. One of the best ideas Tavernier and Coursodon had with the later versions of the book was the decision to open up a dialogue with previous editions—not merely “invisibly” updating earlier entries, but in many cases revising them in such a way that new, refined judgments may be presented in conjunction with and counterpoint to the older notices, sometimes with radically different outcomes. If, as a director, Tavernier saw himself as exploring worlds on film and inviting the viewer along to make discoveries with him—sometimes of a very ambivalent, even contradictory nature—his approach in this book and in his criticism in general is similar: nothing is set in stone, and new insights and critical analyses invite the reader to scrutinize and question accepted views.

A notable evolution from the comparably small-scale 20 ans de cinéma américain, published in 1961 by Coursodon with another future filmmaker, Yves Boisset (roughly covering the years 1940-60), the first Tavernier-Coursodon version in 1970 added a decade for a much more comprehensive overview of 30 ans de cinéma américain. But it was the 1991 upgrade to 50 ans (extended, without name change, by a couple of years in the 1995 revision) that marked a quantum leap, most notably by adding yet another perspective to the old-fashioned, mostly auteurist view of the earlier volumes. The major part of the book remains an alphabetical registry of directors with full filmographies and evaluations of varying length and depth, but the later versions also devoted space to a substantial section on scriptwriters, the two blocks preceded by a nuts-and-bolts orientation for the reader about Hollywood in general: the situation of the studios, the yearly development since 1940, the history of censorship, etc. (One often wishes Tavernier and Coursodon would have found space and time to craft similarly informed additions on other professions, from cinematographers to set designers.) 

The diligent research invested in trying to verify or refute long-standing prejudices and unsubstantiated claims (e.g., what films did Philip Yordan really write?) is just one example of the commonsensical approach that also marked Tavernier’s directorial ambitions. And lest one think that I forget the crucial contributions of that outstanding critic Coursodon—who also passed away, to much less fanfare, on the last day of that annus horribilis 2020—let it be said that part of the beauty of this monumental collaboration lies precisely in the fact that the entries are designed to be indistinguishable as to their authorship. In any case, the collaborators were united not only in their passion for American cinema, but also in their rejection of sectarian and hyperbolic judgments. (If one wants to expand on the above argument about Cahiers versus Positif, there is still some truth to the cliché that Positif stood for a more reasonable approach, which is why Tavernier’s association with it seems intuitively logical. Coursodon contributed to the magazine as well, and co-edited—and wrote much of—the English-language anthology American Directors, which aims for similarly sensible assessments.)

Although it avoids a certain delirious strain of French criticism, the writing in 50 ans is neither dry nor academic. Rather, one feels that “excess of enthusiasm” typical of Tavernier—the description is his own, from his extensive 1992 journal I Wake Up Dreaming (published in Projections No. 2), in which he asserts that his need to hold forth on subjects, especially beloved films, stems from the need to overcome his terrible shyness (a common characteristic of cinephiles from both his generation and beyond). Curiously, that text also describes the day where Tavernier joyfully put his hands on my other favourite, Lourcelles’ then-just-published Dictionnaire, for the first time, and was also enthusiastic about “a thousand discoveries I’d never encountered.” Even as he felt polarized by certain articles in which Lourcelles attacks works he loves, he recognized it as a deliberate quality: “The book is intended to be subjective, personal, far from fashionable. It refuses any kind of dogma or doctrine.”

There could be no better way to describe what makes 50 ans so special, even as some of its passages (notably the historical overview of Hollywood at the beginning) may suggest a veneer of objectivity. The connoisseurship on display betrays highly personal passions, and one of the reasons for returning to the book is precisely the (joyful) struggle the authors display in trying to nail the special characteristics of a specific film or a writer’s or director’s overall arc, refraining from stentorian judgments in favour of underlining the conflicting impulses that are part of even the most pronounced auteurist careers. They don’t turn a blind eye to some of the more unpleasant aspects of the official greats, like Chaplin or Hawks (which does not undermine the appreciation of what they achieved elsewhere, only makes it more complex), and while they may be guilty of some oversights (I would be the first to ask: where is Lesley Selander?) it’s refreshing to see the honesty with which they admit to never having been able to see some films, regardless of their stature. Any good writing on film makes you want to explore the work described, but part of the beauty here is that it makes you want to explore the larger context.

Thus, as it is of little importance whether or not I agree with certain individual assessments—often, and wrongly, seen as the key point for such film-historical endeavours—I’ll just mention in passing two moments of recognition that immediately won me over. One is the authors’ assertion, at the beginning of the directors’ section, that their alphabetical ordering has paid off, because that means starting with Aldrich. The other is this sentence at the end of their description of the legacy of Warner Bros.: “Finally, no discussion of Warner Bros., regardless of its brevity, can fail to mention the studio’s prodigious contribution to the art of animation and the running gag in the 1940s and 1950s.” These two may give reasons for nodding appreciatively, but what really invigorates me is when the greatness of animation is suddenly evoked in a decidedly different context, enhancing both sides of the comparison—namely, when Tavernier/Coursodon’s discussion of Videodrome (1983) yields the observation that Cronenberg’s film “enter[s] a phantasmagorical universe where the impossible reigns, a universe à la Tex Avery, without the comedy.” (The fact that one might dispute the absence of comedy, but rather find it in a different, disturbing register, makes it even better.)

It has been announced that Tavernier managed to put the finishing touches on yet another long-announced revised edition finally covering 100 ans de cinéma américain (extending it not only to the present, but finally also reaching back to the silent era), which is scheduled to come out in the second half of this year—though I’m still holding my breath for an English edition of the earlier version, as death, ironically enough, can often serve to boost the profile of those whose work was relatively neglected when they were still living. I don’t expect this further expanded version to be definitive in any way, as certain blind spots will always remain. Even for a workaholic like Tavernier, who was willing to rewatch huge amounts of films for the purpose of re-evaluation and was always searching for others yet unseen, it is entirely to his and Coursodon’s credit that they try to acknowledge those blind spots wherever they can (like the regrettable absence of the avant-garde). I am still looking forward to making many more discoveries in the pages of the new edition, for even with the American cinema, surely the best-researched and most publicized national industry, the surface has only been scratched.

Even so, few people had such an intimate and encompassing knowledge of it as Tavernier, and one of the most fascinating aspects of filmmakers writing about film history is, of course, that they cannot help but betray their own credos, often simply by focusing on details that are clearly very important to them personally. Tavernier repeatedly claimed in interviews, “When I direct a film, I’m not a film buff. I only think about the characters…unlike Tarantino, who is always quoting from other films that inspire him, it’s not other films that inspire me, it’s life.” Undoubtedly, Tavernier was telling the truth here, but of course no one can escape from their knowledge. Tavernier may not have been interested in quoting other films (though he occasionally did, sometimes perhaps unconsciously), but he had learned from them about cinema and about life, so their fusion was in his blood. In that sense, he was the French counterpart to Martin Scorsese, and perhaps it is no coincidence that Michael Powell singled out Tavernier and Scorsese (who had both been hugely supportive in the rediscovery of his great work, with and without Emeric Pressburger) as later filmmakers for whom it was important, as it was for himself, to explore a world with their films.

Like Powell claiming that his then-scandalous, now-canonized Peeping Tom (1960) was autobiographical with regard to the theme of the obsessive power of cinema, Tavernier’s work is full of similar confessions. The most naked, perhaps, is the line uttered by the main character of L.627 (1992), a cop on the drug beat who shoots surveillance footage with the camera he also uses to moonlight as a wedding videographer in order to augment his paltry salary (“I flunked IDHEC,” he jokes, in one of the film’s many amusing asides). When asked by his wife about his obsession with the camera, he simply retorts, “I think it makes me understand things better.” This, simply put, is how Tavernier approached cinema, whether he was exploring faraway epochs that fascinated him or contemporary life in his hometown of Lyon (“a very secretive city,” he notes in the 1992 journal), with its hidden back alleys and middle-class apartments, as he did in his feature debut L’horloger de Saint-Paul (1974) and also in Une semaine de vacances six years later (in which Philippe Noiret’s watchmaker from the earlier film makes an unexpected cameo and talks about his life since the events of that film, simply because, one suspects, Tavernier couldn’t let go of the character).

“I’ve always been disturbed when the Americans talk of their films in terms of different acts, and I’ve never seen a trace of it in Ford or Walsh. I like a dramatic line to be determined less by the plot than by the feelings of characters. I like the story to go wandering,” Tavernier wrote in his journal. This explains one aspect of his aesthetic, i.e., the fact that most of his films are over two hours long, rarely following a clear through line and instead privileging an anecdotal richness, gaining momentum and depth from the complementary perspectives of their lead characters. In only a few cases did Tavernier stick steadfastly with one point of view, and indeed there have been few filmmakers so concerned with respecting the innate multiplicity of perspective; for him, this was the key to exploring the respective worlds of his films. I’ve rewatched all of his 22 fiction features (and all the documentaries I could get hold of) in the last two months, and while I like some more than others, there isn’t one I would want to miss, simply because in each you feel an engagement with the world that is gripping even when it does not work out. What becomes clear is not only that Tavernier, although he was commonly seen as a director who tried many different styles and subjects, is almost shockingly consistent, but also that he was less and less interested in making films that strive for greatness in the conventional sense, instead aiming for a breadth that has more lasting rewards.

And yet, curiously, he was long dismissed in certain cinephilic circles as a superficially “engaged” filmmaker, perhaps owing to some unfortunate pans from Serge Daney—including one of the masterful Coup de torchon (1980), one of the 20th century’s great literary adaptations (and black comedies), which counterintuitively but successfully transposes Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 from Texas to the French-African colonies on the eve of WWII. This is but one example of how Tavernier had little interest in the superficially “engaged” stance of today’s “issue” films, even when he made films that arguably seem to qualify at first glance, like Holy Lola (2004, about the adoption of Cambodian kids by Europeans) or Ça commence aujourd’hui (1999, about the problems of an elementary school teacher in an economically challenged mining community). In a sense, a work like L.627, which subjugates its sprawling crime plot to a study of the daily frustrations of police work, could be called issue films as well, except that Tavernier refused to pretend that the issues they dealt with could be easily resolved; thus, in the end, he produced the opposite of what is expected in today’s funding climate.

Similarly, his historical films were far from the often cozy, over-explicated evocations of the past seen so regularly on big and small screens. Instead, they are full of surprising and authentic detail, as they were always grounded in extensive research about the period and then shot “as if the past were present. I do not want to show my characters as historical figures, since in their consciousness they live in their present, not in some historical past,” Tavernier said to me in an interview about La princesse de Montpensier (2011). “If you think about how to frame, say, a Renaissance table, you have lost touch already, since it is not a Renaissance table to the characters—after all, they do not even know they live in an era that will be called Renaissance.” A rousing and unusual adaptation of a French classic, La princesse de Montpensier was at the same time the closest thing Tavernier ever came to making a full-fledged Western, clearly one of his favourite genres, whose paragons served as a secret template for almost all of his films. Just think about the occupation of Tavernier’s protagonists and transpose them to a Western setting, and it becomes immediately clear: sheriffs and teachers, politicians and military men, even the aging jazz musician from Round Midnight (1986) so movingly embodied by Dexter Gordon, can be seen as variations on the figure of the aging gunslinger.

Jazz was another fondness of Tavernier’s (and I point to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review, to be found online, for a better explanation than I could muster about why Round Midnight was—and remains—one of the rare triumphs of jazz on film), as were food (which takes pride of place throughout his filmography in the most interesting forms) and literature, but nothing obsessed him as much as cinema. This may be why his richest and longest feature, Laissez-passer (2002), dealt with key figures of French cinema during the German occupation. Tavernier’s knowledge of French cinema may have been even more impressive than his Hollywood chops, simply because he investigated areas that had been neglected because of past cinephilic battles. Drawing inspiration from Scorsese (who cameoed as a motormouth in Round Midnight) for his final works, Tavernier created a French counterpoint to the American director’s journeys through American and Italian cinema.

There is something just and beautiful about this transatlantic transference of filmic passion meandering for a while (a bit like Tavernier liked to meander with the characters of his fictions), while serving as a reminder that the French director’s occasional English-language works, seen today, bring home most forcefully the fact that he’s a continental counterpart to and contemporary of New Hollywood’s film-loving “movie brats” that broke through in the ’70s. Deathwatch (1980) feels like it could have been one of New Hollywood’s last hurrahs, with its desolate atmosphere and a then-revolutionary reality TV-style science-fiction premise that is played exclusively for ideas, rejecting special effects (it is also Tavernier’s roundabout tribute to Peeping Tom: film and death, or, as per its French title, La mort en direct). The neglected, relaxed Florida crime film In the Electric Mist (2009) feels even more of a straggler to that short-lived confluence of Hollywood and European auteur film, its Shining-style punchline a potent reminder that Tavernier is not simply a “realistic” filmmaker, as is so often claimed.

As both director and critic, Tavernier always strived to reveal deeper connections and more complex relationships than the simple, condensed, and thus reductive film histories whose premises come to seem true because they have been repeated so often. Most enlightening in this regard are his two final filmic works, both called Voyage à travers le cinéma français—a very good three-hour movie in 2016, which proved merely a springboard for a great eight-hour series of the same name in 2017—which marked Tavernier’s last, marvellous effort to take a closer look at French film history and refute the many prejudices that have obscured it. An additional pleasure in these works was Tavernier’s own perspective, meaning not only the intelligent appreciation of the films under discussion, but also the ability to point out their achievements as only a director himself could—show me the critic who could analyze in detail the use of certain lenses and its effects on the style and atmosphere of a film.

Nominally (and sensibly, as usual), this historical overview ended where Tavernier himself came in, but in actuality he could not help but reveal himself right from the beginning. Right at the start, there is an extended homage to one of his (and my) favourite filmmakers, Jacques Becker, and although Becker’s sensibility resulted in entirely different movies from those of Tavernier, it is very clear that Tavernier’s insightful analysis of the earlier filmmaker’s work reads like a template for what he tried to achieve himself: “He assimilated American movies, but he didn’t copy them. Most of his films have a distinctly French flavour.” Or, “another major difference with American movies is Becker’s distrust of plot. Even when he brilliantly melds the destinies of some 15 characters in Goupi mains rouges (1943), none of the characters disappear behind the plot. They each have their own lives.” Finally, it is nigh impossible not to think of Tavernier himself—not just the filmmaker, but also the film lover and the politically engaged person that fought for cultural rights—when he concludes, “To me, Becker is a director who had common decency, that notion dear to George Orwell, which implies ordinary acts of mutual aid and trust, minimal but basic social ties. Not an ethic, but a spontaneous sense of what should and shouldn’t be done.”

But, with his usual modesty, at the end of the final episode Tavernier just expresses his gratitude to have been able to re-encounter (and transmit his passion for) these films that have given him so much, escaping “the tyranny of the present” to learn from the past. And then he steps back to thank all the creatives—of all types of professions—who have been sources of inspiration, almost all of them dead. Now that he has joined their ranks, we will continue to find inspiration in his legacy as well.