Bertrand Tavernier and "Imperfect" Films
A brief tribute to the celebrated director, who died in March
As 2021 shuffles to a close, I’m still feeling melancholy about the death of Bertrand Tavernier, a gifted director and a cinephile's cinephile, who did so much to promote and preserve pre-1960 films. Several friends of mine knew Tavernier as a charming person and a good friend. I wish I had, too.
I saw some of his own best works, including The Clockmaker of St. Paul, A Sunday in the Country, Life and Nothing But (my favorite discovery from the series), and Captain Conan, as they were streaming at the Criterion Channel as part of their "9 by Tavernier" collection when he died on March 25 of this year. I recommend them all.
I also highly recommend My Journey Through French Cinema, now streaming on Amazon and Kanopy. I saw it in 2017 ahead of its American release, and soon gave up on notes, aside from writing titles as fast as my little pencil could scribble. Then, because I am like that, I lost the list, which is OK because I couldn’t read it anyway.
Since then, I’ve still managed to see (and even write about) a number of the films he described with such love. When I was researching two rediscovered and restored films that were directed in the 1930s by Louis Valray, ahead of their streaming at MoMA, it didn’t surprise me to discover that along with Pierre Rissient, Tavernier had been one of very, very few who remembered and praised Valray.
My Journey Through French Cinema was a near-8-hour French television program cut down to a U.S. theatrical runtime of over three hours. (If you are really a glutton for this sort of thing—one, I salute you. Two, you can get the Blu-ray of the full program here from Kino-Lorber.) One critic, in a glaring bit of point-missing, suggests that for the U.S. release, Tavernier should have foregrounded the French New Wave filmmakers, because that’s the part of French film history “that still excites foreign viewers most.” True, the New Wave dominates arthouses and our sense of French film history. But Tavernier wanted to change that—not by lessening the admiration for that era, but by introducing us to the great filmmakers who preceded it, and who have been unjustly neglected since.
Now that I no longer have my illegible notes on My Journey Through French Cinema, I'm sharing something I saved in the cloud for my own purposes some years back: a response by Tavernier to a 1998 list of “the greatest classic films.” There is a slight problem: I also don’t have the actual list he was commenting on. I don’t even know how long that “greatest” list was. But I don’t much care if I ever find it, because I could never love that list as much as Tavernier’s response.
Do I agree with everything he says? Wrong question! That’s precisely what he’s counseling against. When reading or listening to Tavernier talk about film, I always had room to breathe. With that in mind, I have annotated this list; I didn’t have a thought for every entry, but I did have some.
I don't much like these lists. Too many beautiful and important films are missing, and they leave out the texture, the richness and life of cinema by not including all those “imperfect” films that are more meaningful and alive than frozen, dated “classics.” I would take out Little Caesar,1 La beauté du diable,2 Things To Come,3 A Walk In The Sun (have you seen it recently?),4 J'Accuse ,5 most of L'Herbier except L'Argent,6 Cyrano de Bergerac (are you kidding? a bad abridgment of the play, badly directed, dated, a “respectable” and boring classic).7 The Cheat is less interesting than many DeMilles.8 Sciuscia (1946) or Umberto D (1951) are much better than Bicycle Thieves.9 Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road (1933) or Heroes for Sale (1933) are more exciting and modern than Nothing Sacred.10 Zinnemann's Act of Violence (1948) is much better than High Noon.11 Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) is 10 times more exciting than Les Cousins.12 I prefer The Naked Spur (1952) and Bend of the River (1951) to The Man From Laramie.13 The St Valentine's Day Massacre doesn't belong in any list: it is badly written and directed and totally impersonal. If you want Corman, Masque of the Red Death (1964).14
In the 1970s there are at least 50 films more interesting than the very academic The Shootist or Assault On Precinct 13: Ulzana's Raid (1972), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Arthur Penn's Four Friends (1981), Série Noire (Alain Corneau, 1979), La Meilleure Facon de Marcher (Claude Miller, 1976), Mr Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976),15 Passe Ton Bac D'Abord (1979), À Nos Amours (Maurice Pialat, 1983), Le Chagrin et la Pitié (1970), The Memory of Justice (both Marcel Ophuls, 1975), Coup de Torchon (1981). Eric Rohmer's Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969), Claude Chabrol's Que la bête meure (1969)16 or Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) (1980) are much better than Tout Va Bien.
Why put the entire cavalry trilogy by John Ford and forget Young Mr Lincoln (1939), one of his favorite films, or Hathaway's The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer (1935), Walsh's Regeneration (1915) and Gentleman Jim (1942)? Where are Rene Clair's Paris Qui Dort (1923), Jofroi (1933), Marcel Pagnol's Manon des Sources (1953), Bonne Chance (1935),17 Sacha Guitry's La Poison (1951), the two versions of Poil de Carotte (1925/1932), David Golder (1930), Julien Duvivier's Voici le Temps des Assassins (1956),18 and Jean Gremillon's Le Ciel Est à Vous (1943), the best French film during the occupation?19 Le Joueur d'échec (1927) and Les Croix de Bois (Raymond Bernard, 1931), Point Blank (Boorman, 1967), Salvatore Giuliano (1962, Rosi),20 Goupi mains rouges (1943) and Le Trou21 (Jacques Becker, 1960), Un Revenant (Christian-Jaque, 1946).22 La Verité sur Bébé Donge (1952)23 and Les Inconnus Dans la Maison (Henri Decoin, 1941), Occupe-toi d'Amélie (1949), Le Mariage de Chiffon (1941),24 La Traversée de Paris (1956), En Cas de Malheur (Claude Autant-Lara, 1958), A Scandal In Paris (Douglas Sirk, 1946), Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi, 1953) and Ukigumo [Floating Clouds] (Mikio Naruse, 1955), Dead Of Night (1945) and It Always Rains On Sunday (1947, Robert Hamer).25
One final thought: I do hope you noticed how, with no fanfare, Tavernier throws in one of his own films.
Well, why not. It is, in fact, terrific.
As an auteurist, Tavernier perhaps wasn’t thinking in terms of Edward G. Robinson’s epochal performance as Rico Bandello. And personally, I think early LeRoy rules (ouch, sorry).
I love René Clair, and was entranced with both Michel Simon and Gerard Philipe in La beauté du diable.
This is indeed a snooze, however justly famous its production design.
I thought J’Accuse was powerful, but it is nothing if not polemical also.
L’Argent is great, but I think that’s all I have seen.
I must agree with M. Tavernier.
I thought The Cheat was fascinating, but the marital comedies are definitely more fun.
Can’t I keep all three?
Can’t I keep all three of these, too?
He’s probably right, but I love High Noon.
Les Bonnes Femmes is the best portrait of retail work ever made; the eternal masterpiece The Shop Around the Corner gets a great deal right as well, but the Claude Chabrol film understands the petty humiliation such work visits on women in particular.
Tomb of Ligeia for me. The Masque of the Red Death is sumptuous, but also long, alarmingly defeatist, and not nearly as frightening as the source story.
Saw Mr. Klein at the Film Forum just before the world shut down, and for days it was stuck in my head like an extraordinarily disturbing piece of music. In my novel Missing Reels, I repurposed a remark by a professor I was friends with, concerning Joseph Losey, who the prof knew socially: “Bitterest man I ever met.” I didn’t ask for elaboration, to my everlasting regret. But I did feel as though I understood my old friend’s meaning after I saw Mr. Klein.
I have been trying to see Que la bête meure for years; an explanation of what has gone wrong with the ability to view films from Chabrol’s greatest period (roughly 1968 to 1975) may be found here, if you read French (if you don’t, the Twitter thread explains it a bit).
Not on the Eclipse set of Guitry films put out by Criterion some years back, unfortunately. What appears to be a good copy is on Youtube, but sans English subtitles.
One day I’ll get my hands on an English-subtitled version of this one, and Marie-Octobre besides.
Famously a great favorite of Martin Scorsese. I watched it just before I interviewed him in 2020, so as to be ready to say something scintillating about it. He didn’t mention the film once.
Both of these films by Jacques Becker are extraordinary, which is not news about Le Trou, but Goupi mains rouges deserves the effort to seek it out.
Exactly the kind of pre-New Wave French film I think would go over very well with Americans, if they had a way to see it.
I sought out The Truth About Bébé Donge specifically because M. Tavernier mentioned it in My Journey Through French Cinema, and I wrote about it for Sight & Sound’s Lost and Found column.
Part of the Claude Autant-Lara set on Eclipse; the set’s other three films are marvelous, especially Douce, which is brilliant.