THERE are things the French do better than anybody else. We have to include the film-maker as cineaste on that list. Decades before Quentin Tarantino began to punctuate his movies with references to earlier works, writers from French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma – men such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut – were moving from passionate journalistic fandom to a place behind the camera.
It thus makes sense to invite somebody from that school of French film-making to address John Ford Ireland, the Irish Film and Television Academy's second symposium on the great American film-maker. Bertrand Tavernier fits the bill perfectly. Now 72, he is known for beautifully balanced pictures, such as The Clockmaker, 'Round Midnight and Life and Nothing But. He foresaw reality television with the recently rediscovered Death Watch. He swashed buckles with Revenge of the Musketeers. And he was also once a critic.
A John Ford fanatic, Tavernier remembers the battles that were fought in Cahiers over the director's reputation in the post-war years. "Oh with Ford there was, on several occasions, a complete switch of opinion," he says. "As long ago as the end of the 1940s there was a famous article: 'Down with Ford, Hoorah for William Wyler.' Then there was a bunch of young buffs who were totally in favour of him. But remember, also, that François Truffaut destroyed The Searchers. I was furious. I sent him two letters. I never found out if he got them."
Tavernier appears to have lost little of his passion for life or film. His English is accented, but impressively fluent and not short on colourful flourishes. One can easily imagine him hammering out a furious defence of The Searchers – Ford's mythical drama of pursuit and moral anxiety – to the famously arrogant scribes at Cahiers. Later, he got to write for the paper. He became a publicist and ended up working for such heroes as Jean-Pierre Melville, Joseph Losey and, yes, John Ford.
The director of such untouchable westerns as My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was, it is said, not always the easiest chap to get on with. "He was very intimidating," Tavernier says, remembering their first meeting. "The night before, my friend went to the airport to bring him to the hotel and he was totally drunk. The next morning he had a hangover and he was trying to get another drink. But he was still very impressive and very funny. But he did not like opposition. We were trying hard to keep him sober for some interviews."
Tavernier takes on the tone of a teenage fan as he clarifies how much he loved the Irish-American director who, born six years before the beginning of the 20th century, helped to define popular culture. Ford was one of his own greatest creations: rugged, difficult, eccentric. But Tavernier remembers, at the age of 13, catching a series of Ford’s westerns and being struck by his grasp of landscape. The skies in Ford’s pictures look like nobody else’s skies.
It was at about this point that Tavernier decided to become a film-maker. There could hardly have been a more exciting period. The generation a decade or so older – Claude Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard – were turning from fans into journalists into film-makers.
As Tavernier came of age, the strange, crazy hubbub that was the French New Wave was kicking into action.
“At the end of the 1950s, French cinema became rigid. It closed in on itself,” he says. “Maybe the New Wave was over-rated. But, yes, people like Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and [Éric] Rohmer liberated the camera, liberated the rigid atmosphere. They ended the dictatorship of the cameraman. It was suddenly very much alive. I am somebody who is trying to reconcile the best New Wave traditions with the best of what came before the New Wave.”
One could hardly imagine a better summation of Tavernier's varied career. His first full-length feature, The Clockmaker (1974), based on a Simenon tale, has the rough energy of those 1960s pioneers, but it also features a driving linear plot. Death Watch, made largely in Scotland, is a science-fiction film every bit as bleak as Godard's Alphaville. As the decades progressed, the director moved through detective stories, period dramas and subtle bourgeois romances. He is always hip, but he always tells solid stories.
So much of French cinema in his time was influenced by the political disturbances of 1968. Tavernier must feel that influence even today. “In my career? Nothing,” he says with a smile. “But, yes, I thought there was something good in that revolt against French society. It was very rigid. Before 1968, a woman could not open a bank account without the consent of her husband. That was, at last, broken by the new ideas.
"In a way, it was something good. But there was also a bad impact. There was this ideological change. People became Maoists and that was horrible."
A complicated relationship
For extreme outriders such as Godard, this fashionable political radicalism caused complications in their attitude towards America. Most of the great French directors of the revolutionary period grew up with a passionate affection for mainstream US cinema, and its pulpier, less respectable underbellies.
They adored the thrillers of Fritz Lang, the varied output of Howard Hawks, and the westerns of Ford. The US was, however, now the great Satan. Godard directed increasingly savage explosions of spleen towards that nation. Tavernier remained, as ever, balanced and civilised in his approach.
Indeed, his best-known work, Round Midnight (1986), looks a little like an American film. Screening before his public interview at the Ford symposium, the picture stars Dexter Gordon as a fading jazz musician rescued by a French graphic designer.
“We did it like an independent film,” he recalls. “It is shot mostly in Paris. In order to get the cost down, I convinced the American producer to let me produce the film with my own company. So, it was always my company, not Warner Brothers, in charge. They gave us $3 million to make the film and we did it. But it never felt like an American film. So, I never felt like I was making a studio film.”
Tavernier eventually had his fully fledged encounter with the American movie business in 2008. In the Electric Mist, an adaptation of a James Lee Burke thriller, starring Tommy Lee Jones, was never released theatrically in the US, and the DVD release was somewhat butchered.
“That was a little more difficult. But I got over it,” he says in his mild way. “My film was released in France as I wanted it. But in America it was the version the producers wanted. It was sometimes hard – though never with the actors. I did not have the same idea of film as the American producers. But when I sat down to work on my version, it was one of the best moments of my life.”
Tavernier really is an exhilaratingly positive fellow. After turning those Electric Mist lemons into lemonade, he moved on to a lavish costume drama entitled The Princess of Montpensier. Screened at Cannes in 2010, the film confirmed what a slippery customer the director remains, as he followed up a contemporary American thriller with a drama set during the 16th century wars of religion.
Those braniacs at Cahiers told us that cinema was defined by the "auteur theory": the notion that the director was the principal author of the piece. Yet Tavernier seems capable of changing voices from one film to the next.
“The auteur theory is still working, but it has too often been caricatured,” he says. “It was saying that within the best films of a director, you can find stylistic ideas that are the same. You can find a way of treating an emotion. Then you have an author: at least in the films, where he really had a chance of expressing his ideas. But the notion then came that the people working round him are less important. This is a mistake! This is a mistake!”
And yet Tavernier remains proud that, after many years of trying, he eventually earned the right to call himself a director. He missed the recent Cannes Film Festival because he is finishing his latest film, Quai d'Orsay.
“I would love to go there,” he bellows. “But I am a director first. I can’t just take holidays when I like.”
We’re lucky to have him here.
Bertrand Tavernier talks to Tara Brady at 4pm at the Light House Cinema, Dublin on Saturday as part of John Ford Ireland. The symposium continues until June 9th. johnfordireland.org