Bertrand Tavernier, the veteran French director of a host of acclaimed films including A Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight and These Foolish Things, has died aged 79. The news was announced by the Institut Lumière, the film organisation of which he was president. No cause of death was given.
Tavernier’s output was prolific: he made his directorial debut in 1974 with The Clockmaker of St Paul and worked continuously until 2013, when he released his final feature film, The French Minister. He also took in a wide variety of material, from crime and noir, to comedy, jazz and historical drama.
Born in Lyon in 1941, Tavernier was the son of magazine publisher René Tavernier, whose anti-Nazi principles would greatly influence Bertrand. Like the generation of French New Wave directors that slightly preceded him, Tavernier grew up as a film obsessive; having moved to Paris after the war, he founded his own magazine and managed to get a job as an assistant director to Jean-Pierre Melville on the 1961 film Léon Morin, Prêtre. By his own admission, he was so bad as an AD that Melville instead made him the publicist for its follow-up, Le Doulos. It was in this role that Tavernier made his first mark in the film industry, working as a publicist on a series of New Wave classics, including Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt and Agnés Varda’s Cleo de 5 à 7. “We were the first film publicists who were film buffs – we only accepted the films we liked,” he told the Guardian in 2008.
However, it was always Tavernier’s ambition to break into directing, and returned to Lyon to make an adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel The Watchmaker of Everton, starring Philippe Noiret, the lugubrious looking actor who would go on to be a regular collaborator. Noiret appeared in Tavernier’s next film, the period drama Let Joy Reign Supreme about an 18th century rebellion against the crown, which won four Césars, the French equivalent to Oscars.
Tavernier’s interest in American crime literature was demonstrated with films such as Coup de Torchon (1981), adapted from Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, and starred Noiret (again) opposite Isabelle Huppert; it was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar. However, Tavernier’s major international breakthrough was the 1984 film A Sunday in the Country, a fin-de-siècle-set drama about an elderly painter whose family come to visit; it won wide acclaim and a string of awards, including best director at the Cannes film festival. Tavernier followed it up with what remains arguably his best known film: Round Midnight, released in 1986, which starred Dexter Gordon as a jazz musician struggling to survive in Paris and New York.
Tavernier had more success with Life and Nothing But, with Noiret as a military investigator after the first world war, and then These Foolish Things, for which he persuaded Dirk Bogarde to come out of retirement for a drama about the relationship between a dying man and his scriptwriter daughter (played by Jane Birkin). In the 90s Tavernier made well-received crime films L.627 and The Bait, as well as glossy swashbuckler Revenge of the Musketeers starring Sophie Marceau. In 2002 Tavernier turned to the French film industry itself as a subject with Safe Conduct, based on a memoir by Jean Devaivre and focussing on the Nazi occupation. However, Devaivre fell out with Tavernier, and the director found himself accused by French critics of attacking the new wave.
In 2009, Tavernier finally realised his ambition of making a Hollywood thriller: the Louisiana-set In the Electric Mist was adapted from a novel by James Lee Burke and starred Tommy Lee Jones as Burke’s detective Dave Robicheaux. However, the experience was not a happy one; Tavernier told the Guardian that he “found everything more difficult than working in France”, and while the film was selected for the Berlin film festival, it was not released in cinemas in the US.
Back on home ground, the breadth of Tavernier’s enthusiasm for film was showcased in his lengthy 2016 documentary My Journey Through French Cinema, in which he expanded on film-makers such as Melville, Jacques Becker, and Robert Bresson.