Bertrand Tavernier, 79, French director with wide appeal, dies

Bertrand Tavernier, a French director best known in the United States for ‘Round Midnight,’ the 1986 film that earned Dexter Gordon an Oscar nomination for his performance as a New York jazz musician who tried to get his life and career on track. in Paris, died Thursday in Sainte-Maxime, in southeastern France. He was 79.

The Institut Lumiere, a film organization in Lyon of which he chaired, posted news of his death on Facebook. The cause has not been given.

Mr. Tavernier has made some 30 feature films and documentaries and has been a regular on the film festival circuit. In 1984 he won the Best Director Award at Cannes for ‘A Sunday in the Country’, which Roger Ebert called ‘a graceful and delicate tale of hidden currents in a family’ under the direction of an aging painter living outside Paris.

Mr. Tavernier worked primarily as a film critic and publicist until 1974, when he directed his first feature, “The Clockmaker of St. Paul”, the story of a man whose son is accused of murder. The film, more character study than crime drama, quickly established him in France and garnered high praise abroad.

“‘The Clockmaker’ is an extraordinary film,” wrote Mr. Ebert, “all the more because it tries to show us the very complicated workings of the human personality, and to do it with grace, some humor and a lot of style.”

French actor Philippe Noiret played the father in that movie. The two often worked together, working together again in 1976 in another murderer tale, “The Judge and the Assassin,” in which Mr. Noiret played the judge. The cast also included Isabelle Huppert, who would appear in other Tavernier films.

Mr. Tavernier was soon working with international casts. In ‘Death Watch’, a 1980 science fiction thriller, Harvey Keitel played a television reporter who had an eye replaced with a camera so he could secretly film the last days of a woman – played by Romy Schneider – who appears to have terminal illness.

“Round Midnight” featured a cast of musicians – not only Mr. Gordon, a well-known saxophonist, but also Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and others, including Herbie Hancock, who won an Oscar for his original score.

“The screenplay, by Mr. Tavernier and David Rayfiel, is both rich and relaxed, with a style that suits the musicians perfectly,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times. “Some of the talk may be improvised, but nothing sounds improvised, but nothing is forced, and the film remains effortlessly quirky all the time.”

Bertrand Tavernier was born in Lyon on April 25, 1941, the son of René and Ginette Tavernier. His father was a renowned writer and poet. In an interview with The Times in 1990, Mr. Tavernier described an isolated boyhood.

“My childhood was characterized by loneliness because my parents didn’t get along,” he said. And it comes out in every movie. I’ve practically never had a few in my movies. “

He mentioned the impact of his birthplace.

“It’s a very mysterious city,” he explained. “My father always said that in Lyon you learn that you should never lie, but always hypocrite, and it is part of my films. The characters are often slanted in their relationships. Then there will be brief moments when they reveal themselves. “

He was interested in film from an early age and his early jobs in the film industry included a press agent for Georges de Beauregard, a well-known producer of the French New Wave. He has also written on film for Les Cahiers du Cinéma and other publications, and continued to write throughout his career – essays, books and more. As a film historian, he was known for championing films, directors and screenwriters who had been treated unkindly by others.

In the preface to Stephen Hay’s 2001 biography, “Bertrand Tavernier: The Film-maker of Lyon,” Thelma Schoonmaker, noted film editor and widow of director Michael Powell, pays tribute to Mr. Tavernier for Mr. Powell’s reputation ” Peeping Tom, ”which was condemned when it was released in 1960, but is now highly regarded by many cinephiles.

“Bertrand’s desire to correct the injustice in film history is directly related to the themes of justice pervading his own films,” she wrote.

Thierry Frémaux, the director of the Cannes festival and the Institut Lumière, said Mr Tavernier had been tireless in his plea.

“Bertrand Tavernier built the body of work we know, but he built something different: serving the history of cinema, of all the cinemas,” said Mr Frémaux by email. “He wrote books, he edited the books of others, he did an extraordinary number of film interviews, tribute to everyone he admired, film presentations.”

“I’m not sure if there are any other examples in art history of a maker so devoted to the work of others,” he added.

Mr. Tavernier’s own films sometimes set personal stories in the midst of sweeping moments in history. Set in 1920, “Life and Nothing But” (1989) had as its background the search for hundreds of thousands of French soldiers who were still missing from the First World War. “Safe Conduct” (2002) was about French filmmakers who worked during the German occupation in World War II.

But Mr. Tavernier was not interested in historical spectacle for his own sake.

“A lot of times people come up to me and say you should make a movie about the French Resistance, but I say this is not a topic, this is vague,” he told Variety in 2019. “Tell me about a character who is one of was the first. members of the resistance and who have done things that people later in 1945 say should be judged as crimes. Then I have a character and an emotion that I can deal with. “

His survivors include his wife, Sarah, and two children, Nils and Tiffany Tavernier.

Mr. Tavernier put humor in his films, even a serious film like ‘Life and Nothing But’, which had a scene – with some basis in reality, he said – in which a distraught army captain must quickly find an ‘unknown soldier’ ​​to place under the Arc de Triomphe.

“The rush to find the unknown soldier is absolutely true, although we had to guess how it happened,” said Mr. Tavernier. “Imagine, how do you find a body that is impossible to identify and still be sure that it is French?”

Aurelien Breeden provided a report from Paris.