FRESH BAIT (L'Appât / The Bait) is based on true events in Paris, where a girl and two guys carried on with a killing spree while stealing almost nothing of value. In most respects, “Nathalie” (Marie Gillain) is like any other 18-year-old Parisian shopgirl: just attractive enough to do a little modeling, devoted to her boyfriend “Eric” (Olivier Sitruk), and bright enough to keep both of them afloat. But her means of making extra cash (chatting up rich businessmen in bars) isn't enough to fulfill their dream of going to America. So, when Eric suggests they do a robbery or two, using Nathalie's promises of sex to get to her various “acquaintances,” she reluctantly agrees. But the best laid plans...
Bertrand Tavernier wrote the script with his ex-wife, Colo Tavernier O'Hagan. The 1995 film won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Philippe Haïm provided the unreleased score.
In CAPITAINE CONAN, Philippe Torreton plays the title character, a courageous but unconventional World War I officer in charge of a group of soldiers who are rough even by military standards. Fiercely protective of his men (whom he sees as the kind of unappreciated front-line cannon fodder who truly won the war) even after it's made clear the destructive impulses of some have been redirected toward innocent civilians, Conan finds himself at odds with the military machinery. This includes his friend “Norbert” (Samuel Le Bihan), a sensitive lieutenant placed in charge of an investigation against Conan’s outfit.
Bertrand Tavernier won the César Award for “Best Director.” CAPITAINE CONAN was selected as “Best Film” by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics. Oswald D'Andrea’s score was released by Sony (France).
March 1942: like Paris itself, the medium of the cinema lives under the Nazi boot. Two workers at a film company take extremely different approaches to collaboration and resistance, and decide what is SAFE CONDUCT. “Jean Devaivre” (Jacques Gamblin) is using the German-owned studio as a cover for clandestine resistance activities that get increasingly wild and dangerous. So, he eventually sends his wife “Simone” (Marie Desgranges) and young son to a safe house in the country. Meanwhile, “Jean Aurenche” (Denis Podalydes) is a writer who avoids working directly with the Germans and fills his scripts with anti-Nazi jabs, which he cleverly gets round the censors. He has three mistresses—"Olga” (Marie Gillain), “Suzanne” (Charlotte Kady) and “Queen” (Maria Pitarresi)—and simply can't choose among them. Around these two men swirl a huge number of significant characters, all involved at different degrees in the war effort--on one side or the other.
The two main characters were real men who lived the events described in the film. Jean Devaivre wrote a book on the subject, on which the film is partially based. Director Bertrand Tavernier also had extensive conversations with Jean Aurenche, and he is thanked in the film’s credits. Antoine Duhamel’s César -nominated score for the 2002 film was released by Universal France. The film barely had a U.S. release, taking in just $26,000 in a few theaters. Internationally it grossed $1.7 million.
Bertrand Tavernier returned to the American South with IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, an adaptation of a James Lee Burke novel. “Dave Robicheaux” (Tommy Lee Jones) is an ex-New Orleans homicide detective and recovering alcoholic who has returned to his Louisiana homeland and settled in the sleepy backwater town of New Iberia, where his continuing interest in crime investigation has landed him work as a detective for the local Sheriff's Department. He has adopted a young daughter named “Alafair” (Alana Locke) and has married mobster widow and Lupus sufferer “Bootsie” (Mary Steenburgen).
After the mutilated body of a young woman is discovered in a local woodland, Dave has a chance encounter with Hollywood superstar “Elrod Sykes” (Peter Sarsgaard), whom Robicheaux pulls over and arrests for drunk driving. Desperate to avoid being run in, Elrod reveals the location of a decayed corpse discovered when he was filming in the bayou, a killing Robicheaux realizes he may have witnessed as a child. Subsequent inquiries point him in the direction of local mobster “Julius ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni” (John Goodman), a man with whom he was once good friends but now holds in contempt, and the subsequent investigation starts to suggest that the two temporally distanced killings may be somehow connected.
In discussing how he chose this particular book to adapt (the sixth of Burke’s “Robicheaux” novels), Tavernier said “I am a great admirer of all Burke’s books—the ones I have read, and that is most of them. I like his style, the mélange of introspection, lyricism, description that is very meditative and beautiful and then, of course, the dialog. I find Burke a writer of genius when it comes to dialog. He knows how to evoke the character in a few phrases. He writes romans noirs in which characters come before the intrigue.”
Regarding the character of Robicheaux, Tavernier noted that he liked “the fact that he is such a complex character. He is somebody who has wounds, who has been hurt by life, but who still fights on behalf of what George Orwell called ‘the common decency.’ He typifies all the virtues of that expression: the sense of collectivity and idealism, generosity, the act of giving without receiving. Although he has a wife and family, Robicheaux is also very solitary. He is haunted by the idea of rediscovering the Louisiana of his childhood; he is willing to fight to rediscover it. He would like to change the world, but he knows that the world won’t be changed. He seeks to protect his moral integrity. He is alone because he doesn’t want his wife to be involved in his work. His first wife was killed by gangsters. He is someone who has already paid dearly for his moral integrity. He tries to protect his house, which is a kind of oasis for him. But he has dark, somber streaks that make him complex and very human. When he has explosions of violence, he feels guilty about them. He suffers remorse. I like men who fight, who have shadows and who are not always right. I like them even if their battle is not likely to succeed. I have an enormous tenderness for Robicheaux. I have a liking for him that stems from the first book I read about him. I feel very close to that, to the violence and to his regrets for using it as he does.”
Bertrand Tavernier on the set of IN THE ELECTRIC MIST
Two of Tavernier’s earlier films, THE CLOCKMAKER and COUP DE TORCHON were based on stories set in America, but had been translated to other locales by Tavernier. When asked whether he considered doing the same thing with IN THE ELECTRC MIST, he replied: “No, it would have been impossible to set it anywhere else other than southern Louisiana. With those earlier films, I didn’t feel ready to go to the States to film. This time around I had more knowledge, more tradecraft. I knew I could get by. I had already filmed in the States, in Tennessee [MISSISSIPPI BLUES, 1984] and New York [a sequence in ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT, 1986]. The result is a film completed in forty-one days—very, very quickly. And which I could make exactly as I wanted. I have made a film which is, first of all, a French production. The film was financed by TF1 international, with some help from the State of Louisiana because it was shot there. I chose to work with an American producer because I knew that I could not make a film in America without doing this. It would have broken union rules. Therefore, I chose a producer who had worked with Tommy Lee Jones [Michael Fitzgerald produced the 2005 film THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, which was directed by Jones]. He had made some other films that were interesting too— THE PLEDGE, WISE BLOOD. I said to myself that I would ask a producer who was a little artistic.”
In the end, working with an artistic producer may have been a mistake. A significant disagreement arose between Tavernier and both his American producer, Michael Fitzgerald, and editor, Roberto Silvi, concerning the cutting of the movie. When their disagreements proved impossible to resolve, the only solution was to release two versions of the same film, one for either side of the Atlantic. Fitzgerald, head of Ithaca Pictures, supervised Silvi on the cutting of a shorter, faster-paced film for the U.S. market. Tavernier, with the help of editor Thierry Derocles, kept the picture at its original length, leaving in scenes that, while superfluous to the intrigue, he felt were necessary to explain Robicheaux’s complex personality.
Tavernier’s version, 117 minutes long, was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2009 before being released in European cinemas two months later. At the same time, the producer’s version—102 minutes long, cut very differently from the European version, and containing different scenes—went straight to DVD in the United States. The dispute between Tavernier and Fitzgerald became so strong, that Fitzgerald forbade composer Marco Beltrami to even talk to the director. Beltrami nevertheless met Tavernier in Paris where he gave him two music cues (unused in the producer’s cut) just for the international cut.
The European version opens with a lovingly depicted journey through the southern Louisiana bayou. The mist of the title drifts through the pecan trees as Tommy Lee Jones intones, in voice-over, “In ancient times people put stones on the graves of their dead so their souls would not wander and afflict the living. I’d always thought this to be a practice of superstitious and primitive people, but I was about to learn that the dead can hover on the edge of our vision with the density and luminosity of mist, and that their claim on the earth can be as legitimate and tenacious as our own.”
The American film starts with Jones sitting in a bar ruminating on his alcoholism. He expresses himself in more prosaic fashion. Sometimes he feels like having a drink, he says, but he always manages to resist the temptation.
Throughout the two versions of IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, there are differences, some subtle, some major, culminating in an ending in which the European version leaves a great deal—perhaps too much—to the viewer’s imagination, while the U.S. version makes plain exactly what has happened.
Asked whether he was “reasonably happy” with the way things turned out, Tavernier said: “Not reasonably… absolutely happy. I’m absolutely happy with this two-film solution. It is something I wanted. The producer keeps the rights for the States. He had some money to recoup, so it was the best way to give him what he wanted. So, I am not reasonably happy, I am absolutely happy.”
Marco Beltrami’s score was released by Varese Sarabande in the U.S. and Colosseum in Germany. A download with different tracks was also made available in France through Play-Time. The theatrical version of the film grossed $8 million internationally.
Glad that Bob got around to this important filmmaker. Although few of his films are widely known in the USA, Tavernier nevertheless earned a kind of cinematic sainthood for his long career. His apprenticeship was in press agentry, which he used as a learning vehicle for the medium he was promoting. His film criticism was full of enthusiasm for American movies but managed to avoid the looniest excesses of the Cahiers crowd. It's a pity that his notable book, Trente ans du cinéma american, has never been translated -- even though he later revised it to cover 40, then 50 years of movies.
For his first feature, The Clockmaker, Tavernier chose to work with the famous screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The two had worked with the classic filmmakers of an earlier era, such as Carné, Clément, Delannoy, and Autant-Lara, but were acidly dismissed as irrelevant by Truffaut and the other Young Turks of Cahiers du cinéma. Tavernier's support and frequent collaboration led to a resurgence in their stalled careers.
I still remember Tavernier's appearance at one NYC screening. The audience was reverential, and one member introduced his question with "Cher maître." Bob's survey has inspired me to catch up with more of Tavernier's extensive oeuvre.
THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER is a gripping, superbly mounted drama set against the savage Catholic/Protestant wars that ripped France apart in the 16th century. Based on a novella by the celebrated Madame de Lafayette, the action centers on the love of “Marie de Mezières” (Mélanie Thierry) for her dashing cousin “Henri de Guise” (Gaspard Ulliel), thwarted when her father's political ambitions force her into marriage with the well-connected “Philippe de Montpensier” (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), whom she has never met. When Philippe is called away to fight, she is left in the care of “Count Chabannes” (Lambert Wilson), an aging nobleman with a disdain for warfare, and soon becomes exposed to the sexual and political intrigues of court.
Bertrand Tavernier and Mélanie Thierry on the set of THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER
Tavernier explained the casting for “Marie” in this film, and his thoughts on casting for historical films in general: “Marie had to be beautiful, she had to look good in period costume, which not everybody is. You have a great actress like Sigourney Weaver who, when she played the Queen of Spain [in 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE], just didn't look right for the period. Rarely do you find an American actor who looks correct in a (16th century) setting, whereas most British actors fit the part very easily. Cate Blanchett, in the newest ROBIN HOOD (2010), even in a thankless part, she's extremely believable. But Robert De Niro in 1900 (1976) and Al Pacino in REVOLUTION (1985), they were so bad. They felt too contemporary to fit in. The only actors in America who could very easily fit into period films were those who did lots of westerns, like Burt Lancaster. In THE LEOPARD (1963), he was the best Sicilian prince you could dream about. He didn't look disguised in costume. So, I had to find somebody who had all the colors of the part: the sensuality, but also the teenager. She's a very young girl who likes to have fun, to flirt, behave like a young kid in school. Then in the next minute, she becomes class-conscious and aristocratic. And Mélanie Thierry fit that perfectly.”
Tavernier co-wrote the script as well as directed this 2010 release. Philippe Sarde’s César-nominated score was released by Varese Sarabande in the U.S., Universal in France, and Quartet in Spain. The film took in a scant $350,000 in the U.S., but grossed $6.6 million internationally.
THE FRENCH MINISTER is a political satire following a young man, “Arthur Vlaminck” (Raphaël Personnaz) who has just been hired as the “head of language” (effectively making him the speech writer) for the French foreign minister “Alexandre Taillard de Vorms” (Thierry Lhermitte), who is charismatic and well-meaning, but ultimately a dullard. The film concerns itself with Arthur’s day to day struggles as he navigates the turbulent world of politics and office life.
Thierry Lhermitte, Bertrand Tavernier, and Raphaël Personnaz on the set of THE FRENCH MINISTER
The film played in a few U.S. theaters for a $12,000 take and grossed $5.6 million internationally. Philippe Sarde’s score for the 2013 film was released by Quartet.
In addition to being a writer and director, Bertrand Tavernier was a film historian, of both French and American films. His final film projects consisted of two documentaries on French cinema. In 2016, he wrote, directed and hosted the compilation film documentary MY JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA. The informal, 3 ½ hour round-up featured classic moments from the top films by Renoir, Vigo, Carné, Cocteau, Duvivier, Becker, Ophuls, Melville, Varda, Godard, Sautet and others. The film had a minimal theatrical release in which it earned $71,000 worldwide.
Tavernier followed this up the next year with a nearly 8-hour, 10-part miniseries for French television called JOURNEYS THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA. Here, Tavernier expands his earlier work to delve into appreciations of some fairly unfamiliar directing names, such as Jean Grémillon, Sacha Guitry, Henri Calef, Raymond Bernard, and others. The series is available (re-edited into 8-parts) on video.
Tavernier may have been inspired to make this documentary series as a result of his experience in filming IN THE ELECTRIC MIST in Louisiana, where he was deprived of French cinema. In an interview he noted that “In the past, American directors watched French films, knew about French cinema. Not any more. They don’t even watch old American films, their own cinema. I don’t have anything in common with such people. You know, when you see a film in the cinema in the United States, the lights are never completely switched off. This is so that people can come and go to buy popcorn. You are continually disturbed by people eating next to you. The last film I saw in a cinema in the U.S., the man next to me was eating a Chinese meal. In France I prefer to go to the cinema to watch movies. But there… In New Orleans there wasn’t a single foreign film. With the exception of a festival when one can see several different foreign films in a week, there is nothing. In a city where you have several universities, very few people care about seeing foreign films.”
Bertrand Tavernier said “My characters are not completely heroic characters. Michael Powell told me that he liked films where the hero is wrong in three or four scenes but without the author of the film pointing them out. I adore that! To have somebody making mistakes. That's something that exists in all the films—whether the man is a cop or a tenor saxophonist.”
And looking back at his career, Tavernier noted that “I've been lucky. Almost everything I've done, I wanted to make passionately.”
Bertrand Tavernier’s films need to be more widely seen. We could all use a little more passion in our lives. Farewell, Bertrand.