Tavernier: French film's non-conformist conscience

Paris (AFP) –


French director Bertrand Tavernier, who has died aged 79, was the conscience of French cinema, unafraid to lose friends when he turned on the political left late in life.

The son of a French resistance fighter, Tavernier won fans and international fame with his unique mix of classy period pieces and campaigning contemporary dramas.

His themes of injustice, racism and the sapping curse of unemployment brought comparisons with Britain's Ken Loach even if stylistically he had more in common with Hollywood greats like John Ford.

Both in front of the camera and behind it Tavernier fought tirelessly against censorship, torture during the Algerian war of independence, for migrants' rights and for the defence of European cinema against Hollywood.

But he was equally unapologetic about voting in 2007 for right-wing French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who as interior minister had abolished a law under which jailed immigrants could be deported even if they had dependents in France.

Sarkozy was moved to act after seeing a Tavernier documentary on the subject.

- Prolific humanist -

The director said he had unsuccessfully lobbied the previous "cowardly" Socialist government on the issue.

"Sarkozy owes his popularity to the uselessness of the left," Tavernier later declared.

Prematurely white-haired, Tavernier was by then an elder statesman of French cinema but just as driven and prolific as he had been 20 years before, railing against injustice in documentaries between bigger budget features.

He had won a BAFTA in 1990 for "Life and Nothing But", his searing drama about the search to identify corpses left on the battlefields of World War I.

It is credited for reawakening cinema's interest in the conflict.

The film also won a Cesar, France's version of the Oscars, for best actor for Philippe Noiret, often Tavernier's partner in crime since "The Clockmaker" won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival in 1974.

By the time Tavernier won a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival in 2015, he had made more than 40 features across almost every genre and clocked up an Oscar nomination.

"Tavernier is a complete auteur, instinctively anti-conformist and courageously eclectic," said Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice festival.

- Son of Resistance fighter -

Tavernier was born during World War II in the southeastern city of Lyon. The city was already under the ruthless grip of Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie when he came blinking into the world on April 25, 1941.

His father, writer Rene Tavernier, was an early member of the Resistance and hid the communist poet Louis Aragon throughout the war.

The young Tavernier was sickly and discovered cinema during a stay in a sanatorium after he caught tuberculosis.

He moved to Paris to study law but soon found himself writing for film magazines and becoming an assistant to several directors, including New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard.

Such was his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema that "Thirty Years of American Cinema", which he co-authored in 1970, become a reference.

Indeed it was Hollywood's golden age that spurred him to make movies, saying watching cowboy films filled him with "physical pleasure".

- Love of Westerns -

"I became a director because of my admiration for westerns," he told AFP.

That love inspired his 2009 American film, "In the Electric Mist", starring Tommy Lee Jones and John Goodman in which he returned to his early passions: duels and horses.

"Suddenly I felt again what these directors must have felt when they filmed cavalcades and landscapes. It was like going back to my roots, to what I felt when I was 15.

"I saw myself again discovering the fantastic sword fights in George Sidney's 'Scaramouche'," he added.

There was plenty of swords and horses in his hit romantic swashbuckler "The Princess of Montpensier" in 2011 starring Lambert Wilson and Melanie Thierry, a story of passion and rivalry set against the savage wars of religion that ripped France apart in the 16th century.

Then came the 2013 comedy "Quai d'Orsay", about life at the French foreign ministry in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002.

For many years Tavernier kept an open house with his screenwriter wife Colo O'Hagan. They still worked together even after divorcing and their daughter Tiffany, also a writer, continued the family tradition, working with her father on the film "Holy Lola" in 2004.