One of France's premiere directors, screenwriters, and producers, Bertrand Tavernier is renowned for making dramas encompassing themes as diverse as familial relationships, World War I, and contemporary social ills. Regardless of the subjects they explore, Tavernier lends his films great introspection and humanity, something that has established him as one of the French cinema's more progressive and compassionate figures.
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Born in Lyon on April 25, 1941, Tavernier grew up with a love of film and wanted to be a director from the age of 13. He was particularly influenced by such American directors as Joseph Losey, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and William Wellman, and -- during a spell at the Sorbonne, where he studied law -- he became involved in the film industry as an assistant director for Jean-Pierre Melville. By his own admission, he was not very good at the job, so Tavernier became a film critic. While working for such prestigious publications as Positif and Cahiers du Cinema, he wrote two books on the American cinema, one of which has had numerous editions.
During a stint as a press agent for producer Georges de Beauregard, Tavernier was given the opportunity to direct some short sketches as part of a collective filmmaking project. He helmed his first feature film, L'Horloger de St. Paul, in 1974. The tale of a clockmaker and his complex relationship with his violent son and the bourgeois society that has produced him, it received international acclaim and a Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It also featured a starring turn by Philippe Noiret, whom Tavernier featured often in subsequent projects.
Only one year later, the director again found acclaim, this time for two films. The first, Que La Fête Commence... (Let Joy Reign Supreme), was a historical drama set in pre-revolutionary France that centered around the emotional and ideological dilemmas of the humanist regent Phillippe D'Orleans; it won four Césars, including one for Best Direction. Tavernier's second film that year, Le Juge et l'Assassin (The Judge and the Assassin), also earned a number of Césars, including a Best Screenplay award for Tavernier. An exploration of the relationship between a convicted child killer and the judge who must decide his fate, it focused on one of Tavernier's major themes, a preoccupation with the relationships between completely opposite people and the irreducibility of social barriers.
Familial relations and social concerns were once again viewed through Tavernier's lens in Des Enfants Gatés (Spoiled Children) (1977); he subsequently went in an entirely different direction for the sci-fi La Mort En Direct (Death Watch) (1980), a disturbing reflection on voyeurism and the dark realms of the human psyche. Tavernier then returned to his native Lyon and the subject of family drama to make Une Semaine de Vacances (A Week's Vacation) (1980), before again collaborating with Noiret for Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), in 1981. Adapted from an American novel set in Texas, the film took place in colonial Africa during the 1930s. A black comedy about a local police chief who goes on a murder spree after being treated like dirt for too long, it both provided a statement about the morality of power and contained a spate of affectionate references to the noir genre and Tavernier's beloved films of the '30s.
Tavernier had his next great critical success with Un Dimanche à la Campagne (A Sunday in the Country) (1984). Expanding on the themes explored four years earlier in Une Semaine de Vacances, it focused on the relationship between an aging painter and his children and grandchildren. The film won a number of honors, including the Director's Prize at Cannes and a Best Screenplay César that was shared between Tavernier and his then wife, Colo Tavernier O'Hagan. Two years later, Tavernier had possibly his greatest international success to date with Round Midnight, his tribute to jazz and jazzmen. Starring Dexter Gordon as a self-destructive American saxophonist living in self-exile in Paris, the film was a moody portrait of the friendship between the saxophonist and the French fan who becomes his caretaker. Gordon was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and Herbie Hancock won an Oscar for the film's score.
Following a look at colossal family dysfunction in La Passion Béatrice (1987), Tavernier again earned international acclaim, this time for La Vie et Rien d'Autre (Life and Nothing But) (1989). Starring Noiret as a World War I major obsessed with making amends for the wartime carnage he took part in, it was a brilliant commentary on the absurdity of war. Both Noiret and Tavernier received honors from the European Film Academy for their work, in addition to a number of other awards.
Following another examination of parent-child relationships in Daddy Nostalgie (1990), which featured an excellent performance from Dirk Bogarde, Tavernier turned his attentions to the problems and social issues facing contemporary France. L.627 (1992) focused on drug abuse and HIV, while La Guerre Sans Nom (1992) was a documentary about the Algerian War. More anti-war sentiment followed in Captaine Conan (1996), a post-World War I drama about a captain whose proclivity toward killing people becomes something of a problem during peacetime. A frightening, pointed commentary on the darker shades of human nature and the monstrosity of war, it earned a number of honors, including a Best Director César for Tavernier.
In 1998, Tavernier, along with his son Nils, returned to the realm of contemporary social issues with De L'Autre Cote Du Periphe (The Other Side of the Tracks), a documentary about life in one of Paris' more infamous housing projects. A powerful portrait of racism, poverty, and social injustice, it formed a suitable precedent for Tavernier's next feature, Ça commence aujourd'hui (It All Begins Today) (1999). A social drama revolving around the efforts of a schoolteacher to bring change to his demoralized, largely impoverished community, the film was Tavernier's first major effort since Captaine Conan. Powerful and compassionate, it earned a number of awards at the Berlin Film Festival that year, including the Jury's Special Mention Prize for its subject matter. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi