Thursday, 11 July 2013

Bertrand Tavernier: Crime and the Surreal

Clean Slate (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
 ‘I always try to show social consequences in my films. This is a challenge, of course, but consequences are always more important than the action itself.’ 
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.

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. Tavernier became then a film critic and worked for prestigious publications as Positif and Cahiers du Cinema. His first feature film, L’Horloger de St. Paul (1974), 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. Many of his films – from Le Juge et l’Assassin to Un Dimanche à la Campagne from Une Semaine de Vacances to La Passion Béatrice gained great critical success and earned a number of awards – (World Cinema Foundation).

In an interview with Michael Carlson in 2008 for the Crimetime website Bertrand Tavernier discussed his fondness for the crime genre and his early embrace of American crime movies:

BT: Well, I was interested in all kinds of film in those days, but perhaps because everyone wanted to write about Visconti and no one was writing about westerns, or musicals, or film noir, I was drawn to that. I was attracted by style; these crime films were saying much more than what they were supposed to say; they were full of information about the American way of life, there was lots of social context, and they were written or directed largely by progressive people, or people forced to leave their own country...

MC: So many of the great noir directors are immigrants.

Yes, they brought things that were not existing, so much, a sense of doubt or skepticism...well, this is too simple but American cinema tends to be about affirmation, and the European was more about doubt. Directors like Siodmak, Preminger, Lubitsch, Wilder, bring this with them.

You could argue film noir was European sensibility meeting the American gangster film.

Oh yes, but even in France at the end of the 1930s, you had Carne, and films written by Prevert.

‘Quai des brumes’?

Of course.

You were a critic before you started as an assistant director with Jean-Pierre Melville.

I never considered myself a critic; I did it merely out of passion because I wanted to be a film director. But I was not a good AD working with Melville; it was a bad experience, and he was not an easy man to work with, very intimidating to people on the set. But he knew I was not suited, so he suggested I might be better as a press agent, and that proved perfect: I could learn about films without the problems of being an AD, sit in on every stage of the process, and as I became more successful in PR it was special because I could work only on films I liked: so I did PR for Ford, Walsh, Henry Hathaway, and also for Godard, Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda... the second thing I did as a press agent was to make a trailer for the Godard film.

The Watchmaker of St Paul (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
And for your first feature, you adapted Simenon.

Because I loved him. I had already written one screenplay, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach Of Falesa, and I’d got James Mason and Jacques Brel to agree to be in it, but I couldn’t get the finance. I tried to write another screenplay, about the French Gestapo, but when I showed it to (the screenwriter) Pierre Bost he said ‘these people were scumbags, to make them into heroes is dangerous’, well, not heroes, he meant they become interesting by being the main characters.

Which is interesting, because that’s one of the themes of Laissez-Passer (Safe Conduct).

Yes, and the French critics called that picture an attack on the New Wave, and they didn’t know I’d worked on pictures like Pierrot Le Fou or fought for him on Le Mepris. I saw Godard at his tribute at the Institute Lumiere, and he was very nice to me. But Laissez-Passer is about the spirit of resistance, and the behaviour of people under occupation.

I think of someone like Soderbergh today, and wonder if the crime film helps provide a structure for film makers.

Yes, it does, and it’s a structure that you can break or destroy – but you must have a basis. Dexter Gordon said to me once ‘before trying to break all the barriers, learn how to play Laura. When you know Laura in the right mood, then you can expand.’ John Boorman once said he only needed the shot of someone putting a rifle in a suitcase. After that, you can go in a lot of innovative ways, because you have that moment of danger and conflict. And in film noir they found thousands of ways, flashbacks, false flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks.

Yes, I just saw ‘The Locket’ again.

Exactly. Resnais called film noir the best school for telling a story in the most modern way, and it’s amazing how they are still very much alive and not dated. Pitfall, The Big Clock, as interesting as they were, maybe moreso. They give the opportunity for the writer to write different dialogue, always interesting. Out Of The Past has wonderful dialogue, it’s not one note, and you have the literary, very sparse, like The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave. The people doing the writing knew they could smuggle ideas in.

The Watchmaker of St Paul (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Which brings us back to ‘The Watchmaker of St Paul’.

Yes, because Simenon is on of the most important writers in France – at least thirty masterpieces, plus all the great Maigrets. He’s often reduced to atmosphere, but suddenly he gets the essence of something, the naked man: we had this wonderful scene, when Noiret lies down on his son’s bed, after learning he’s a killer, and he’s a man deprived of what society has made of him.

Noiret conveys an amazingly lonely man, which I associate with Simenon’s characters

Yes, he is alone. My early films are always broken families, people are always lonely. Perhaps because my parents never got along, so I was raised that way.

And it’s odd to see Simenon set in the summer, in Lyon.

He’s always done in fog and rain, but I wanted to shoot the film in summer, in great light, because the foggy atmosphere is merely superficial. In fact, about 80 per cent of the screenplay is original, but when you add, when it’s good, it’s what Jean Aurenche called a gift inspired by the love you have for the book.

The Judge and the Assassin (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Your third film, ‘The Judge And The Assassin,’ combined crime, like your first one, with a period piece, like your second, ‘Que La Fete Commence’.

I was doing a trilogy with Noiret, dealing with issues of justice, and this was based on a very famous case at the time. I was looking for the texture behind the crime story; the time of Dreyfus, the battle between religion and the state. It’s set between the death of Van Gogh and the birth of Freud. As the killer, we cast an actor who’d done only low class bad comedy films, but he was very good, and brought the uncertainty to the role.

It’s in Cinemascope.

We shot in the Ardeche, and tried to integrate the landscape. I was influenced by Delmer Daves and he saw that and loved the film. The early films I loved, of John Ford especially, rooted the heroes in their environment, and with wide screen you can show them close up with the landscape still there behind them. I love Anthony Mann, how he gets the landscape into the film, and Cinemascope lets me do that.

You mention Daves; what did you think of the remake of ‘3:10 To Yuma’?

Oh I hated it! Hated it! They take a shortcut through the Apaches and discover a town full of Chinese the sheriff had no idea existed there! Really. In the original, two men are killed in the opening, and those deaths mean something; the first reverberates throughout the picture.

His funeral in Contention that morning...

Exactly. But in the remake, they kill dozens, randomly. The town, everyone is shooting. It makes no sense.

It seemed to me they deliberately inverted the most crucial things about the film. The son is now the hero, not the father...

Yes, perhaps because of the audience. They make films for children, so the big choices in this film are made by a child. And the father must die, not triumph.

Clean Slate (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Then we move to 1981, and ‘Coup De Torchon’ (Clean Slate), which is many people’s favourite of your films and favourite Jim Thompson adaptation.

It took me five years to adapt. At first I wanted to set it in Lyon, my native city, but it didn’t work. You can’t kill someone in France without someone else noticing, the body turning up. I asked Perec, Blier, to help, but nothing worked. Then I was re-reading Celine, and I thought ‘Ah ha’! I wanted to ask Jean Aurenche to write it, because he had lived in Africa, and he brought that surreal sense of irony – his sister was married to Max Ernst, by the way – the paying of the workers in cinema tickets for example. Though the scene of the pigs and the dead bodies, that we took from Gide.

But the surreal is there in the original too.

Oh yes. But when the Americans adapt Jim they wipe that out, they lose the metaphysical. There is always something strange going on, you’re not walking on solid ground, that’s why I used the stedicam so much; things are not stable, you can suddenly fall into a pit, that’s what Jim’s books are about. It leaves no way out for the audience, and I decided to keep that. There is no character who the audience can embrace at the end.

Which is true of ‘The Grifters’, to an extent, as well.

Donald Westlake, who wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, said he thought Coup de Torchon was the best Jim Thompson, and Westlake is a very very great writer.

L. 627 (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
It would be another decade before ‘L.627’, which was very different for you.

It’s a story about someone trying to do what he’s been asked to do, in this case a cop on the drug squad, but he becomes a pain in the ass because he tries, and he’s told not to think about results.

I worked with a real detective in his office, his boss left me completely free, he showed me people dealing, explained the situation. But I made that film out of anger, because I’d had lunch with Laurent Fabius, who was Minister of the Interior, and he asked me for an example of something he could work on. So I told him my son had been a drug addict, and had taken me in the Metro, at Chatelet, where you could walk through an open drug market, to schools where people were selling, so I said, you could do something about that. And he said he wanted something important! I was speechless! The film created a big controversy in France, the Minister of Interior was angry, and said their policy was against drug-dealing, but they actually did nothing, so the film was supported by the cops who understood. And it became a racial issue, because many, if not most, of the dealers were black. That was simply a fact. But by avoiding a crackdown, they opened the door for the likes of Le Pen, because it allowed him to then damn all blacks as dealers.

There is a documentary feel, less lyrical, and you’ve done many documentaries.

Maybe it reflects the change in the social situation, the generation. My films seem to take on the energies of their main characters. All the actors were unknowns, Didier Bezace, Phillipe Torreton, Milo, and my son actually plays a young cop. But I wanted to show a hero who is sometimes doing things that are wrong, beating up suspects, because he has grown so frustrated with the so-called correct way, because it doesn’t work. My films are about people who are passionate, and that can lead him over the line, into doing things that are evil. In all my films people make mistakes.

Fresh Bait (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Which is the sense one gets from The Bait (L’Appat, aka Fresh Bait) that it is the culture, perhaps, which has let down these three killers.

I felt it was an uncomfortable subject, how three people who would not harm anyone, but are ignorant, and dream of becoming rich in America, how could they kill people.

It’s as if it’s the easy way out?

They are lazy, too. And the pressure eventually turns them into killers. It was released in France on DVD, and I’m sorry it wasn’t in cinemas. The New York Times called it a French Natural Born Killers, the same subject but opposite in treatment.

Which brings us to ‘In The Electric Mist’, with Tommy Lee Jones and based on the novel by James Lee Burke. Is there a connection with ‘Coup de Torchon’, with the American South, the original setting of Thompson’s ‘Pop. 1280’?

Not intentionally, but as you say it, I think there is a similarity. I adore Burke, and his books present something different, and like Thompson there is a surreal element to them.

Especially in ‘Electric Mist’...

Yes, with the dreams. So I tried to shoot the dream sequences very straight-forwardly, very very realistically, with no distorted lenses or bizarre angles. He’s like Thompson too, in that his books have long sequences written in italics, because they are different from the real, and how do you film italics? In Thompson crime is explained by prejudice, intolerance, humilation. And the other element is Burke’s great sensitivity to social context, his sense of place. The past is always there, it’s his obsession, it explains the crimes of the present: it all goes back to slavery and the Civil War, things kept under the blanket and not dealt with.

In the Electric Mist (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
It’s very Faulknerian.

Faulkner was a nightmare to interview; the critics were asking all sorts of intellectual questions, and he wanted to talk story specifics. Very American. If you ask is Burke intellectual, I don’t know how you answer. Raoul Walsh could quote any line from Shakespeare; Olivia de Haviland once said she walked in on him and he was reading Stendahl, and he hid the book lest she see it.

If not intellectual, Robichaux is a reflective character, the thinking man’s cop, and Tommy Lee Jones isn’t always seen that way.

Oh but for me he embodies everything about Robichaux, for me he is the best American actor. In No Country For Old Men and Three Burials he showed that side. He worked on our script, he’s very obsessive, even changing punctuation, and wrote some beautiful scenes, including one with Bootsie where he defines understanding by asking what salamanders understand, that won’t be in the finished film. But when you say ‘action’ there’s no fuss. He gives you the inside of Dave Robichaux, and I have never seen an actor who can express contempt for another character in such a restrained way; it couldn’t be more intense. Jacques Tourneur understood this: he had his actors speak very low all the time, shot them using only real light: there’s only one scream in I Walked With A Zombie, it plays like a confession.

That’s an interesting comparison, because the Creole culture is common to New Orleans and Haiti...

And the food! I used a lot of hot sauce there; I came back with a case of Bin Laden’s Most Devilish hot sauce. There is also a very Catholic element, very religious to Burke, but very progressive, very anti-Bush, with the post-Katrina setting...

– ‘Simenon and the Surreal: Bertrand Tavernier talks to Michael Carlson’.  
Original article here

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