Lose Yourself in the Odd Beauty of Bertrand Tavernier’s Films

A French master and his perplexing work get an eye-opening retro


Alain Resnais once characterized Bertrand Tavernier’s films as ones where you could never tell what the next shot would be, a description that is at once perfect and somewhat misleading. Perfect because it captures the odd, ever-shifting rhythms of the director’s work, where a momentous plot development can be followed by a casual scene of characters sharing a meal. Misleading because it suggests a shapelessness, maybe even a carelessness, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Tavernier’s films walk a fine line: They are absorbing, dense, and fastidiously unpredictable.

The director is getting a sizable retrospective at the Quad Cinema starting this week — timed to the release of his new documentary, My Journey Through French Cinema, a lengthy, personal meditation on his country’s films. (It’s a subject he knows intimately, having gotten his start as an assistant director for Jean-Pierre Melville, then going on to become a press agent at the height of the New Wave. Over the years, he has continued to write about movies even as he’s become one of France’s most important filmmakers.)

Though they’re not often discussed as paragons of visual style, Tavernier’s films demand to be seen on a big screen to be fully understood. It’s almost impossible for a TV screen to do justice to the drifting, surreal menace of something like Coup de Torchon (1981), his comically nihilistic transplanting of Jim Thompson’s sleazy Southern noir Pop. 1280 to French West Africa in the 1930s. Or the smoky, doomed ambience of Round Midnight (1986), his languid drama about the relationship between an aging, desperate American jazz musician (Dexter Gordon) and the wide-eyed French jazz buff (François Cluzet) who befriends him in late-Fifties Paris. Or the nervous, start-stop energy of his bizarre cop drama L. 627 (1992), about a drug enforcement unit. It was only about halfway through that one that I realized I wasn’t really supposed to understand much of the incidents of its story. It’s a movie about the overwhelming confusion and chaos of that kind of police work.

These are immersive, lived-in films, privileging atmosphere and detail above narrative and spectacle. One might even call them “hangout” movies — Quentin Tarantino’s term for pictures like Rio Bravo and Dazed & Confused that use narrative mainly as an excuse to get a bunch of characters together and watch them interact. But there’s very little that’s relatable or universal in Tavernier’s cinema; his work is rigorous and particular. You sense that the director has engrossed himself deep into his subjects, into the manners and mores and language of each milieu. “If I’m proud of one thing in my films,” he told the Village Voice back in 1984, “it’s that you can’t separate the characters from the specific worlds in which they live.”

This can lead to a pleasant kind of alienation while watching them, a sense that you’ve been cast adrift in a world without all your bearings. The Judge and the Assassin (1976), the story of a turn-of-the-century serial killer and the judge who must bring him to justice, offers a vaguely comic treatment to an incredibly dark subject, with few figures with whom we can identify; the story takes place against the backdrop of the notorious Dreyfus Affair, and the characters’ casual bigotry can be off-putting. In Beatrice (1987), a headstrong young woman (Julie Delpy) is tormented and abused by her father, a powerful knight who has just returned from fighting in the Hundred Years’ War. It’s a brutal film that dares to try and understand these depraved characters, to place them in the context of medieval rituals and morality. Everyone is truly awful to one another in Beatrice, and yet it remains intensely compelling, because Tavernier has realized it all with such fullness of vision, imagining everything down to the tiniest detail. Even the way these people eat feels dreadfully accurate.

Something else happens as we watch these films, with their unusual rhythms and loose narratives and perplexing characters: Our minds and our attentions drift, but they do so within the space of the movie. We begin to wonder what someone wandering in the background might be thinking, or where a certain road may go. And we start to notice subtler things. Watching A Sunday in the Country (1984), a lovely look at an aging still-life painter being visited by his grown children, we may sense that death has quietly become another character, seeping into the painter’s own sense of mortality and obsolescence, and even into the texture of the film. “The pictures in this movie seem on the verge of melting away,” David Edelstein wrote in the Voice at the time, “and when they’re underscored with one of Gabriel Faure’s final quintets, which has a plangent, dying fall, they evoke the splendor of autumn.”

But perhaps the most moving evocation of Tavernier’s style comes via one of his own films. Right at about the midway mark of Round Midnight, as the camera tracks through a rainy street and an empty apartment, Dexter Gordon’s melancholy musician reflects on the singular chord voicings of his music — and that sound’s roots. I know almost nothing about music theory (or practice), but I’m captivated by the way his slow, sensuous whisper seems to embody the very thing he’s talking about:

“Listen to that, Francis…The swing bands used to be all straight tonics, seventh chords…And then with the Basie band, I heard Lester Young…and he sounded like he came out of the blue. Because he was playing all the color tones — the sixths and the ninths and major sevenths. You know, like Debussy and Ravel…Then Charlie Parker came on, and he began to expand, and he went into elevenths, and thirteenths and flat fives…Luckily, I was going in the same direction already. You don’t just go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree is inside you, growing naturally.”

Film & Nothing But: Bertrand Tavernier
June 20–29 at the Quad Cinema