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Acclaimed French Filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier Dies At 79

Bertrand Tavernier poses for a portrait at the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival in Los Angeles on April 11, 2005.
Bertrand Tavernier poses for a portrait at the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival in Los Angeles on April 11, 2005.

Best known in the U.S. for his jazz film Round Midnight, Bertrand Tavernier directed some 40 features and documentaries. He was also a noted film historian, the author of 50 Years of American Cinema, and he championed the work of other filmmakers both past and present. He was 79.

Paris-based film journalist Joan Dupont knew Tavernier for many years. She says Tavernier reveled in the cinema — all of it. "He's a very astonishing filmmaker because he jumps from one genre to another; you never know where you're going to find him next," she said.

The historical drama Capitaine Conan was set in World War I. The Clockmaker of St Paul tells the story of a man in the 1970s whose son murders a factory owner. The film that reached his widest U.S. audience, Round Midnight, is about a Frenchman's love for American jazz. Tavernier also filmed documentaries about the Algerian war for independence, undocumented immigrants in France, and blues singers in America's Mississippi Delta.

In all of them, he wanted to build off the potent American influence in the movies — but make French films, as he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1996.

"We had films which were derivative from the American cinema," Tavernier said. "We have people trying to make a copy of American films saying it will sell more in the States. And I love American directors and American cinema. I just want to go on making the films I want — and I want that other French filmmakers keep on making the films they want."

Tavernier first started making movies in 1964. His breakthrough film in the U.S. came 20 years later with A Sunday in the Country, about an aging painter and his adult children.

Tavernier was younger than the major filmmakers of the French New Wave, though he was once an assistant to Jean-Luc Godard. But he differed from Godard and others in a crucial attitude, says writer Joan Dupont: "He said to me, 'They never show you really working-class people.' I think what he meant was they don't show you people people; they show you special people. I find him extremely touching in his passion and his sensitivity to what he's lived, his perception of others because he moves and he observes."

Though he made a number of historical dramas, Tavernier refused to treat the past as a museum. His 2010 movie The Princess of Montpensier is about a very young bride in the 16th century, during the ferocious religious wars between Catholics and Protestants.

"Unless I'm completely wrong, I have the impression that killing in the name of religions is still something that happens today, no?" Tavernier said in 2010. "I think it's making first page of many newspapers throughout the world. It seems to me that the treatment of women is still something we are speaking about a lot, no?"

Five years later, he told me he first fell in love with cinema when he was a child with tuberculosis. The sanitarium staff showed movies to patients and he says films saved his life then — and also in 2015, as he lay in a hospital bed after cancer surgery. He was editing My Journey through French Cinema,his more than three-hour tribute to the great French filmmakers who preceded him.

"I wanted to say thank you for the way they enlighten my life," he told NPR in 2017. "They made me richer, more passionate, more curious. For the way sometimes they save my life. When I was very young, I was sick. I was not in good health, had TB, and the cinema was something — it gave me dreams; it gave me passion. I think I survive , I survive, because of the cinema. It gave me hope."

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