Bertrand Tavernier was a titan of French filmmaking whose body of work is one of the most diverse in world cinema. He would jump from neo-noir to science fiction to period drama to jazz, and of course contributing to the long history of the “French sad girl film” and even doing extensive work in documentary filmmaking. He passed away last year at 79, and StudioCanal has compiled an overview of his work up to 2010’s The Princess of Montpensier, which was his penultimate narrative film. His final work was My Journey Through French Cinema, which was a documentary on his undying passion. He also made a version that was cut into 10 episodes for French television. Sadly, the boxset doesn’t include the theatrical version, even though it got a DVD-release from StudioCanal in the UK—that would’ve been a nice bonus.
The first film in the set, Let Joy Reign Supreme (Que la fête commence…), is the first drama Tavernier made, the genre he eventually become best known for. Early on he did a lot of thrillers. It’s a little bit like Ken Russell’s The Devils, but far less heightened and hysterical. Tavernier basically depicts French aristocrats in the 17th century as the debauched power-hungry madmen they were. Jean Rochefort plays L’abbé Dubois, right-hand man to Philippe II, Duke of Orléans’ (Philippe Noiret) and a priest who has his own ulterior plans for power. Rochefort is the stand-out performance here, but Philippe Noiret is great too. Noiret was Tavernier’s go-to leading man for many films. The French revolution is also just on the horizon, so there is a certain irony to the entire proceedings.
A Week’s Vacation (Une semaine de vacances) is the next film, and it’s Tavernier’s “French sad girl film.” Nathalie Baye plays Laurence Cuers from Lyons: Tavernier was a proud resident of Lyons and set many of his films there. Laurence is having a personal crisis in her week of leave from the school where she works as a teacher. It’s not a film where much happens, but it is an interesting examination of the way of a young French professional lives, and the way she navigates her increasingly unsatisfactory professional and personal life. Her boyfriend is an asshole, his father is dying, and she is struggling to find any meaning in life. Philippe Noiret pops up and gives her some valuable advice: “listen to students.” It’s kind of the yin to the yang of Tavernier’s later film, It All Starts Today.
The centrepiece of this boxset, and easily the best film in the set, is Coup de Torchon. The pulp master Jim Thompson’s wonderfully perverse and twisted novel Pop. 1280 serves as the inspiration for the film. Tavernier decided ingeniously to change the setting of the book from a Southern American town in 1917-18 (the indicator of time in the book is that it takes place sometime during the Russian Revolution) to a backwater town in French West Africa in 1938. Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is the town’s only cop, and nobody respects his authority. His wife moves her lover into their house, and pimps run rampant in the town, mocking him endlessly. He eventually snaps and ends up with a messiah complex, where the violence just ramps up like a Tom & Jerry cartoon (this is all from the novel). Although he is the “good guy” to the extent that there is any morality in this backwater, he is just as bad as the rest of the colonialists. Isabelle Huppert gives one of her best performances as Rose, who starts off as this fairly innocent, girlish young woman who is revealed to be just as maniacal as any of the males. It remains the best Jim Thompson adaptation along with The Grifters, because it understands the hell that his protagonists have created for themselves, and that there is no way out of there.
L.627 is one of the better-known films in the set, and another one of Tavernier’s crime films— but it’s unlike any crime film I’ve ever seen. It’s a sprawling narrative about Lucien ‘Lulu’ Marguet (Didier Bezace) who has been recently thrown out of the judicial police in Paris due to a conflict with a superior officer. He ends up working in a suburban police force tackling drug trafficking. The film is interested in almost everything but the standard police procedural story that the film could’ve so easily been. It’s about how the police operate, their personal and romantic lives, and how lazy, ineffective, racist and easily corrupted police actually are. If you go expecting your typical Eurocrime-type cops vs. criminals film, which the French are the masters of (and Tavernier worked for the master, Jean-Pierre Melville)— you will be disappointed. Going in with an almost Cinéma vérité outlook on the clusterfuckery of what goes into policing, you should be enthralled. It’s a little too long and has a subplot or two too many, but it’s well worth your time.
It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui) centres on the experiences of the headteacher Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton) who runs a French primary school and the community around the school. The head is faced with several tricky situations and elevated responsibilities in his role, but he soldiers on with the staff. He’s doing his best to ensure the children get a good education despite everything going on around him. Here Tavernier presents the flipside to his other film about teachers, creating one of his best films (although I think it could use a trim). It’s a fairly realistic depiction of what it takes to be a teacher and run a school, especially a school in a depressed former mining down facing economic problems. It’s a bit like the kind of film Ken Loach might do, but better—it’s not preachy or agit-prop, but shows the reality.
Safe Conduct (Laissez-passer) is one of the better films in the set. It was very controversial in France at the time. It’s a three-hour movie based on the memoirs of French director Jean Devaivre, and the French film industry during the Occupation. It’s far too long, but still interesting—there’s a great two-hour film in there. It shows the director trying to navigate how to continue working in the film industry with Continental Films, a German-controlled film company in France. Continental is best known for giving Henri-George Clouzot his first film as a director. The company shut down in 1944. In Safe Conduct, Devaivre and the screenwriter Jean Auranche walk a fine line between trying to not collaborate with the Nazis and handle other issues that arise during the war.
When the film came out in France, Devaivre sued Tavernier, because he wanted his name bigger in the credits. There was also a lot of opposition from Cahiers du Cinema and Le Monde, which thought it was a film that sugar-coated collaboration and was anti-French New Wave. Both claims were ridiculous, especially as Tavernier had worked with every French New Wave director at some point before making films of his own. Tavernier did eventually give Devaivre more credit, but the controversy probably cost him a chance at the César. It’s a topic that very few if any, films cover.
Finally, The Princess of Montpensier is the worst film in the set, and Tavernier’s penultimate film. There’s a more interesting story in the background, but it ends up being a standard romantic period drama. It’s set against the backdrop of religious war, but centres on the story of Marie Mézières, a young woman forced into marriage with Philippe de Montpensier, a man who can help her father achieve his own political goals, when she is actually in love with her cousin Henri de Guise. It’s perfectly fine, and Melanie Thierry is good in the lead role, but it’s a bit dull. When the background story of the war is foregrounded it becomes more interesting. It’s the type of film that French companies make to win a César, although it didn’t work this time for Tavernier.
The boxset from Studiocanal also includes The Undeclared War (La Guerre sans nom) which is a four-hours-plus documentary on the French Algerian war (which was famously never declared a “war”). This is spread over two discs, and includes an introduction from Tavernier and analysis on the film from Vincent Martigny. The first three films each include an analysis from Guillemette Odicino, and all the films include some combination of making-of documentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, trailers etc. The highlight, however, is the incredibly surrealistic alternative ending for Coup de Torchon, which might be even better than the ending Tavernier went with. If you are a French speaker, commentary tracks with Tavernier, either solo or with collaborations, are available if you select “France” at the start of the disc—these are not subtitled for English speakers. You also get some postcards in the boxset.