The last time I saw Bertrand Tavernier, who died yesterday in Paris at 79, was at the Cannes Film Festival nearly two years ago after the world premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was after 1 a.m. and my son Nick and I, who had been elated by the film, were walking down a largely empty Rue d’Antibes when I saw Bertrand’s unmistakable bulky frame approaching us. He was with his wife Sarah and I had seen them just a few evenings before in Paris at a gathering of friends of the late Pierre Rissient, cinema champion extraordinaire, who had worked with Bertrand championing films in the 1960s.
With just about anyone else, this would have remained just a brief nocturnal encounter. But talks with Bertrand were seldom short. To the contrary, because Bertrand was almost always a lava flow of opinion, information, insight and, for the most part, enthusiasm. Once he had started, there was no stopping him. He did have a very large head, which he both needed and used, as it contained more information, not only about cinema but politics, literature, history and many other matters, than just about anyone else I’ve ever met. The four of us stood yacking on the street that night for at least an hour.
Bertrand packed at least three lifetimes in the one allotted most of us. He worked first as an assistant to the maverick French director Jean-Pierre Melville. In the mid-1960s he teamed with Rissient to publicize select films the two men felt inspired to champion, and their technique differed from any other publicists; they arranged things so that critics were forced to exit through a narrow corridor so Pierre and Bertrand could confront each critic, quiz them on what they thought and, if necessary, lecture and brow-beat any dissenters as to why they were wrong and then try to change their minds. In such circumstances, Bertrand generally played the good guy, while Pierre was well constituted to be the bad guy.
Bertrand’s career as a director started in 1974 with The Clockmaker of St. Paul and he made 21 more features, all of them intelligent, many of them very fine and most of them politically or historically engaged. He also made numerous documentaries, an activity that culminated in his marvelous 2016 personal account My Journey Through French Cinema, which the next year blossomed into an expanded nine-episode TV compendium on the same subject.
Along with this came Bertrand’s career as an author; he knew everything there was to know about French and American cinema. His book Amis Americains is a treasure, because it contains lengthy and ultra-informed interviews not only with the expected subjects—Ford, Huston, Kazan and others—but many interesting but less studied figures—Tay Garnett, Edgar G. Ulmer, Delmer Daves, Robert Parish, Jacques Tourneur and quite a few of the blacklisted filmmakers; the latter represented a particular cause for Tavernier.
I honestly don’t know how Bertrand fit it all in. In addition to making so many films and documentaries and publishing so many interviews, he had seen everything. The last time I was in touch with him, a few months ago, I had just seen Henry Hathaway’s very good 1951 espionage drama Diplomatic Courier starring Tyrone Power. The film benefits a great deal from the extensive location work done in Trieste, a visually rich city rarely seen in American films. Bertrand agreed, but added that Hathaway never set foot in Trieste, that all the footage there was done by the second unit. Leave it to Bertrand.
There is no doubt that the most intelligent hard-core cinephile discussion I’ve ever been part of took place at the Telluride Film Festival more than a decade ago. Four of us—Bertrand, Pierre, the great cinema historian and critic David Thomson and I–got stuck in a sudden rain storm and took shelter in a tent for what ended up being at least an hour. The talk started, as I recall, with John Ford, and it quickly became quite heated, with the usual issues of Ford’s politics and sentimentality being weighed against his obvious visual and dramatic gifts. I wish I had a recording of it, as everyone was ultra-lucid, well-versed on the issues and, least on this occasion, unbridled when it came to the main issues at hand. Bertrand and Pierre had also known and interviewed Ford, which added personal issues to the conversation.
When I made my documentary about Pierre some years ago I called it Man of Cinema, and the same would apply to Bertrand, who knew as much about films as anyone on this planet. And he gave back, to pass his enthusiasm and passion on to others in the most informed and intelligent way I have ever witnessed.