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The Survival of Mise-en-scène: An Interview with Bertrand Tavernier

The Survival of Mise-en-scène: An Interview with Bertrand Tavernier

Florence Jacobowitz, Richard Lippe & Robin Wood

Bertrand Tavernier, Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

We have been great admirers of Tavenier’s films for many years. For us, his work represents the completely convincing revalidation of the great and complex Realist tradition exemplified by, for example, Renoir and Rossellini, but also the major Hollywood film-makers, that has been so much under attack in this age of deconstruction, anti-Realism, self-reflexivity and Post-Modernism. He has produced what is arguably the most substantial and impressive body of work by any European film-maker since the advent of the New Wave, work that has been (predictably enough) ignored by the dominant schools of ‘advanced’ film theory/criticism.

It was an honour and a pleasure for us to meet Tavernier during the 1986 Toronto Film Festival. At very short notice, and in the midst of a very tight schedule, he went out of his way to accommodate us, ending up giving us more than double the time we had been officially allocated (if the interview seems to end rather abruptly, it is because the tape ran out!). In all printed interviews one inevitably misses important components: tone, inflection, gesture. This is especially true in the case of Tavernier. He talked copiously, responding eagerly to our questions, continuously communicating an enthusiasm that was , inseparably, both emotional and intellectual (a unity characteristic also of his films). His English is extremely fluent but also highly idiosyncratic, the excitement resulting in unfinished sentences and the repetition of words and phrases. While perfectly comprehensible when accompanied by intonation, emphasis and gesture, his discourse looked occasionally obscure when transcribed to paper. I have the liberty of tidying it up, whilst trying to preserve the flavour.

We wish to thank the publicity staff of Warner Brothers for their flexibility and considerateness in helping to make the interview possible.

ROBIN WOOD: It’s a great pleasure to meet you. What I was going to suggest was that we work our way through your films chronologically… from The Clockmaker on, ending with ‘Round Midnight. But we can always digress if we want to, on the way.

BERTRAND TAVERNIER: Okay, okay, as you like. Shoot.

RW: All right. Would you like to talk about the adaptation of Simenon, because it’s very striking I think, how Simenon’s book is completely apolitical and you have made a very political film from it?

BT: I’ve always been in love with Simenon. I think he is one of the greatest writers now, I mean in the French language. But the book as you know, was set in America…. And I don’t completely agree that it’s not political. I mean there are things about the book, about people who are immigrants, not completely at ease in the society and somebody who commits a crime related to the kind of nihilistic crime committed in America in the ’30s which is a reaction against a certain type of society, which made the story more, I would say, more social than you think and just by the way that Simenon got a certain atmosphere and a certain loneliness in the American society, of somebody who cannot adapt. And I was always sensitive to that. Simenon was not only a creator of atmosphere but he knew how to get the social roots and some very perceptive things in the human being which for me created a lot of emotion and I was in love with that.But I didn’t want to do an American film and I tried to transpose it to my native city, Lyons, and to the period and by transposing to the period which was not the period of control when Simenon wrote his book I had to face certain things, certain facts and it’s true that I wanted the thing to be more political not only because I was maybe more but because the period was more and I wanted to reflect the period. I chose Aurenche and Bost after looking at some of their films not, as it is always being said (which is crazy), as a reaction against the New Wave, as a kind of declaration of war against the New Wave, because I liked a lot of directors and I respected a lot of directors.[1] It was because I saw that Aurenche and Bost were good and I was surprised by seeing some of their old films how good their work was and sometimes the mistakes, the heavy things, were more the director than themselves. I think they had an ability for dialogue. They knew how to make different kinds of persons talk and they had a kind of anarchistic and political sense which I liked, which I loved and which has not changed. I mean they did things which were brave. I mean to do a film like Douce where at the end of a scene Marguérite Moreno says to some poor people, ‘Patience and resignation’, and Roger Pigaut says, ‘Impatience and revolt.’ In 1943, to a German, that was meaningful. That was more difficult than to do any kind of political statement in ’68, more risky. And I respected them tremendously but I wanted to use them the way I think Otto Preminger wanted to use Dalton Trumbo or some people wanted to use Ring Lardner, Jr., because they were good writers. And again I’ve always been very angry against people who said that this choice put me against Truffaut and so on. I always thought that Truffaut was wrong in criticizing so much Aurenche and Bost. I mean he was right on a few points but most of the time he should have attacked the directors. Like in his well-known example, his article where he shows the difference between Aurenche and Bost’s work and some other film by picking up Under Capricorn and Les Orgueilleux. It has always struck me as a wrong example. It takes a line of dialogue in Les Orgueilleux which he opposed to as a visual thing. I mean I can do the opposite. I can say, let’s give Hitchcock the dialogue of the scene in Les Orgueilleux, and without changing a line he will do a great scene. What is bad is that the last line, ‘Take our tenderness,’ is done in a very heavy way by Allégret. If Hitchcock had done the scene he would have had it lighter, more ironic, maybe in a distant shot instead of a close shot, the scene would be completely different. And on the other hand, the idea of Under Capricorn, of the coat held behind the glass, I always thought that could have been an idea from a screenwriter, not an idea from a director and I asked last year Hume Cronyn whom I met, ‘In that scene, as you wrote the screenplay, was it your idea or Hitchcock’s?’ He said, ‘You know, in all the films I did with Hitchcock, Hitchcock was responsible for 99 percent of the scene but that’s one thing I’m proud of, because I had this idea and I told it to Hitchcock who loved it and he shot it incredibly well.’ But it was the idea of a screenwriter and I’ve always been mad because the idea of a screenwriter and I’ve always been mad because Truffaut was wrong. The people I’m against are the people who follow Truffaut’s idea without replacing it in the context and still going on with that crazy war which is meaningless. So I mean in this adaptation anyway, Aurenche and Bost helped me and I wanted to have the same relationship with the writer, that relationship which was helping the movie, and it’s something which I’m still proud of in The Clockmaker. I think it gives a good impression certainly of France in that period and it was very, very difficult to do it. I mean to convince people it took us, in spite of the help of Philipe Noiret, about 14 months to get it financed. I felt that I was faithful to Simenon’s concept, although 80 percent of the script was original. Even if we were looking to do the opposite: I wanted to do a Simenon film without fog, rain and wet streets. I wanted to do a Simenon story in the summer and get the same emotion by opposite means. Simenon speaks about loneliness and he shows a lonely man. I think for me it was more interesting to speak about loneliness with somebody who is in the middle of a lot of friends because you can be lonely in that situation too. And also, I wanted the film to have that political freedom and that violence that Prévert had. That’s why I wanted to dedicate the film to him and I called him and he said, ‘What is the story?’ I said, ‘It’s somebody who kills somebody, he works in a factory…’ Prévert said, ‘It’s not the worst thing he could do.’ And then he said, ‘Who are you working with?’ And I said, ‘Georges Aurenche and Pierre Bost.’ He says ‘Don’t tell me anymore, their presence is a gurantee of the moral rightness of the film.’ For me it was a wonderful compliment.

RW: I don’t see Simenon as being very interested in political activism and what you’ve done in the film is to convert a meaningless crime, a nihilistic crime as you say, the existential acte gratuit or something like that, into a politically motivated action. That seems a very crucial change.

BT: Yes, that’s true, that’s true, but what I kept from Simenon is the movement of somebody who is discovering and admitting his son’s actions, and I like that idea, plus the sudden moment of somebody opening a little bit, and I find that very moving. But Simenon also wrote books which were more politically conscious. I mean he wrote certain things about colonialism which are very, very strong. I used some of the things that he described in Coup de Torchon, even when he was a journalist. There has been a very interesting book in France made up of the articles of Simenon and half of the book was devoted to the articles he wrote about Africa in the 1930s and some of them were very, very strong and one of them was called “One dead white every kilometer, one black every railroad tie.” He was talking about the number of black people who were killed during the building of the railroad. And he did some very interesting things. I mean Simenon always said that he was very influenced by Chekhov, and he wanted to speak, about the naked man, the man, when you take away the civilization, civilized protection, what you get. So when you have a writer who speaks about that kind of thing it’s very easy, because those emotions are very true, to build a social background around them. When it’s impossible with writers like James Hadley Chase, it’s absolutely impossible because the emotion they are speaking is completely false. Why a lot of the films based on Simenon, starting with Les Iconnus dans la Maison, are interesting is because socially the reasons, the explanation, the characterization are strong and deep. So if you want to add some social element to that, it fits very easily. It doesn’t go against the story. With some other writers the emotion is not true. But it’s true that I wanted to be political. I was angry against many things in France at that time, and I think it’s good to be angry when you are doing a film.

Coup de Torchon (1981): Philipe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert

RWThat feeling is carried over into your next two films too, the two historical films, Que la Fête Commence and Le Juge et L’Assassain; which I tend to see as a pair. 

BT: It’s a trilogy for me. It’s three films about justice and the relationship to justice of injustice and an idea of giving to an actor the possibility of going through French historians and French classes, I mean the average man of the 20th century, the aristocrat of the 18th century and the bourgeois of the 19th century. And I think it’s very, very good because Noiret goes through all those people of different classes very easily and he gives in each a great characterization…

RW: Yes, yes, he’s wonderful. 

BT: …and in three moments of French history. It’s three moments dealing with justice and injustice and it’s three moments where the echo of the fight, of all that is happening in France, reflects in the main character. This is especially what interested me a lot in The Judge and the Assassin. It was in the fait d’ivers at the beginning, that the two characters catch the resonance of what’s happening in France around then and that when I was reading newspapers of the time, I was struck by the fact that Bouvier, the murderer, went through all the institutions of the 19th century, the army, the church, the hospital, the lunatic asylum, the psychiatrist and the prison. He crossed everything and it’s not something we invented and I was fascinated by that, going through all those things and every time catching something of the institution. I told Galabru, I mean as a principle of acting, ‘Sometimes I want you to give me the impression that you are reciting something that you know by heart, that you maybe have learned in the army, in the church, in the hospital.’ And he did it beautifully, so you never know when it’s his line or the thing that he learned. I mean he got impregnated and that was interesting and, of course, the three films had to deal with the relationship between two people, two actors. I like that, I mean those controntations, with a style of dialogue which I like in the Aurenche who is so violent and so anarchistic and funny, and with a special poetic sense. I mean he’s a splendid writer, and you can see very well why he was friends with a lot of surrealists at the time and he still at 81 attacks the army, religion, I mean he’s still at war and it’s great and with a lot of bravura, fun. He’s not, he’s never mellowed, which is wonderful, which is wonderful.

RL: Do you relate the use of Philipe Noiret in Coup de Torchon to these earlier films?

BT: I think in Coup de Torchon he combines the judge and the assassin, combines two characters in one. I mean as Jean Genet told me, after seeing Coup de Torchon, ‘It’s the most beautiful theme you treated, which is how to become a saint and a martyr through crime and abjection,’ which is essentially the theme, of course.

RW: The Clockmaker is the only one of the films in which the Noiret character actually improves as the film goes on, I think, isn’t it? In all the others he deteriorates progressively. 

BT: Yes, yes, but in all the others it’s another character who improves. It can be Isabelle Huppert in The Judge and the Assassin. I was at this moment very much influenced by somebody like Fuller who said that the spokesman always had to be the woman, and it fitted the story because I could not see how in The Judge and the Assassin somebody like the judge could change. I think that I should have made him a little more sympathetic, to make understandable how he betrayed more, and maybe if I was changing a few things, I would add two or three lines to make his point of view more understandable. I was a little bit too angry against him but I think, of all the three films, I think it’s where Noiret gave the most interesting composition because it’s something very different from everything he did everywhere else.

RW: It’s interesting that both Que la Fête Commence and Le Juge et L’ Assassin culminate very abruptly in the eruption of a female revolutionary in the last minutes.

BT: It was always criticized and I think I missed it at the end of The Judge and the Assassin and I still like it at the end of Que La Fête Commence because you can read it too as part of the period without any symbolism because it’s true that it was during the Regency period that they attacked the carriage of some noble people for the first time. So you can read it just as something fitting the period. But I think it’s lyrical and I like the use of the music at the end, written by the regent himself. It’s very rarely been studied: the fact that the music he’s writing shows a complete other side of his character. And The Judge, I shot it too quickly. I was very much under the influence of Brecht at that time and trying to end up by provoking the audience and I think I shot it too quickly. I mean I was still fighting for the idea.

RW: It stands up very well.

BT: I still think about the ideas. I think the set should have been better. The flag should have been dirtier. It’s too clean. But I think I found the real idea of the scene six or seven years later. I mean I should have had the army, the factory, Isabelle Huppert, but the judge passing by, just going home and looking at that and seeing that and not doing anything and it would have been more moving, his not daring to do anything and you understand that it’s going to take fire. And it’s like Billy Wilder told me, ‘Ten years and The Apartment I awoke in the middle of the night and said, here is how I should have done that scene.’

RW: One of the things I’ve long admired in your films is the way in which you consistently integrate social concerns and metaphysical concerns, which I think very seldom happens. You either get films that are about social problems or that are political films or you get films that are about, say, old age or death but I’d …

BT: But I mean how can you separate that?

RW: And how you face death is going to depend on it.

BT: I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between the characters and the environment. I mean I’ve been interested in that in writing the script and even in the direction, maybe because my influence came from three or four different sources, came from some of the writers of the 19th century, I mean Zola, Victor Hugo, who had a great, great influence. It came from some stage director, Jean Villard, or Planchon, who had a way of handling certain plays in which you understood what was the meaning of Marivaux and the relationship between servant and master. And so Marivaux was not something abstract, it was something cruel, funny, and you were seeing the whole world, and that had a great influence. Theatre had a tremendous influence on me: I remember having seen some plays which marked me for life. And the next thing is when I was working as press agent and critic, it’s all the excitement which was first generated by the MacMahonists.[2] in the relationship between the decor and the characters as expressed, for instance, in the films of Joseph Losey or Fritz Lang, and in a way I think John Ford, to show how the character is related to what is around him and related not only realistically but, I would say, metaphysically, how decor can be the prolongation of what is inside a character. It’s why I like those camera movements which are not done to describe the decor, which try to unite, to immerse a character in the decor and that I love. I’m very, very, very interested in that, so the character should not be a tourist in the decor and it’s something which I’m proud of. In Coup de Torchon I think you cannot separate Noiret from this little African town, he belonged there. And the same with Dexter Gordon in the hotel room, the same way Ducreux in his own house. I mean his house seems made for him. And again I say it’s not only realistic treatment for me, it’s much more than that, it’s getting the relationship between several different emotions and that is something I’m more and more preoccupied with showing.

Une Semaine de Vacances (1980) Nathalie Baye

RW: Perhaps carried furthest in A Week’s Vacation.

BT: That’s was the first one which I started…

RW: There was a wonderful focusing of contemporary female consciousness in that film.

BT: Yes, the sense of doubt. What she was feeling was very much in tune with the city of Lyons and with the winter lights. There was no separation for me, and it’s the first film where I began to realize completely what I wanted to do. I mean that was A Week’s Vacation. It’s one of those films I’m most proud of. I mean it’s…

FJ: It’s one of my favourite films.

BT: And too, because it’s something which I’m getting with the actor which they don’t try for in the usual way. They don’t try to play on charm, to be fancy. They are ready, they don’t try to protect their own image. I liked that from Noiret in Coup de Torchon, Que la Fête Commence, Le Juge et L’Assassin, and I like that from Natalie Baye, from a lot of actors that I worked with. It is the great forte of a lot of French actors. It’s the opposite, let’s say of Shirley Maclaine in Terms of Endearment, where you see somebody protecting her own image and destroying the character, always refusing to be nasty.

FJ: I was just going to say, it’s wonderful how you intercut long shots of Lyons or the countryside with the character in the middle of the scene and play back and forth between what they’re thinking and shots of the city, which I think really underlines what you’re saying.

BT: I have always been interested by that. I hate to use decor as establishing shot, medium shot. There are very, very few shots where you see somebody entering a house or entering a place in my films, very, very, very, few shots. When I want to describe, the settings are shown through somebody’s eyes piece by piece and when I do a long shot of landscape… I started that in the The Clockmaker after Noiret says ‘She left me, so it’s as if I’ve been a widower for a long time,’ I cut… I remember that I needed–I could not explain why–three or four shots of the city, which are not related. I mean he’s not going somewhere. It’s just some shots of the places which seemed to me going with the emotion at that time and what he was feeling, and I love to integrate that kind of a scene with a character. I love that, I mean to have a shot which has not an explanatory reason, it’s not to located a place, it just goes I think with feeling. It’s something which I felt in certain directors, like Delmer Daves, who in some of his westerns absolutely integrated the landscape with the mood and the emotion of the character. In films like The Hanging Tree or 3:10 to Yuma I saw what you could do when you are trying to do that and where you are trying to do camera movements related more to music than to something which was conventionally useful. He moved the camera not to describe somebody or to show somebody on a roof but just in a way getting away. Sometimes it was too obvious, but I was fascinated by that in Delmer Daves who, as a director, I was studying very, very much and I felt at that time very related.

RW: What I think is especially complex about your work is the precise relationship you set up between the spectator and the protagonist in the film… I think especially of Natalie Baye in A Week’s Vacation and Francis in ‘Round Midnight where there’s this strong tendency towards identification but at the same time we are distanced. So that we’re…

BT: Don’t you think it’s added to by the fact that a lot of those people are dealing with communication and art and they are asking themselves the same questions the audience are asking? In the case of ‘Round Midnight, that was for me the only way I could see not to do an imitation of an American film, to get back to my roots and my culture and at the same time to do an impressionistic telling of the story and at a certain moment to break away from that identification for the audience, at another to get it back because that was part of the theme. It’s a way, when you deal with films which look for emotion more than plot twist, of changing identification for the audience. I mean you can identify with one character and certain moment change that, change the point of view, which I think is the only way to make that kind of film. It’s why I was always angry with people who thought that I was identifying only with the painter in Sunday in the Country. It’s impossible to do that kind of film without identifying at one point or the other with every character. I mean, the old painter, but his daughter too. The people who said that I did the film to apologize about myself, of course, they are crazy. They proved that they have absolutely no creative…

RW: I’ve never heard that.

BT: It’s the people of Libêration which I’m having a big fight with, it’s proved that they have no creative things in them, and that they don’t know that you don’t do a film, you don’t spend one year and a half of your life to say something that you could say in article, which would take five hours. You don’t do a film like that unless you are with the characters. I remember reading something from Peter Brook who said about Shakespeare, that what was great with Shakespeare was making his relationship with the audience. And when somebody was speaking in Shakespeare you had an impression that for Shakespeare he was right. Whatever the character was, he was right and that was a way of changing suddenly, I mean changing sides, I mean giving and breaking the identification with one character. And I think it’s important, especially in certain films, like A Week’s Vacation, when you are dealing with communication. I mean the theme in the film is the same as the relationship between the film and the audience. So if you don’t break it, if you don’t give a different angle at one point you put yourself in a very comfortable position. You begin doing the opposite of what you are trying to do. You begin dictating to the audience a point of view in a film where you are pretending to explore different points of view. It’s what happens with a lot of films which pretend to be against racism, etc. They end up by saying in the direction the opposite thing from what they are trying to say.

RW: I think this is probably why I often think of Ozu in watching your films, especially A Week’s Vacation, although your style seems so different from his. He never moves the camera, you move the camera all the time.

BT: But it’s funny because in Japan a lot of people reacted to Sunday in the Country and ‘Round Midnight by saying ‘It’s like Ozu.’ A lot of people, I mean journalists, writers, poets. And I said exactly the same thing: I move the cameras to a point where the key grip in Sunday in the Country, a wonderful man, put one day on the call sheet, because he was so tired of moving the dolly (we’re pushing a lot of jokes every day on the call sheet, crazy jokes and funny things)–he said, Ozu is a great director too, and I answered back, ‘Ozu didn’t need any grip.’

RW: I think it’s a matter of at the same time respecting the characters and respecting the audience. 

BT: Yes, yes.

RW: You and Ozu don’t keep telling the audience what they’re to think of the characters.

BT: Exactly

RW: They’re left to decide.

BT: It’s my reaction against all those films where because of the editing, because of the way the story is told, you dictate things to the audience, I mean those TV films where you really, you really sell the audience violence as if, I mean, you were selling orange juice or razor blades. I don’t see any difference in Rambo and a lot of films now, I mean where they are selling violence exactly as they’re selling razor blades on the commercial TV.

RW: They are merely commodities.

BT: Yes, yes.

RICHARD LIPPE: I’ve always found the ending of A Week’s Vacation somewhat enigmatic as to what has happened to the Natalie Baye character that has made her seem more serene in the last sequence when she’s with her friend. I mean particularly the comment about the dress that she’s wearing which was picked out or bought by her lover and I mean there’s that kind of change over, her friend now is in a disturbed position but is seems somewhat cryptic as to what has happened to her. 

RW: Is it a maternity dress? Somebody suggested that it was.

BT: Maybe, maybe. I wanted to leave it open. What I know is the ending changed. The ending of four films I did changed on the sets. It was not the ending which was written. A Week’s Vacation was more desperate. And then when I was editing, and when I saw a rough cut, I realized there was much more love and warmth between Laurence and her lover than one had expected, and there was something more, even then. I called Colo and I said, ‘Come to Lyons, we have to rewrite the last scene between them,’ and we wrote the day before the scene about the dress and then watching television, that fight, and where he says, ‘I bought you a dress.’ That became more a love scene. After that I talked to a lot of teachers and they said, ‘You know, we have a lot of doubts, we have a lot of fears, but there is a moment where what else can we do? We have to fight, we have to.’ So for somebody like Natalie Baye, she cannot do any other job. The fact that her friend leaves her and cannot fight anymore because she has the possibility, because she is richer, because she has–I’ve seen that very often in some teachers. People from poor backgrounds were much braver, much, because they have no alternative, and I felt that suddenly that was the key to the ending, that was that, let’s say, Laurence knew the word of Thoreau, that quiet despair, quiet, at the same time with a kind of serenity she had. She has to face it. That will be her job. She will do it and she will be sick and she will be full of doubts but then maybe she has overcome the period of big, big doubts. She’s ready to start again and it will be as difficult but she has to do it and I like the character who goes from A to B. In most films you see people going from A to Z, and I like people who take a small step. Then we added shots which were not on the script, like the shot of the little girl on the bench. All of that was added after that, and the voice. So it’s bittersweet but I like what Colo had written about old age, the difference in people, I mean I love that dialogue and I wanted to have a completely different–I don’t know why–completely different atmosphere in the shot, in the light. I wanted a softer look. I wanted to have sun. I mean something I ask, I still cannot tell why but I wanted all of that in that moment of quietness before the work. It seems to me that it fits the music, that it fits the mood, to end up very, very slowly by somebody very quiet. I like that and it’s true that you can think that she’s maybe going to have a child, you can think that. You can think that the fact that she overcame a period of doubts would make her stronger but it still does not say she won everything. I wanted to leave the audience to end the film. And it’s true that in the next film again the ending changed. The ending of Sunday in the Country was created on set completely. The last scene with the painting, I did it. Suddenly I had the idea the day before, I asked and we shot it. It was not in the script, I mean people looking at a blank canvas.

RW: It’s a wonderful ending. 

BT: And the ending of ‘Round Midnight was not completely as written. The last line spoken by Dexter, I got the idea when I was shooting in New York and talking Dexter, recording. I wanted to make him talk and use his voice several times in the movie. I asked a question, ‘What about Dale Turner?’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘Maybe a street called Dale Turner.’ I said, okay, I will cut my question and that is the end of the movie. And that was not planned. And too, which also was not planned, the idea of the little girl saying, ‘I’m going out,’ and getting up, walking to her father and kissing him. That’s something I added on the set. I don’t know why, especially in the last four films, the ending has been completely changed each time on the set. It’s maybe because I feel more free and I understand quickly how a film is changing during the making, I mean during the direction.

RW: Especially A Week’s Vacation and ‘Round Midnight give the impression of films that have somehow grown, I mean rather than films that we completely scripted: films that grew while there were being made, rather in the manner of Renoir.

BT: The biggest compliment I had on ‘Round Midnight was during shooting by one of the jazz musicians, Wayne Shorter. He said, ‘You know, you are doing this film exactly as we make our music, by listening all the time the same way we are listening to the notes, taking, grabbing something, taking it, using it.’ It’s true that all the time I was aware, was trying. I was having dinner with Billy Higgins and he was talking about Dexter and he said, ‘This thing which is in Dexter is he’s afraid, it’s why he did not record for the last two or three years, he was afraid of not having anything more to give’; and that line moved me and I put it in Dexter’s mouth. I put it in the script and I gave it to Dexter. I heard Wayne Shorter, he was a film buff and he was talking about a lot of movie scenes and so I said, ‘Okay, we’re shooting tomorrow, Wayne, and you will tell what you just told me, about The Red Shoes,’ because I think it’s funny that a black musician is suddenly imitating Anton Walbrook and that’s a tribute to Michael Powell, whom I admire, and it’s something which I think I’ve never seen in a movie because you would think that he would tell a story about black actors. In fact Wayne knew mostly about people like Sidney Greenstreet or Walter Brennan and we did the film like that, adding things. Dexter, of course, brought a lot, always opening the film to suggestions and that’s, any way, the way I work all the time with the actors, because I would say that for me one of the greatest talents for a director which is something which is very rarely developed is to create around him the need for the persons who are working with him to surprise him, to astonish him, getting the unexpected from the cameraman to any actor and if you can create that spirit which people like Renoir created, then you are always exploring. Nothing is ever set. Everything is always fresh, new, and people are giving you unexpected things and they reach things which go deeper than what is written, and fresher sometimes.

FJ: I think one of the things I appreciate about your films is that you capture this open-ended quality but you still use realist narrative conventions, so you maintain that relationship with the audience without compromising this open-ended and fluid form.

BT: I’ve always liked storytelling. I like that in other films. I’m interested in attempts to create other forms, but I don’t see why we should stop storytelling because a few people say that storytelling is past. It’s crazy. I’ve always hated, always fought against exclusion, and people say, ‘This thing is not right and this thing is.’ At the moment, when people say that storytelling is not fashionable anymore, it’s a moment generally where the biggest successes, critical and public, or films which completely rely on the story’s writer. What amuses me too, very often you have in the same newspaper critics who attack certain new film-makers, because they use that old form of storytelling which is bad, bourgeois, conventional, and at the same time, next page there is a TV called them and they speak about a film by Duvivier or Decoin, ‘This was a completely underrated masterpiece, great screenplay by Aurenche and Bost, superbly crafted.’ That’s great. So I would like to know at what year exactly storytelling became outlawed.

FJ: 1969.

BT: I mean it’s surprising. I’m completely against people who refuse to have anything but storytelling and I think there have been some items which are very, very important and very moving. It’s exactly like literature. You can have Jim Thompson, Aragon, Raymond Queneau and René Char. It’s like jazz, everything can co-exist at the same time and what is good, what is enjoyable, is to see the moment when the different forms interpenetrate, how the storytelling of certain directors who I respect and admire is full of dissonance, but as it’s not advertised, people don’t say, ‘Look at that moment, it’s a moment where the story is broken, we are destroying the construction.’ People do not notice and I think time will judge that. It already has: a lot of films which were judged old-fashioned 20 years ago are now considered classics. That doesn’t prevent me from admiring very, very much certain scenes from Godard or other directors, and I don’t see, again, why we should not be part of the same research. I don’t see why there should not be a cinema of research and the cinema which is that of convention.

FJ: Even Godard comes back to narrative in his last few films.

BT: But it is true that some people think that because they are making some research, they are finding things. But they have to prove it. Picasso was right: the people who find are more interesting than the people who search.

RL: Talking about Godard, I was wondering, was Spoiled Children influenced by Tout Va Bien, because it’s a some-what parallel love story juxtaposed with the political issues…

BT: No, I think the great influence, and I missed, was Dos Passos, the building of some novels. I mean cutting between different types of stories and going on , but I did no succeed, again because I was too close to that story which was a story which I had lived, I mean the tenancy and I think I missed, I missed. I didn’t have that distance that I had in A Week’s Vacation which allowed me to be wider, to take an angle which was more interesting. And I like the writing, certain things done by Christine Pascal but had some problem with her in acting because she wanted too much to be angry. I wanted her to be more relaxed, more charming, thinking that it would be as strong, I mean the statement, and she wanted to get the statement first. I lost a little bit. I still think that there’s two scenes in which she is great in the movie and I still think that the film is saying some interesting things about the French society, that especially now I just sold the film to television and I would like it seen on television because we are saying exactly things which the new government is doing. I mean it’s giving everything to the landlord. It’s giving everything, everything. It’s happening now, they are destroying the law which prevented the landlord from raising the rent in certain houses in Paris. They are stopping the rights of the tenants. They are giving everything back to the landlord. I would like to see what would be the reaction of a certain line because I was very much accused of doing a propaganda film at that time, which made me always angry because that’s something which we have in France, a fear of telling a certain thing because it’s not artistic enough, when the Italians have not that fear. I mean they are ready to name, they are naming everybody, when in France we are ashamed because we say, ‘My God, it’s too expressive,’ and in France when you are expressive this is the worst crime and already Victor Hugo was fighting against that when he said that in France a good writer has to be very well brought up, not make too much noise and he must be sober. And he says, sober, it’s a strange quality for a writer. It should be more the quality for a maid, for a valet or a domestic. He said, to the sober writer correspond the people who vote in the accepted direction, for law and order, and there is a wonderful page in William Shakespeare about that, which is a terrific, terrific page, where he says a lot of things about good taste, how good taste can be a good disguise for reactionary things, statements, and Hugo who I think is the more astonishing and sometimes underrated writer, his political work is incredible, was right in the battle. But anyway I still think that I missed the film. I liked the music in Spoiled Children which was written by Philipe Sarde, based on an 18th century type of music, but I missed.

Death Watch (1980) Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider

RW: I’m very intrigued by one small detail in Des Enfantes Gâtés which is the moment when Christine Pascal criticizes Death Watch a year before you made it. But I think it’s a valid criticism. I didn’t like the ending very much either. I think that’s what she says, isn’t it, that she liked the film but she didn’t like the ending?

BT: Yes. I think Death Watch made more problems for me, because I got lost. I think I should have been more simple. That was my first film in English and I got caught by the style of David Raphael who is a marvellous writer but I think I wanted to say too many things and I got a little lost. I should have taken out some plot twists, which were too complicated and especially in the first third and at the end too. As for the twist at the end, I feel ashamed about it, that she was not dying. I could have done the film absolutely without that and it would have been better.[3] But I still like from the second third nearly to the end where it went over to Max von Sydow, because I like the photography, and the music of Antoine Duhamel and I like what’s happening between Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel. And I like Harvey in it. I think it is one of his best parts and it’s the only time where his director made him play relaxed, smiling and with charm. What he was trying to establish made the film very difficult for me to shoot: the relationship between the director and what he is shooting, and the morality of direction, and I had many, many problems with that because I wanted to be moral in my direction and not to do what I’m supposed to do, to criticize. So it’s why I did the film in long takes trying never to manipulate the characters. But I like the integration of the landscape with the characters. And the idea that a science-fiction film is made in 19th century buildings, I think for me it’s a stimulating idea and I was pleased with the film. Joseph Losey loved the film and he immediately hired David Raphael after that to write what was a very, very good screenplay, which it’s a pity that Losey never filmed, called Silence, based on the book by James Kenaway, taking place in Chicago. A wonderful screenplay which was then sabotaged by a horrible producer. He refused to do it with Losey and that was a pity because that would have been a great, great film, with Losey coming back to America, set in Chicago about the racial problem. But, David, I like his style, I liked certain things in the dialogue and still like them. There is a line which I loved. Romy says to Harry Dean Stanton, when she speaks about the television, ‘Everything is of interest and nothing matters,’ which I think is a wonderful line, and a great description of not only television but part of the cinema now. Everything is of interest and nothing matters. And I loved working with Romy and Harry Dead Stanton which was his first part, out of cowboy roles, a long time before Paris, Texas. But I think somewhere, there are certain shots, certain moments which I’m very, very, very proud of. I mean when she escapes in that Steadicam shot…

RW: Oh, that’s astonishing.

BT: …and the sets of Tony Pratt were brilliant because it’s a whole set, that market. Everybody thought, even in Glasgow, that it was a real flea market.

RW: I thought it was.

BT: No, it’s a whole set and I think it’s great, great art direction work, I mean very, very, very good and I think, with A Week’s Vacation it’s the best photography of Peter William Blaine. I think he got things which were incredible. In the music at the end something very funny happened–I like the story told by Max von Sydow–a lot of people called me after the release of the film, even from big record shops, saying, Robert DeBouriac, did he exist, because we have had five or six people asking for a score. So it caught on, and it’s a beautiful cantata written by Antoice Duhamel. Finally, Romy Schneider was marvellous. Romy and I discussed the film, and she sent me a letter: ‘I will be your Catherine. Without self-pity.’

  1. Truffaut’s seminal article, “On a Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” one of the origins of what we now call Auteur Theory, in which he attacked the literary emphasis of the French ‘Cinéma de qualité,’ taking the screenplays of Aurenche and Bost as typifying its resectable academicism, is perhaps most readily accessible in translation in Movies and Methods (ed. Bill Nichols, University of California Press, 1976).
  2. A group of critics who championed a handful of Hollywood directors including Losey, Preminger, Lang and Walsh on the strength of their fidelity to ‘truth’ and the ‘real,’ and who controlled the programming of the MacMahon cinema in Paris.
  3. Tavernier was able to cut this ‘plot twist’ for the North American release.

Florence Jacobowitz, Richard Lippe & Robin Wood

Contributing Writer

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