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Bertrand Tavernier on Coppola, Scorsese, Cayatte, Cinema’s Bright Future

Veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight”) – who is being honored by the Marrakech Film Festival for his career and a life dedicated to filmmaking – has played a pivotal role in restoring classic French films and defending the importance of French directors, such as Claude Autant Lara, Henri Decoin and André Cayatte, who were attacked by the film critics of the Nouvelle Vague.

Tavernier, president and director of the Institut Lumière and Lumière Festival, which he co-manages with Cannes’ Thierry Frémaux, says his aim is to strike a new view of this period of French film history, citing the example of Francis Ford Coppola who praised and rehabilitated British filmmakers such as Michael Powell, similarly written off by some critics.

In 2016 Tavernier released his feature documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema,” and follow-up 8-episode TV series released in 2018, both of which are inspired by Martin Scorsese’s personal documentaries on American and Italian cinema.

Tavernier’s book “American Friends,” a compilation of interviews with leading American directors, will also be reissued during the fest. It now includes a conversation between Tavernier and Frémaux about contemporary cinema, also published as a separate volume.

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The director spoke with Variety about his views on French and American cinema.

Why is it important to organise retrospectives to directors such as André Cayatte?

Because directors like Cayatte were effectively erased from French film history by New Wave critics and their successors, for all the wrong reasons. I admit that two or three of his final films were completely dreadful. But there are eight to ten earlier films which are masterpieces. If you look at “We Are All Murderers,” critics said it was just a film with a message, but it’s so much more than that. It has wonderful characters and was the first film to confront the inner emotions of prisoners on death row. It was criticised for being shot in a studio, but it has many exterior locations and shows us what it was like to live in France during Nazi Occupation. It also has a very modern narration style. Cayatte showed us characters that we’d never seen before. In “Before the Deluge,” one of the main characters is openly anti-Semitic and believes in a Jewish conspiracy. In the same film there is a murder with homosexual undertones, that is much franker than in Hitchcock’s “Rope.” This is quite unique in French cinema. All of this should be rediscovered. Before becoming a director, Cayatte was involved in politics. During the Spanish Civil War, he was a passionate supporter of the Republicans. He was close friends with well-known poet René Char, who was a member of the Resistance. During the occupation he was taken prisoner and then escaped to work for the German-owned French film company, Continental, where he was blackmailed by the head, Alfred Greven, to work for him because he had no papers. In “Return to Life” we see a woman coming out of Dachau who must lie on the ground because she can’t sleep on a bed. It’s fascinating to see these films again, now in wonderful restored prints.

How is your goal of rehabilitating certain directors linked to film criticism?

The Young Turks from Cahiers du Cinema had strong opinions about directors, but some of them changed over the years. Chabrol for example changed very quickly. He was much more open. He kept telling me that when he was at Cahiers du Cinema, they wrote the most stupid things about John Ford and John Huston, and they were unfair to some people. I would say that this always happens with one generation that criticizes the generation before. Except maybe in America with the generation of Scorsese, Milius and the movie brats who liked the films of the past. The New Wave directors did like some directors, such as Ophuls, Becker, Tati, Bresson. Sometimes they were right, but sometimes they were wrong. For example, Claude Autant Lara, who they vilified, is a fascinating director. In the 1960s he was the only French director who made two very good, tough films in defence of abortion, which was very brave because you could be sued for this in those years. I’m pleading for a way in which we take what was good from the new wave – and plenty of things were good – but also try to examine the people that they destroyed. In some cases, they were wrong, for many reasons. In the case of Autant Lara, Decoin and Cayatte they were wrong about a lot of films. Cayatte, for example, was defended by André Bazin.

There was also a different approach between the Young Turks and Cahiers du Cinema critics of the 1970s.

Few Cahiers du Cinema critics during the 1950’s and 1960’s had any overt political ideology except for Jean Domarci who was Marxist. A few critics flirted with the Party after 1968 and at this time the journal rather quickly became maoist and very dogmatic during a decade. Chabrol used to say that disciples are worse than the masters. The disciples go on with vendettas that they don’t understand. For example, Truffaut at the end of his career was trying to get in touch with René Clément, who he’d criticised, to write a letter saying how much he had liked one of his films he’d seen on television. The disciples were much more dogmatic. For instance, those critics who took seriously something dumb Truffaut said about British cinema – that there is no British filmmaker outside Hitchcock who knows how to make films and there is something incompatible between England and cinema, perhaps the weather. He was erasing people like David Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Powell, Robert Hammer, Alexander Mackendrick. All people who have been rehabilitated, sometimes by people like Scorsese and Coppola.

You’re also organizing a retrospective of pre-Hays Code films called “Forbidden Hollywood”

I wanted to show 20 films, but we settled on 10. The festival goers will discover some really striking films like “Employee’s Entrance,” “Blond Crazy” and “Baby Face”.

And you’ll be screening Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”

It’s a wonderful film. It’s not at all “Goodfellas 2.” It’s a totally different film. It has melancholic undertones. In the final section it has a kind of very moving sadness. It has violence of course and it’s tough, but it’s also incredibly fun and has superb dialogue.

Both you and Scorsese have a deep love for cinema. He recently expressed his concern that superhero films aren’t really cinema.

This is a very important issue and relates to a tension that has always existed. You can find the same kind of fight in the 1940s between serious films like “Grapes of Wrath” vs light musicals starring Betty Grable. In France we always had the debate between people who wanted to make meaningful films that had something to say, and others primarily aimed at entertainment. But in the past, it was easier for the two kinds of cinema to co-exist and now with the fact that films cost so much, it’s more difficult to get access to screens. Maybe the Marvel films are occupying so much space they are preventing other films to be released.

What are your main goals with the Coppola retrospective?

Great films, like great novels, have meaning for every culture in every country. Films like Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather” achieve that. But Coppola also has two or three films that are very underrated. We also want to highlight these films. “Garden of Stone” is very moving, one of the very rare American films about war where you only see the consequences. I think it’s Coppola’s most Fordian film. John Ford was one of the rare directors that showed loss and death, even in “The Battle of Midway” made during the war. He always wanted to show the price we must pay for victory. I think Coppola shares some of those concerns.

You are republishing your book “American Friends”

Yes, it includes my interviews with directors like John Ford, Robert Altman, John Huston and has many pieces about the blacklist. It also has a long interview with Thierry about the cinema of today, about the fact that you can have love for cinema of the past without being nostalgic – without saying films were better in the past, which is not true. We talk about what the discovery of these American directors brought to me. I learned about America through these films and the people who left during the blacklist. Cinema was a second school for me. The interviews made me research more, not just about the films but the historical context. Next year we will be publishing “100 Years of American Cinema” that I’m co-writing with Jean Pierre Coursodon.

Are you optimistic about the future of cinema in general?

All over the world the access to watching films and making films is becoming easier. If you look at some of the blogs, people write beautifully about films, often much better than many critics. There are also countries producing films that we didn’t know about before. If you have people who have passion and who can communicate this passion you will always get an audience. Recently I have seen some French films that are very powerful, like Cedric Kahn’s ‘Happy Birthday’ (‘Fete de famille’) where you have moments of comedy and then it becomes very dramatic.  Nicolas Pariser’s “Alice and the Mayor” is very well written, with moments between comedy and drama. You have that in some films now being made by young directors.

And what about American cinema?

I keep seeing great American films! As I mentioned, recent films by Scorsese. I also absolutely loved the last film by Woody Allen, one of his best. A lot of my friends have been telling me about James Gray’s “Ad Astra.” I saw Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” three times. Even in the Marvel films, “Black Panther” was interesting and “Spiderman 2” was brilliant. I want to see Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.” I also love Alexander Payne. There are some younger directors who are interesting, not just the generation of Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, but people after them. It’s very easy to say we no longer have new talent coming through. Every decade does that. But I think the number of great films is now more or less the same as it has always been. So yes, I’m optimistic.

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