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Cannes Director Thierry Frémaux Remembers Bertrand Tavernier: ‘He Would Push You to Surpass Yourself’

Bertrand Tavernier Obit Remembered
Image Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection

I met Bertrand Tavernier in Lyon in 1982 at the Chateau Lumiere when he came to announce that he was going to become the first president of the Institut Lumière.

He had just come off “Coup de Torchon” and his prestige was at its peak. As I was working for Positif magazine, I took the opportunity to question Bertrand about his love for films and his long relationship with the magazine. Shortly after I watched, bewildered, “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory,” the Lumière brothers’ first film, released in 1895; understandably it was a crucial day for me. When I asked Bertrand if I could be a volunteer for the Institut Lumière, he said, “We are alone. Welcome!” To this day, I have never left rue du Premier-Film [where the Institut Lumière is located].

We quickly became friends. When he invited me on the shoot of “Life and Nothing But,” I knew I wanted to be by his side from then on. We worked together on “Amis Américains,” his book about the Hollywood directors and screenwriters he had known before becoming a filmmaker. When I was named head of the Institut Lumière in 1990, my only request to Bertrand was “Stay president by being who you are. That’s how we need you.” He was always there, all along, until the end, by supporting our missions through his commitment to culture. Filmmaker, cinephile and Lyonnais — he was perfect.

Everyone will remember the filmmaker, and his ease when he switched from one mise-en-scène to another, from one topic to another (like his friend Michael Powell), his use of voiceover (often his own), the ’Scope format, his way of fighting for each of his projects, for never making a film for money. His filmography is impeccable. Time, which is the best critic, will tell, and I’m sure it will bolster his body of work.

When he was a filmmaker, Bertrand was not at all a cinephile. He would keep a close eye on every step of the making of his films, including the music, like all the great directors do. On set, he would come close to actors and would speak to them softly. Bertrand was someone who pampered others. He had an enveloping presence with his tall stature.

Everyone will also remember the cinephile. From his insatiable gourmandism to his stimulating curiosity: The erudition and love of films as war weapons — there it is! Bertrand also leaves behind films, articles, presentations and DVD bonuses. His body of work, it’s also all that, in a similar fashion to his friend Scorsese.

The Institut Lumière was his home base. He would say, “From the rue du Premier-Film, we can dream of anything!” The creation of the Lumière festival made him scream with joy: “The history of cinema being honored where it all started — we can’t do better than that.” He was so happy to welcome Francis Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Frances McDormand, Quentin Tarantino, Catherine Deneuve, Miloš Forman, Pedro Almodóvar, the Dardenne brothers and even Jane Fonda. During my early years at the Institut, he had been impressed when I attracted Wim Wenders, Elia Kazan or Joseph Mankiewicz to come visit Lyon. I loved to impress Bertrand.

I would like everyone to remember also the image of a kind man who possessed a deep sense of humanity and an exemplary integrity. And also the memory of someone who would find reasons to laugh in all circumstances, which contrasted with his perpetual awareness of the world in which he lived. We would never get bored. He had a gift of coming across all of life’s absurdities, which he would make even funnier by recounting them — like this person who questioned him about the opportunity to take comedy classes by mail. You should have seen Bertrand’s face!

We traveled the world together a great deal. Overseas, he was adored, he was considered as extraordinarily French. When I took the helm of the Cannes Film Festival, I already knew a lot of journalists, because Bertrand had introduced them all to me during our multiple trips. I know that Todd McCarthy, Ken Turan, Dave Kehr, Richard Peña, Kent Jones are sad, like Tom Luddy and the team of the Telluride festival. When his passing was announced, many friends wrote to me to share their emotion: Walter Hill, Roger Corman, Phil Kaufmann, Harvey Keitel and Irwin Winkler, who produced “Round Midnight.” Martin Scorsese’s letter is overwhelming. All these homages reflect the mark that Bertrand Tavernier will leave. It is profound; it is beautiful; it will be seen from afar.

How could I cite all the films he loved? I will name two: “A Matter of Life and Death” by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Ford. From his body of work, I would cite “Life and Nothing But,” a masterpiece, a film about love and revolt. Also his lesser-known films, “Des enfants gâtés” (1977), where the character of Michel Piccoli resembles Bertrand at that time, and “La mort en direct” (1980), with Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Max von Sydow and Harry Dean Stanton — a breathtaking cast. And beyond everything, “Round Midnight” (1984), for the jazz (a music that Bertrand make me love), because it shot mainly in Lyon, and Martin Scorsese has an electric role in it, and because it’s a glorious film about the end of a life, where a man remembers what he experienced. One of the last books that Bertrand read was the biography of Dexter Gordon by his wife, Maxine, which was just published in France. I watched again “Round Midnight”; I would like to watch it again tonight.

His last film is “Journey Through French Cinema.” He wanted to make it as Marty would do with American cinema. It’s the perfect creative accomplishment to end a life spent as a filmmaker and cinephile.

I always had the feeling that Bertrand’s presence by my side protected me — and I’m not the only one to say this. Beyond the great moments of affection, he would push you to surpass yourself. There was never the beginning of a disagreement, of a dispute, between us. He never played the substitute father or the president-boss. For 40 years, we talked every week, sometimes every day.

His friendship will remain a great gift, a privilege that is rarely given to someone during a lifetime. Cinema is unique, and we are right to lead the lives we lead. But sometimes, it hurts.

Adieu, Bertrand.

Thierry Frémaux is the director of both the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon and the Cannes Film Festival. He is also the general director of the Institut Lumière. Bertrand Tavernier died March 25 at age 79.