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Passion for films: Bertrand Tavernier

One of the French cinema greats talks to Kirsten Stroud about his love of French film

28 September 2010

Bertrand Tavernier is one of the French cinema greats, in a famed line of cinematographers going back to the Lumière Brothers from his native Lyon.

Best-known as a director, he has also worked as an actor, producer and screenwriter and is president of Lyon’s Institut Lumière which conserves film heritage and promotes the cinema.

He talked to Kirsten Stroud about his life dedicated to the ‘Seventh Art’

You have said that you knew you wanted to be a film maker from the age of 13. Has your career met your expectations?

Definitely, in fact it has gone beyond them. My career has been extraordinary, phenomenal. I have had a magnificent life.

I have only ever done films that I wanted to do and never had anything imposed on me.

I have been rewarded with a series of awards including a Bafta, Césars and one from the Cannes Film Festival.

I have worked alongside wonderful people such as the British film director Michael Powell, who taught me a lot of things.

You have directed films in France, Britain and America. What are the differences between them?

The real difference from a director’s point of view is the way the film crews work.

In the US, every six hours there has to be a break and a hot meal and they stick to the timetable strictly.

When I was filming in Scotland, it always made me laugh as we always had to stop for tea time, whereas, in France, yes, there are meal times, but if you’re in the middle of doing something or want to finish a scene because you know the light is going to change, then, if you explain this, the crew will carry on working until it’s finished.

I even once put back the break by three hours, but everybody was happy to do it. In the States, I’ve had to stop filming until the next day as the light changed during the imposed break and so filming was stopped for the day.

There is also the fact that Americans rely on big budgets, where as in France and the UK we are used to working with less money. Filming in the US is also more rigid. It’s like a commando operation, whereas in the UK and France it’s more flexible and treated more like a craft.

The Americans have also understood that films help to sell their products, as do certain actors. If Tom Cruise stars in a film, the box office attendance rises by 350%.

What do you think of the power films can have on the public with regards to purchasing products they have seen?

Neither good nor bad; it needs to be taken into account. At one point, Jack Valenti [the president of the Motion Picture Association of America] wanted to stop Japanese cars being used in American films, because he had understood the power behind them being seen in films.

There is also the positive side; for example, people visit restaurants that were featured in films or go to the sites where films were made. I made a film at the docks in Lyon, which was subsequently seen by people from the local council. After watching it, they decided to invest there and renovate the docks.

The docks have now been brought back to their former glory and Lyon has discovered that it has an Italian town, as the docks were originally developed by Italian bankers and so they styled the houses like the ones from their home towns.

Tourism has now doubled in this area for Lyon and all that thanks to a film I shot there.

Your latest film, La Princesse de Montpensier, is a costume drama based on classical literature. Does this kind of film appeal to the French?

Yes, very much.

Do you like the way these kind of films are done in Britain?

There have been some excellent films from the UK, for example the recent BBC series The Tudors is very well done. There have been others I have liked less, because they are too theatre-like for the big screen.

In the public debate after the showing of your film, you described it as an ‘organic’ film. What do you mean by this?

I always want my films to come alive, to draw people into them, so they feel that they are part of the film.

I don’t have big budgets or use lots of special effects, I achieve what I want by using the camera creatively. Michael Powell, the British film director, taught me a lot where this is concerned. He was a specialist in creating effects from almost nothing.

I’m also careful with period films that the actors really live them; silly things such as they really use the furniture as furniture.

We know that it’s a Renaissance table for example and is now worth something, but the people at the time didn’t, it was just a table and used as one.

Details like that seem small, but are in fact important and make the film come alive and believable.

As president of the Institut Lumière, what is your opinion of French cinema now?

There is a lot of talent in French cinema at the moment. There have been a couple of important films released, such as Carlos, a magnificent film, and La Tête en Friche, with Gérard Depardieu, about an adult learning to read and write, which is wonderful.

The talent is there, but it’s whether the finances follow to back them up that is the problem, as it always has been. I have always had to fight to get the money I need to make films, even for my latest one. I never give myself a big salary and luckily I have people that are now prepared to take a risk with me.

One film I made with Phillipe Noiret was almost impossible to fund, but I managed it and it went on to be a huge success and win around 30 awards. As Michael Powell said, the problem with banks and people financing the films is that we know what we do and they don’t.

Do you think the French state supports the film industry enough?

There is a misconception that the French state gives money to the French film industry; in fact, the grants we receive come from money made at the box office.

In 1946, the Blum-Byrnes agreement was signed under which French cinemas were obliged to show a certain quota of American films every year.

This didn’t help the French film industry, so some very intelligent civil servants came up with the idea of taking a tax off entrance tickets and giving it back to the film industry.

So in reality it is actually American films that helped the French film industry.

In France, films seem to be taken very seriously. Would you say this is a true?

Certainly, the French are passionate about cinema, both the public and the film crews. When I’ve filmed in the States, the crews are very professional and love what they do, but it is a job. In France, the crews are more curious; they want to learn to experiment and are prepared to take the time to do that.

Cinema is also part of the state curriculum in schools. Do you think this is important?

It is very important for children to understand that there is more to films that just spectacular images.

For about 25 years now, the government has taken films seriously and made it a part of national education.

Children learn to understand the images they see and to decode them. Only then can they actively watch a film, instead of just passively looking at the screen.

It’s important to help awake people’s imagination to many different types of cinema, not just blockbusters.

You have been named president of the Video Commission at the National Cinema Centre. How are you planning to use your position and budget to boost the industry?

So far, we have helped about 100 films: we have financed the restoration of old films, the transfer from video to DVDs, the adding of bonus features and so on. I think it’s very important to help restore and add value to documentaries, films about our country, history and, of course, old films.

I think bonus features are very important on DVDs today. They make the DVD attractive to buy as it’s more interesting than just watching the film on the television. As well as that, the bonus features can give important extra information.

What do you think of the latest 3D film trend?

It can be good and bad. The effect can be brilliant, but we’ll see whether it is just a passing fad.

The only real problem I have with it is that certain cinemas have kitted themselves out with special 3D metallic screens, which means that when a normal film is shown, the audience sitting on the sides cannot see the film properly as the screen makes the picture fuzzy. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Do you think bilingual festivals such as the My Beautiful Festival in Bergerac work?

I think it’s a very good initiative. I like the fact it goes out of Bergerac and it is a great opportunity for an exchange between the film maker and the audience.

From costume dramas to crime

BERTRAND Tavernier has an eclectic filmography from costume dramas to ones dealing with contemporary social problems, including some films made abroad, such as last year’s In the Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones.

Born in Lyon in 1941, he began by writing for cinema magazines in Paris and as a press officer for New Wave producer Georges de Beauregard. He helped him make his first shorts and, in 1964, two sketch-based films.

His first feature film, filmed in Lyon, was The Clockmaker (1973). A contemporary crime drama with social and political undertones, it won the Jury Grand Prix (the “Silver Bear”) at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Prix Louis-Delluc (awarded by a jury of critics for the best French film). It starred Philippe Noiret, who became Tavernier’s favourite actor.

Other career highlights include:

1975 César for best director and best screenplay for 18th-century drama Let Joy Reign Supreme.

1976 César for best screenplay for a 19th-century drama, The Judge and the Assassin.

1984 Best director at Cannes for A Sunday in the Country, a comedy set in the Belle Epoque.

1989 Bafta for best foreign film for Life and Nothing But, set after the First World War.

1995 Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for L'Appât (The Bait), about two boys and a girl who lure victims with the girl’s looks to kill them for money.

1996 César for best director for the First World War drama Capitaine Conan.

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