Bertrand Tavernier Reflects on French Filmmakers and Staging a Festival in a Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis has devastated cinema attendance. Several major cinema chains have closed around the world. In the face of adversity, this year’s 12th edition of the Lumière Festival in France’s Lyon, which runs Oct. 10-18, aims to fly the flag of cinema even more forcefully than ever, through its on site mix of career tributes, restored classics, world premieres of new films and a classic film market.

Veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (“My Journey through French Cinema”) has played a key role in organizing this year’s line-up, including the tribute to the classic French screenwriter Michel Audiard, who would have turned 100 this year, the award of the Lumière Award to Belgian directing duo, the Dardenne brothers, tributes to Oliver Stone and Viggo Mortensen, and a career tribute to French actress Sabine Azéma, who starred in two films by Tavernier. The Festival also pays homage to American director Joan Micklin Silver (“Hester Street”), including restored versions of several of her films, made possible by the Cohen Film Collection.

In late August, Tavernier and Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux – the duo behind the fest and the Institut Lumière in Lyon – penned an open letter to support movie theaters, proudly affirming “cinema still exists, it never left us.”

Tavernier provided an exclusive interview with Variety to talk about why he thinks the festival has become a key meeting ground for film professionals who love the art of cinema.

How can an event like the Lumière festival highlight the importance of cinema, at such a critical moment in its history?

I love the quote by William Faulkner: “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” At the Lumière festival, our focus is on classic films, but alongside world premieres of important new films. Above all, we offer an opportunity to unite filmmakers from around the world and celebrate the art of cinema. We’re not just talking about French cinema, it’s an event that celebrates the cinema of the world, which is clear when you see this year’s films and guests.

Cinema is more important than ever and in moments of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, this becomes even more evident. We’re realizing even more keenly that nothing replaces discovering a film in the company of other people. In a festival like Lumière, spectators gain a living connection to the films. They have the chance to speak with people who worked on the films or analysts and critics who love them and can reveal new perspectives. Streaming platforms show films, but they don’t explain or transmit broader connections. The human dimension.

One of this year’s highlights is the centenary tribute to French screenwriter, Michel Audiard. What does he have to offer to contemporary spectators?

Audiard was a great screenwriter. He was one of the targets of the New Wave critics, but his talent is now increasingly recognized. While I was making “My Journey Through French Cinema” I rediscovered many masterpieces written by him. Critics perhaps had a point that he probably made too many films, but he had a style and a special type of language that he used in his dialogue, mixing a stylized version of the way that people speak in everyday life with literary embellishment, such as repetition or inventing new words. For example, he coined the expression “je bikinise,” based on the name of the island that had the first atomic explosion, Bikini. His style is very personal and more literary than people think. We are republishing three of his screenplays and I have written an accompanying essay about him, also exploring how he was greatly influenced by Belgian writer Georges Simenon. Before becoming a screenwriter he was a film critic. He praised films by Billy Wilder, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (but not “The Magnificent Ambersons”), Clouzot, in particular “Le Corbeau,” Becker, Renoir (“La Grande Illusion”), Lang, Siodmak, “Panique” by Duvivier, John Ford, and also highlighted the originality of “A Matter of Life and Death,” by Powell and Pressburger.

He wrote and directed so many classics. For example, “The President” by Henri Verneuil is a great film, very classical in its style. It’s not really inventive visually, but it has wonderful writing and handling of actors. It has some of the best lines of dialogue in a French film. Audiard liked to joke that he was a right-wing anarchist. At one point in the film, Jean Gabin’s character says: “I am in favor of a Europe of the workers, not a Europe of the shareholders.” It’s very comforting to hear that, I wish someone like François Hollande or Emmanuel Macron could say something like that. It’s a great moment and a wonderful speech.

That links to a theme you explore in “My Journey Through Cinema” – the fact that many French classics had working class characters in the lead roles.

Yes that’s true. French cinema has become more gentrified. There was a more popular dimension to many of the great masterpieces, for example films by directors such as Becker and Renoir. Audiard knew how to write for great actors, such as Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier, who both had tremendous inner dignity. For example, he wrote wonderful dialog for Delannoy’s “Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case”, based on Simenon’s novel. One of Audiard’s best known screenplays was for Georges Lautner’s burlesque comedy, “Les Tontons flingueurs” (“Monsieur Gangster”). It became a cult film due to its humor, and the fact that the screenplay is very well written. But I think we see the real Audiard in a film like “Blood to the Head” by Gilles Grangier, starring Gabin, an actor who on many occasions inspired him to write his greatest scripts, who perhaps was the most inspiring actor for him, together with Bernard Blier.

The Dardenne brothers, who are receiving the Lumière Award this year, also explore the dignity of the human condition

Absolutely. Like Ken Loach, they seem to be getting better and better. “Young Ahmed” is one of the best studies of radicalism I have ever seen. It shows how very difficult it is to deal with this phenomenon, and asks the question about how one can re-educate someone like that – someone who refuses to listen to a woman. How to fight against such prejudices that are sobering and don’t just exist in the Islamic world. You find the same prejudices everywhere – in America, France or Spain. I admire filmmakers who reveal the complexities of such issues. I hate it when films have a simplistic approach to identity, when everything becomes a simple fight between men and women, or is based on the color of the skin. That leads to crazy statements. Alas the problems that face the world, like the coronavirus, don’t spare anyone. Minorities can also be very oppressive. You have to be very careful not to make simple statements. I like directors that are searching. Like the Dardenne brothers. They have convictions, but they are never simplistic. Never casual. They also have doubts. They question themselves.

The festival also has a tribute to Oliver Stone, who will attend. You will be screening “Born on the Fourth of July”….

I’m a great admirer of Oliver Stone. Tom Cruise is terrific in “Born on the Fourth of July”. The film deals with realities that aren’t shown in “Platoon.” The portrayal of the question of rehabilitation of veterans is wonderful and is especially poignant given that the current U.S. president seems to despise veterans. The hospital scenes are harrowing. For me, Oliver Stone is like Richard Brooks on amphetamine. He has a strong liberal attitude, in the line of directors such as Sam Fuller, Richard Brooks or Robert Aldrich. He especially reminds me of the tradition charted by Aldrich with films such as “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” “The Big Knife,” or “Attack!” I really enjoyed watching Oliver Stone’s cut of “Alexander,” which was one of the last great epic films with guts. A film like “Talk Radio” was also ahead of its time. It focused on the emergence of people who later became the Tea Party. He saw how a new breed of right-wing republicanism was emerging, before journalists realized this.

You also have a career tribute to the French actress Sabine Azéma who worked with you.

Yes, on two films: “A Sunday in the Country,” which has just been restored by Studiocanal, and “Life and Nothing But.” I wanted to cast her in my second film “Que la Fete Commence” (“Let Joy Reign Supreme”), but she wasn’t free. It was so delightful to work with her. We were working very hard and she was always funny. Very quick witted and created a great mood, with tremendous energy. I remember Truffaut said he liked leading ladies to be fast paced and quick witted, at a time when a lot of young female actors were shown as not being able to talk, or talked very slowly. A great actress like Arletty also had a similar agile temperament, in films like “Hotel du Nord, and “Les Enfants du Paradis”, full of life. I found that in Sabine – incredible energy. On “Life and Nothing But,” she clicked immediately with Philippe Noiret. The energy and rapport between them actually led me to change the film’s ending which originally had the couple break up, but because of them I made it more open-ended. On “Sunday,” the male lead Louis Ducreux was doing his first film. She was wonderful working with him and even leading him on set to make sure he was positioned in the right places for the camera.

What are your immediate plans after the festival?

I’ve just finished a foreword for another Western novel, that Actes Sud is publishing as part of my collection. It’s “The Earthbreakers,” a masterpiece by Ernest Haycox, his last book, and his testament, since he died young at 51 – a great loss. We are also overseeing the final stages of the book “100 Years of American Cinema” that I’m co-writing with Jean Pierre Coursodon. In principle, it will be published at the beginning of next year. It’s been so absorbing to work on this project. It’s another reminder that looking back at the last 100 years gives us great inspiration for the future!

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