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Interview: Bertrand Tavernier

By Max Nelson on March 13, 2014 in Film Comment

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Bertrand Tavernier is one of a small number of working filmmakers capable of juggling a prolific career behind the camera (he has been making films steadily for the past 40 years) with an equally accomplished double life as a critic and film scholar. With Jean-Pierre Coursodon, he is the author of the monumental, 1,300-page compendium 50 Years of American Cinema, in addition to a lengthy history of writing for Positif, Cahiers du cinéma, and this magazine. His body of work as a director spans a dizzying range of genres: among many others, politically loaded crime drama (The Clockmaker, his 1974 debut), police procedural (L.627, 92), historical romance (The Princess of Montpensier, 10), World War II epic (Life and Nothing But, 89), and jazz film (’Round Midnight, 86, starring Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock).

Quai d’Orsay—titled The French Minister in its U.S. release—is a breathless catalogue of backroom political storms and stresses centered on a young, ambitious speechwriter working for an eccentric foreign minister. It’s also Tavernier’s first all-out comedy, and he approaches the genre with a fine eye for character and a careful sense of pace. With its rapid-fire dialogue exchanges and its string of pressure-cooker crises—set to the lively tempo of Philippe Sarde’s terrific score—the film is as close to the territory of classic American screwball comedy as it is to the political landscape of contemporary France. Tavernier adapted the movie from a graphic novel by Christophe Blain and Antonin Baudry—the latter a former speechwriter under the legendary minister Dominique de Villepin, whose 2003 address to the United Nations against the Iraq War is quoted directly in the film.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Tavernier about his parallel lives as a director and film buff, his approach to structure and rhythm, his love for Howard Hawks and Jacques Becker, and the unseen logic behind the apparent chaos of a film set.

The theme of this conversation—in keeping with the pace of your new film—was initially going to be “the world’s fastest screwball comedies,” so I wanted to start with a general question: what considerations, in your experience, go into determining the speed of a movie?

Difficult question. First, I must say one thing. When I start working on a film, I stop being a film buff. I very rarely see films to influence either my work, or the work of my collaborators. I want to stick to the film I’m doing and the characters, without thinking about other films. Of course, when I’m doing a comedy like Quai d’Orsay, I have in mind the rhythm of great comedies like His Girl Friday, To Be or Not to Be, or Billy Wilder’s films. I didn’t need to see any of them again. I also had in mind something that Hawks said: a good comedy is a comedy which could, with a few changes, be directed in a more straightforward, even dramatic manner. You could take the screenplay of Quai d’Orsay and with a few adjustments—not so many—you could have a good dramatic film. After all, it’s a film which deals with a potential war, with—at one point—a cargo which is going to explode and maybe kill a few million people, and the danger of civil war in Africa. It’s all very serious.

I also had in mind, as I said earlier, the rhythm, the pace. The pace of a film—especially of a comedy—must come from one or two main characters. I have seen films, especially recent films, where the directors try to stick with a single kind of pace because everybody told them that the audience is impatient, so you have to move fast. The film is trying to move faster than the characters. Or the film is always moving at the same speed, which is, for me, the opposite of real rhythm. Rhythm must include—even if they’re only 20 or 30 seconds—moments when you break the rhythm. The speed had to come from the character of the minister, who was always in movement, always running, unable to sit down for two minutes, unable not to do anything. The rhythm also had to come organically from the character of Arthur, who always has to do something but is always rebuffed. What he does is ignored and thrown away, so he has to start again and start again. I had to get that feeling in the rhythm, and I think I got it. The rhythm of the film is really imposed, dictated, and determined organically by the character—like in The Princess of Montpensier, or L.627, or Capitaine Conan [96].

Part of what’s interesting about that dynamic in Quai d’Orsay is that you have one character within the film imposing a rhythm on another character. So, to some degree, for the rhythm to feel natural, it has to feel forced.

Yes. And the rhythm is always stopping when you come to the character played by Niels Arestrup, who is always slowing the scenes down, speaking slowly…

Falling asleep…

And falling asleep. It’s like he’s saying, “You move too fast. Stop, think, wait, we’ll find a solution.” And that’s good. He’s always doing things—reading, signing, talking on the phone, or absorbing huge stacks of files—but just a shot with him, or three lines from him, allows me from time to time to break the rhythm and the speed of the film.

That’s one of the respects in which the film reminds me of certain classic Hollywood comedies. They always include all this buffer space, passages that absorb the shock of the manic stretches surrounding them.

Especially films like His Girl Friday or One, Two, Three.   

These very quiet, hushed, slow scenes—like the exchange in His Girl Friday between Rosalind Russell and the imprisoned man.

Yes. It’s surprising how dramatic the background of that film is—it’s the death penalty—and you laugh all the time.

In some sense, it’s those quiet buffer scenes that really end up being the dramatic core of the movie.

Yeah. There was another director I was thinking of, without seeing the films—because, again, making a film is so exciting, so demanding, and so involving that I don’t want to see other images. But I was remembering some of the comedies of Jacques Becker. I know he’s not known in this country, and it’s a pity, because for me he is, if not the greatest, then one of the greatest French directors of the Forties and Fifties. One of the greatest. One of the most underrated in this country. I know they re-released Antoine et Antoinette recently, which is a masterpiece, but Edouard et Caroline is a wonderful comedy: very, very funny, with tremendous space, and some moments when it suddenly becomes serious. Just at the end, there’s a moment when it could become a drama. It’s done with such grace and elegance in the direction.

I find Becker the equal of—if not better than—even people like Hawks. He had such a wide range: going from Casque d’or to Edouard et Caroline, or from Antoine et Antoinette to Touchez pas au grisbi to Le Trou. An enormous range, and always with the same deeply organic quality. He was doing things which were extremely bold and extremely new, but they were done so fluidly that nobody noticed how new it was. The character of Gabin in Touchez pas au grisbi, for instance, pre-dates all the antiheroes of the Sixties and Seventies: in the way he’s macho with women, or the way he wants to go to bed early. It's a destruction of Gabin’s image, and of the whole romantic image of the hero. This gangster is just a bourgeois who wants to have a bourgeois wife and doesn’t want to sleep late or have any problems. That was incredibly daring with somebody like Gabin. There are very few actors who were willing to challenge their own image like that: he had the reputation of being the great seducer, the romantic guy, the hero of all the prewar films. And then he was playing the opposite. I love that.

One thing that might unite Becker and Hawks is that they didn’t primarily make comedies.

Becker started with dramas. His first film is a kind of tongue-in-cheek gangster film, but his second is a murder drama set in the country. He was, by the way, a great admirer of Hawks and Hathaway. During the first Cahiers interview with Hawks, Becker was present in the room.

Do you think that the way these directors made comedies was somehow affected by the fact that they spent so much of their careers making dramatic films?

Maybe. Coming out of directing dramas, they had a kind of elegant style which was very well suited for comedy. And maybe by doing those dramas, they knew how to transform a dramatic scene into a comedy.

The comedies are always threatening to become dramas.

Yeah. I don’t know if that’s true of all Hawks, though: I’m not sure I Was a Male War Bride could have been a dramatic film.

Another striking aspect of Quai d’Orsay for me is structural: for increasingly long stretches of the movie—during the crisis with the ship, for instance—the film leaves Arthur altogether.

He would have been useless. He is there with the other advisors, and there’s a moment between him and Valerie, but there’s no possibility for him to help solve the thing. I do not care about losing a character. You get him back, and you get him back with a very good scene. And at that moment, the audience has absorbed the fact that, more or less, even if he’s not present, he is getting everything that’s happening. He is slowly becoming a member of the cabinet, so he doesn’t have to be present to know what’s happening.

I find your question strange, because there are so many novels and plays in which you lose a character for 20 minutes. I love freedom. I love to be able to do what I want, not to follow a pattern where, when you have a main character, he has to be there in every moment. I’ve never made films where the screenplay is dictated by the plot. Especially in many of the latest films I’ve made, I want to give the impression that the screenplay is written by the characters. My films are often very collective; even if you have one, two, or three main parts, every character counts. I can jump from one to the other; I want to be able to build a whole film—Safe Conduct [02]—on two heroes who practically never meet. I want to have the possibility of making that. It gives me a very free dramatic construction, where I can jump from one character to the other.

I’m suffering from everything that’s predictable: films that look like they’re coming from a three-act screenplay, or that have twists which seem to be dictated by the screenwriters and imposed on the characters. I want to get rid of all that. I want to enjoy the freedom of narration.

Part of the effect in this case is that you get the sense that the characters are always reacting to events out in the world.

Absolutely. Sometimes it’s a challenge. In L.627, if I wanted to be true to the essence of the work of the police squad, I had to accept the fact that they will fail at one thing, start another investigation, and change gears suddenly to follow something unexpected. The story was starting over all the time. Normally, that’s something that screenwriters hate. I had to accept it and ask myself: “What can I do to overcome something that can be problematic for the audience?” I had to be able to understand the state of mind of people for whom nothing is ever finished. The moment they think they can have some rest, they have to start again; they have to work. If you deal with that frontally, if you accept it, you can overcome the problem, even make what could have been a problem into a virtue. You find a kind of narrative which will be exciting, providing you put a lot of gusto and energy into it, and providing never waste time indulging yourself. I did it in L.627, Capitaine Conan, and Safe Conduct, and I knew it could work here too. They’re doing 20 things at the same time, but in the end, we must feel the progression even if what they’ve tried to do has stopped or failed. It’s something I liked in the graphic novel: you finish one thing, and you have another problem immediately, or two problems at the same time. You have to start all over again.

I think that contributes here to the film’s sense of humor as well.

Yeah, the repetition can be a source of fun.

Another element that contributes to the tone is the very inventive use of language: everyone’s talking past each other and over each other’s heads.

It’s something that Robert Altman did brilliantly. He’s one of my heroes in many ways. In Tanner ’88 or Nashville, he’s doing that constantly. Gregory La Cava, too, in Stage Door.

How did you make sure the comic impact of the language would carry over from the graphic novel?

I think the characters were very well written in the graphic novel. It was very funny; at the same time, it felt true. That was the story of the writer’s life. He told, very simply, what happened to him. And you can feel that. I wanted to preserve the energy of the novel, not to copy the way it was ordered. This is the trap. A graphic novel is not a storyboard. You must understand what is great in it, and sometimes that will mean finding solutions which are the opposite of what is actually in the graphic novel. I can just give you a detail: in the novel, I looked at Christophe Blain’s wonderful drawings, and in some of them, the foreign minister is moving so fast that he has five or six arms, like an Indian god. Papers are flying. I had to keep this idea, but I didn’t want to do any kind of special effect. Instead, I had him walk as if he was preceded by a kind of mini-storm. He’s like the character in Peanuts who is always followed by dust. When he comes into a room, everything flies, and he never has any kind of look towards what’s happening around him.

One of the great foreign affairs ministers, when he saw the film, said: “That is a wonderful idea. It gives the right color to the character. He doesn’t leave anything concrete; he’s so far away in his own vision that he never sees that he’s bothering everybody. He’s living in another dimension.”

He sets the rhythm of the space, but he’s also constantly disrupting it.

Totally. He creates an enormous chaos around him. Sometimes, when I was doing the film, I thought: “My God, it’s a fable about filmmaking.” Some directors seem to create a huge chaos on the set, but in the end, when you see the finished film, it has tremendous logic. It was very late, during the editing, that I discovered that in his brilliant speech in front of the council of security—which is a real speech—the minister is using all the formulas which he has been repeating throughout the film. It sounds absurd when he gives these lists—“ténacité,” et cetera—but in the end, they are all in the speech, and they make sense. It’s as if he tries out a lot of formulas verbally, and then, having created a lot of chaos around him, succeeds in doing something which is structured, organized, and incredibly well written—the most brilliant speech in French diplomacy for two or three decades. It was vilified in this country at the time, but he was totally right. Everything which was in the speech is now timeless. It’s precise, intelligent, true and wise. During the whole film, you would have a problem attributing those adjectives to the character of the minister.

That was what attracted me to the story: that the politics of individuals are more important than their behavior or their crazy way of talking. Politicians can only be judged by their effects—not by the way they dress, talk, or scream, or the fact that they contradict themselves, say stupid things, or sound emphatic and arrogant. They can be all of that if, at the end, the result is terrific. In exactly the same way, some directors can seem nasty or mean; others want to change their screenplay whenever they meet somebody. But in the end, something will happen, and it will be great.

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