Film Reviews

A Tour of Tavernier

In addition to introducing the Lumiere program at the MFA, Bertrand Tavernier will discuss his own oeuvre during his visit to Houston. At 7:30 p.m. Friday, he will take part in a question-and-answer session in the museum's Brown Auditorium, prior to the Houston premiere of his latest film, Fresh Bait (L'Appat). Winner of the prestigious Golden Bear prize at the 1995 Berlin Film Festival, Fresh Bait is the shocking tale of three aimless young Parisians who nonchalantly turn into killers.

Other notable Tavernier films, all available on home video, include:
Coup De Torchon -- Loosely based on a novel by pulp icon Jim Thompson, this spookily unpredictable 1981 drama has Philippe Noiret perfectly cast as Lucien Cordier, the meek police chief in a 1930s French West Africa province. Since everyone views Cordier as an amiable goof, spineless to a fault and unabashedly corrupt, he has no fear of being found out when he decides to start killing people. A lot of people. Even as he slips further into madness, Cordier wins the heart of a pretty schoolteacher. But he knows it is far too late to accept her offer of spiritual redemption. For, as he says in the film's chilling finale, "I've been dead for such a long time ...."

Round Midnight -- Tavernier's affectionate yet hard-edged look at a self-destructive American jazz musician in 1950s Paris evokes an oddly seductive mood of elegant despair shot through with smoky, bluesy melancholy. The late jazz great Dexter Gordon stars in this 1986 release as a tenor saxophonist (patterned after jazz pianist Bud Powell) who comes to rely on the kindness of a stranger: a commercial artist (the underrated Francois Cluzet) who opens his home to his ailing idol. This is a haunting film about the loneliness -- and, yes, the selfishness -- of the obsessed.

Life and Nothing But -- This quietly astonishing 1990 masterwork is arguably Tavernier's greatest film. Philippe Noiret plays Major Dellaplane, a French army officer charged with identifying the nameless dead left on World War I battlefields. As he goes about this grim business, he finds himself attracted to Irene (Sabine Azema), an aristocratic Parisian whose husband is listed as missing in action. Ultimately, she confronts him with a challenge more daunting than any he has ever faced under fire. And that's when Dellaplane, a man long accustomed to death, must prove he has the courage for a new life.

Daddy Nostalgia -- Tavernier aptly described this 1991 drama as "a tender, melancholy waltz." At the heart of the story, there is Dirk Bogarde, giving the performance of a lifetime as Tony Russell, a retired English businessman with the elegance of an abdicated monarch who's greatly amused by his own obsolescence. As he recovers from a serious heart operation, he's visited by his emotionally estranged daughter (Jane Birkin), who's determined to make peace with their troubled past. But it's difficult for two people who are in many ways strangers to talk about intimate matters. Especially when it's so easy to evade the pain and speak of days when the world seemed such a lovelier place.

L.627 -- In terms of tone and content, this 1992 documentary-style drama about a Paris narcotics squad has a great deal more in common with M*A*S*H than The French Connection. There are no car chases, no sensational shoot-outs. In fact, L.627 (which takes its name from the French penal code) is the only police procedural of recent years in which no one fires a gun. With a disarming casualness that is more apparent than real, Tavernier simply follows the day-to-day activities of overworked and underequipped cops who are much better at their job than their cynical superiors have any right to expect. -- Joe Leydon

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Joe Leydon