July 1, 2014
The last outpost of the retail cinephile shrine Kim’s Video is shutting down this year. I made one last pilgrimage to its lower east side redoubt in NYC to experience the disappearing pleasure of browsing. The simpleminded algorithms at Amazon and Netflix want to give you more of the same, regurgitating films from the same genre, actor or director. What they miss is the pleasure of turning down an aisle and entering a different world. I had no title in mind when walking in, only knowing I needed to make one last purchase before Kim’s was replaced by an upscale frogurt shop or whatever. At first I pawed the BFI DVD of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), the raucous silent starring Anna May Wong. Netflix’s “More like Piccadilly” section offered random unrelated silents, from Chaplin to Pickford, while Amazon’s slightly more helpful recommendations were a Wong biography and a few of her films on public domain DVD. At Kim’s, in the Region 2 DVD section, I stumbled upon Bertrand Tavernier’s debut feature The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974, aka The Clockmaker). I have had Tavernier idly on the mind for a few years, as I have much admired his last two features (The Princess of Montpensier and The French Minister) while being mostly unacquainted with his earlier work. Thus I gently placed Piccadilly on the shelf, and brought The Watchmaker of St. Paul to the knowledgeable cashier, who had seen a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, though seemed underwhelmed. The clerks at Kim’s had a reputation for being snotty, but I’ve always found them to be remarkably informed and helpful – though perhaps they could spot that I was one of their own grubby tribe.
Born in Lyon, France in 1941, Bertrand Tavernier was a movie-mad youth who soaked up projector rays in repertory houses, preferring the American Westerns and melodramas of William Wellman, Delmer Daves, and other unsung Hollywood directors. A writer for his student paper, he interviewed Jean-Pierre Melville, who was so impressed with Tavernier that he hired him to be his assistant director on Leon Morin, Priest (1961), which let him drop law school for cinema. Tavernier called Melville his “godfather in film.”:
He would give me an appointment, and he’d show up four hours late. Then he’d arrive in his big convertible Cadillac, with electric windows, and driving through Paris telling stories about the French underground, the resistance, showing you where famous gangsters had been killed. He’d take me to dinner, take me to films, and he’d keep me up all night, because Melville could not sleep.
Melville re-assigned Tavernier from assistant director to press agent, a job in which he went on to promote numerous members of the French New Wave on the films of Godard, Chabrol and Varda, among others. He spent years learning the business as a publicist and as a critic. Starting around 1960 he began contributing regularly to Positif and Cahiers du Cinema, a run I would dearly like to see translated into English, if this bibliography is any way accurate. He would go on to write comprehensive tomes on Hollywood, first with Jean-Pierre Coursodon in 50 ans de cinéma américain (never translated into English) and his massive book of director interviews Amis américains (ditto).
In an interview included on the Optimum DVD I purchased, Tavernier said he waited until 1974 to make his debut feature because he “needed to learn about life.” His first project would be an adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel The Watchmaker of Everton (1954). It tells the story of a habitually-minded watchmaker in a small town in New York State whose son is suddenly wanted for murder. In a 1974 interview Tavernier claimed that the novel had grabbed his attention with the father’s line, “I stand behind my son”, during a murder trial. Despite their estranged and non-communicative relationship, the strange familial bond forces the father to veer out of his etched path and express his emotions. At this time Tavernier was a loosely affiliated member of the OCI (Organisation Communiste Internationaliste), and reconfigures the plot to express contemporary political concerns. He would quit the organisation by 1976, fed up by the Stalinist factions “rigid and totally reactionary rules”. The Watchmaker of St. Paul changes Simenon’s murder victim from an anonymous motorist to a thuggish factory manager who may have abused the son’s girlfriend. The son is then used as a political tool by both the publicity machines of the left and right, though the boy’s act ultimately seems to be one of less of politics than of passion. The story’s focus is on how the father Michel Descombes (Philippe Noiret) processes his son Bernard’s act, and how he comes to “stand by” him, despite the emotional gulf that separates them. The film also stands as a documentary of Lyon in 1974, the film being shot on the streets and inside the courtrooms of Tavernier’s home city. It is distinctly an insider’s view of town, focusing on the side streets and alleyways that one treasures of home, the places not shared by the wider city at large.
Tavernier is a committed progressive, but he often look into the past for aesthetic inspiration. He hired Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche to write the screenplay for The Watchmaker of St. Paul, two of the central figures in France’s 1940s-1950s “cinema of quality” that Truffaut eviscerated in his “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” broadside, in which he said Aurenche and Bost “have made the works they adapt insipid”. With the rise of the New Wave, the duo of Aurenche and Bost (Forbidden Games) had stopped receiving work in features. Tavernier claims he was making no point in hiring them, just that they were the best men for the job. His decision was also based on his experience as a press agent, when he decided he would “avoid all the people who were fashionable”, since they were so busy they could devote little time to each project. The generation gap between Tavernier and the two screenwriters would match that of the father and son, and that tension would be appropriate for the material. It would also fit a line Billy Wilder had told him, that the “screenwriter should be the minister of opposition.” Each line should be a battle. Bost passed away soon after The Watchmaker, but Aurenche would go on to be Tavernier’s minister of opposition on three more films.
The Watchmaker of St. Paul is an intricate, multi-layered and tactile thing. It is anchored by Philippe Noiret, who made the film possible. His presence attracted funding, and he cut his salary in half to lower the budget. When Tavernier asked him later on why he chose to help, Noiret responded, “I gave you my word.” As the father in Watchmaker, Noiret is not that upright and just. Noiret plays Descombes as a watchful outsider, taking seats at ends of tables and joining conversations instead of starting them. He prefers to circulate than to be centered, and Noiret emphasizes the character’s ungainliness and uncertainty. He says very little, and usually regrets what he does say. His opposite number is the investigator Guilboud (Jean Rochefort), a dashing, drily witty intellectual who offers a self-satisfied smile when he correctly attributes a quote by Paul Claudel. Guilboud is nevertheless attracted to Descombes for the insights he may have into the opaque actions of the younger generation. Each older man is baffled by the rhetoric of revolt. Guilboud sees it as a fad, or a phase – burning cars as the fashionable new thing. Descombes comes to a deeper understanding, or at least a detente, with his preternaturally calm Bernard. He is sickened by Guilboud’s condescension, disheartened by the manipulations of the legal system, and suffused with love. Descombes stands by his son.