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  • Cinematic Timekeeper:Bertrand Tavernier and L'Horloger de Saint-Paul
  • Jennifer Forrest

Film scholars have interpreted Bertrand Tavernier's first feature film L'Horloger de Saint-Paul (1974) as having "clearly signalled his rejection of the nouvelle vague" in favor of a return to a more classical aesthetic reminiscent of the post-World War II Tradition of Quality (Forbes 153). One of the primary elements determining this judgement was Tavernier's co-authoring of the film script with Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, the writing team singled out by Cahiers du cinéma critic François Truffaut in "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" (1954) as representing the worst of 1950s film. Fixing the tensions of the stance taken by Tavernier in terms of the opposition cinéma de papa versus Nouvelle vague, however, reveals that the director found himself in a position similar to that of his protagonist Michel Descombes, whose moral and political options appear constrained by a Solomon's choice of either a conservative or progressive response to his son's murder of a factory "policeman." The third option chosen by both Tavernier (and Descombes) is that of the iconoclast who "sera sans système, sans règles organiques, hétéroclite et vivant," to use the description of the director by his lifelong friend Volker Schlöndorff (7).1 One contemporary Claude Beylie praised Tavernier for this deft sidestepping of an inflexible and deceptive dichotomy: "[c]e film nous permet enfin de sortir de la fausse alternative vieux cinema—jeune cinéma. Il n'aurait jamais dû y avoir d'un côté le cinéma de papa, de l'autre le cinéma des fils à papa" (6). Like Descombes, who resists pressure to adopt and thereby validate a world view promoted by the various ideological forces on the right and the left, Tavernier resisted the pressure to choose either the cinema of fathers or that of sons, making his own path in choosing citizenship in the community of French film and filmmakers. [End Page 103]

The film's story turns precisely on the intergenerational strain between a father and his son after the latter's criminal act, a tension that mirrors the state of French cinema in the early 1970s. Descombes will spend the duration of the film closing that gap, a rapprochement figured ironically in the concluding scenes as a prison barrier through which father and son converse with surprising ease. The director, too, will determine his professional place in cinema with the production of this first feature film by declaring solidarity with classic and post-1960s cinema. In collaborating with scriptwriters associated with classic French cinema, and in adopting the practice of literary adaptation with which they were associated, the film renews ties with French cinema's past. It reaches further back than the Tradition of Quality, however, to include films and filmmakers from the interwar period, in particular scriptwriter Jacques Prévert. In dedicating his debut film to Prévert, Tavernier signaled his allegiance to a community of purpose like the one championed by Prévert, from his finishing contribution to the script for Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) to the production's collaboration with members of the Groupe Octobre, of which he was a leading force, and the ethos of the Front Populaire. If this gesture looks back into the past, it also tends to cinema present and future. Tavernier's introductory offering anticipated a career of cinematic stewardship that unfolded on multiple fronts: the direction of his own films, the promotion and rehabilitation of work by other directors (Joseph Losey and Michael Powell, for example), the production of other directors' projects, scriptwriting for other directors, film history books, documentaries, and the promotion of unrecognized talent on all levels of production from scriptwriters, directors of photography, to composers. It is perhaps because he felt keenly the period's pull of cinematic political platforms that Tavernier chose to adapt Georges Simenon's L'Horloger d'Everton (1954). The director adopted the novel's fatherson theme as well as its protagonist's framing of familial bonds of shared resistance in an idiosyncratic experience of time in order...


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