The Filmmaker — Bertrrand Tavernier (1941-2021)

March 25, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Clockmaker” was Bertrand Tavernier’s first feature film. I saw it in 1978 when it came out, maybe because one of the two theaters were it opened was only a few steps from where I lived. What the film tught me— and I’m sure this was not Tavernier’s intent — was that so many movie tropes that I had assumed were universal aspects of film story-telling were merely American. But that’s what the movie does, mostly by avoiding those tropes or cliches. The dining table looks familiar — the plates and glasses and flatware — but the meal that’s served is very different.

Here’s the movie’s set-up. A young man, still in his teens, has disappeared from his job at a factory So has his girlfriend, who also worked there.  Somebody murdered the factory boss, an unpleasant man who hit on female workers. The police suspect the young man and are trying to track him down. The head police inspector brings in the boy’s father, tells him that the son has committed murder, and asks the father (Michel, a clockmaker) to help in the search.

You know how this will play out. The father will start an investigation of his own, but he will be constantly thwarted by the police, who continue to pursue their theory that the son is the killer.  As the father gets closer to solving the case, the police will threaten to jail him on one or another pretext. In the end the father will find the real killer and expose the incometence or corruption of the police. There may even be a final gunfight where the father has to dodge bullets from both the bad guy and the police before finally outwitting everyone and killing the bad guy.

None of that happens because this is not an American film. It’s “L’Horloger,” based on a Simenon novel. In an American film the hero would focus almost entirely on solving external, practical problems — outwitting the killer and the police. But in “The Clockmaker,” there’s no mystery to solve. The son killed his boss. Instead, the film shows Michel coming to terms with that reality and coming to a better understanding of his son as, over the course of the flim, the son is found in the North, brought back to Lyon for trial, convicted, and sentenced to twenty years. The film is also about the relationship that develops between Michel and the police inspector, who also comes to  a better understanding of both Michel and the son.

The film differed from America films in other ways that I came to see were typical. First, the protagonist is not physically attractive. Michel (Philippe Noiret) is pudgy, with thinning hair and a weak chin. Nor is he physically active. This is not Liam Neeson pursuing his daughter’s kidnappers.

Second, in American films, children are superior to parents. They are more capable, more competent, and more moral. Even when the older character (an actual parent or a parent-like figure) is a good guy, he must be saved from his own incompetence by the younger person. In French films, by contrast, it is the  parents who must suffer and deal with the missteps of their children. The parent-child, older-younger pattern also appears as more powerful - less powerful, in this case police-civilian. In American films, the character we admire is rarely an agent of the government.

Third, in both French and American films, larger forces — “society” or the government — may be unfair. American films are about the protagonist’s struggle against injustice, a struggle that is usually successful, if not entirely than at least in some small personal way. French films are more likely to follow the protagonist’s inner struggle in coming to understand the reality of those larger forces even if they cannot be changed.

I have seen other Tavernier films, notably “Round Midnight,” but the one that has stays with me is “The Clockmaker.”*

* A trailer, without subtitles, is here.

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