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Bertand Tavernier has always stood out from the crowd. While most of his fellow rookie directors of the Nouvelle Vague spent the Fifties discovering the delights of American murder mysteries, he was a solitary admirer of the British school. Now the eminence grise of French cinema, he is confident that he had chosen the right model for his talents.
“I’ve always admired British cinema of the Thirties and Forties, in particular the work of Michael Powell,” he says. “And I’m absolutely certain that Powell was one of my very greatest influences – I still feel totally linked to his work. He gave me a lot of courage when I was beginning, just by watching his films because they were incredibly daring. He was always experimenting, never hiding behind one style or one subject.
“Powell and his partner, Emeric Pressburger, had an ideal way of working which, for a long time, gave them complete freedom in their choice of subject or style of production, and I try to imitate them. I have my own production company and take very little money from my films, but I keep a share of the rights to the negative and put any profits to the next project. That’s how one keeps free.”
For Tavernier, the key film is Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 epic A Matter of Life and Death, starring David Niven. He is hugely engaging as Peter Carter, a British Second World War bomber pilot who, as his burning plane plummets towards the ground, falls for the comforting, American, female voice on the other end of his radio. Although his time was supposed to be up, a celestial oversight (a la Heaven Can Wait) [Not really like either version] causes him to cheat death, and he and the radio operator (Kim Hunter) soon meet. Love instantly blossoms between them – but heaven wants its due, and Peter is forced to try to persuade a pearly court to let him live.
“Every time I have a moment of doubt,” says Tavernier, “it’s one of the films I look at to give me confidence. In fact, I must have seen it at least 15 times and I also have it at home on DVD. It’s full of ideas – sometimes too many ideas – and with some superb love scenes. But it was also an experimental film – quite extraordinary for that time.
“It goes from reality to fantasy, from black and white to colour, from the real world to the world above. At the same time, it is totally rooted in the reality of the period. It was made, I think, on the suggestion of the Foreign Office. They invited Powell to do a film about the relationship between the British and Americans, which was deteriorating at that time, and instead of doing a dull documentary he made this flamboyant drama with an angel where the hero dies during the first scene – or rather, his airplane crashes and yet he doesn’t die.
“Before that, it has one of the most daring opening sequences. It starts by a tracking shot in the universe, among the stars with a voice which says, ‘This is the universe – big, isn’t it?’ That’s a wonderful line!
“And the shot travels through the entire solar system,” he continues, “before coming down to the earth and then the coast of England and Europe with burning cities during a bombing raid. And this tracking shot goes on and down into a typical British fog – from the entire solar system into a British fog! And finally it comes to a plane in flames where everyone is dead. [Except Peter D. Carter]
“The film has the quality of the best British writers – Kipling, Chesterton, Stevenson [Pressburger?] – and at the same time a feeling of Europe. It’s an incredibly stimulating piece of work.”
Tavernier’s admiration extended even to bringing Powell into his own life. “I first met him after I was helping a friend arrange the French showing of his Peeping Tom,” he says. “I also used him as an actor in my second film – but I had to cut that scene in the end. And I published his marvellous autobiography in France – in two volumes. He writes at the end that he would like to put on his gravestone ‘Amateur’ and ‘Our hobby was making films’. I would like to have that on my grave – that my joy, my passion was to make films. It’s not a job, it’s not a craft, it’s a passion.”
Nota: Quando Taverneir entrevistou Powell em 1968, aquele ainda não tinha visto AMOLAD. Aparentemente era muito difícil conseguir assistir esses filmes durante os anos 60 e 70, o próprio Scorsese só conseguiu assistir Sei Onde Fica o Paraíso em 1980, o que nos faz pensar no abismo entre aquela geração de cinéfilos para com a atual.