Jean Renoir and Francois Truffaut, mentor and protege, were filmmakers first, last and always. But they were also writers of great skill and sensitivity: Renoir a scenarist, novelist and memoirist of his unique life with father, Truffaut a sharp, eloquent and demanding film critic.
Bertrand Tavernier's latest film to be seen here, "Daddy Nostalgia," makes it clearer than ever that of all presently working French directors he is most nearly the heir apparent to Renoir and Truffaut in bringing to his films the sensitivity and the concerns that you might have said were the particular province of the novelist.
This is to say, not simply the sweep of history or the cacophonies of action, but personalities revealed in all their subtleties and ambiguities, relationships marked equally by their sometimes baffling contradictions and by the shadowy uncertainties of true feelings unexpressed or denied.
Like Renoir and Truffaut, Tavernier has proved that he can work on a large canvas and command the resource of the medium as surely as Hawks or Bertolucci. But from his first feature, based on Georges Simenon's novel "The Clockmaker of St. Paul," Tavernier has left little doubt that his preference and his strength is for what might be called le cinema intime , closely watched dramas in which characters are examined (coolly but never hostilely) in moments of crisis, change and confrontation.
The quiet clockmaker (the extraordinary Philippe Noiret, whose creative partnership with Tavernier is one of the most rewarding in recent film history) must cope with a son who has committed a murder. The same Noiret in "Coup de Torchon" (reset in French West Africa in the '30s, from a Texas- based Jim Thompson novel, "Pop. 1280)") is a somnolent colonial policeman who awakens in a murderous rage to cleanse his vile village.
Despite a title that seems airily inadequate to the film itself, Tavernier's "Daddy Nostalgia" is one of his finest works, the director working with a novelist's sensibility in a character and relationship study that is the cinema of intimacy at its most intimate.
The Daddy, of course, is Dirk Bogarde, in his first feature since Fassbinder's "Despair" in 1978 (there were television outings in 1981 and 1985). Bogarde, after post-juvenile success in farce-comedies, has made a career, as in "The Servant," Joseph Losey's "Accident" and Visconti's "Death in Venice," of playing men of tremulous weakness, sometimes wicked, more often merely wistfully aware of the unachieved.
In "Daddy Nostalgia," Bogarde is a man confronting his own mortality for the first time after a serious heart attack, back in the bosom of the family in what looks to be a condo in St. Tropez. His daughter (Jane Birkin), a divorced mother, is down from Paris. His wife (Odette Laure) is watching him like a hawk, countering his every effort not to accept invalidism.
What is entirely remarkable about Colo Tavernier O'Hagan's economical script is how much we learn or surmise about these three and their interworkings simply from the banalities of their day-to-day lives. Bogarde's lookings-back to his days as elegant perfume salesman inhabiting the world are clues to character as well as to the past, although they do not explain the marriage of the dapper Englishman to a middle-class French woman. (The French film is largely in English.)
Daddy, it is clear, was a self-centered charmer, quite insensitive to the feelings of his wife and, especially, of his daughter. A flashback establishes the daughter's hero-worship being rebuffed, and leaves no question that both the worship and the rebuff still hang in memory.
There are intimations, no more than a shimmer across a quiet pond, that the childhood may have left the daughter with questions about her sexual identity. Daddy and the divorce may hint that men don't get better than this; on the other hand, Daddy is still the charmer, and the father-daughter bonding is something like a courtship, as well as a conspiracy against the mother.
Like most superior movies, "Daddy Nostalgia" invites as many speculations as life itself, and demonstrates that only in black hat-white hat Westerns are characters so decisively defined that you don't need a score card, or have to guess.
The film suggests among other things that there are cruelties done in the name of love, in that love taken for granted but insufficiently expressed creates a painful hunger. Watching "Daddy Nostalgia" you perceive easily enough how this father, mother and daughter love each other. It is just that you perceive no less easily just how tentative Daddy has forced them all to be about it.
Dramas of such enclosed intimacy are said these days to be the stuff of television, but the truth is that only in the undistracted and neutral intimacy of the cinema itself can the provoking complexity, the mix of light and shadow, of a film like Tavernier's "Daddy Nostalgia" be fully savored.