Life and Nothing But
The title is from a poem by Paul Eluard: “Love and nothing but/Life and nothing but”.
Yet what this couplet might mean accompanying a film by Blake Edwards or François Truffaut is mighty different to what it means for Bertrand Tavernier. His passionate humanism, his extraordinary life-drive, is furiously inclusive – forever refusing to think love or life outside of their complex social and historical enfoldings.
Light years ahead of the schematic convocations of the personal-and-political we find in Philip Kaufman, Stephen Frears, Costa-Gavras or Andrzej Wajda, Tavernier’s films really do explore what it means and how it feels to “live historically” (as Godard-Gorin’s Tout va bien  once put it). To an interviewer’s musing, “You either get films that are about social problems or that are political films or you get films that are about, say, old age or death”, the director interjected: “But I mean how can you separate that?” And Tavernier’s greatness seems to lie in the fact that, from the outset, he never can, and is never even tempted to, separate that.
Political humanist: this is only one of the multitudes, the surprising and difficult conjunctions, that Tavernier contains. Simultaneously, he is another rare beast: a critical realist. Robin Wood is right to see Tavernier as “revalidating” that “complex Realist tradition exemplified by Renoir and Rossellini”, because his naturalism – painstaking, minutely authentic, mainly classical in its proportions – has no truck whatsoever with the mystifications and palliative veneer of spectacle we so regularly attribute to the bad bogey of screen realism.
Tavernier weaves a world – rich, extraordinary and multiple – in order to compare and contrast all its various parades, positions, evasions, refuges, ironies acknowledged and unacknowledgeable; to create a perspective, to tell a story in the most profound and motivated sense.
Life and Nothing But presents an especially beautiful paradox to the cinephile viewer, one that leads straight to the heart of Tavernier’s singular œuvre. For it’s a modern-day John Ford film – Ford, that is, as loved, embellished, hallucinated and recreated by a fan. Naturally, Ford’s films were never quite like this; but what is it exactly in Fort Apache (1948) or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) that inspires such an intensely vital and politicised dramatisation of the world?
Quite simply, it is the possibility of a hero who is ageing, a little compromised in his work, and disturbed by the tremblings of romance – but, at the same time, feverishly, tenaciously ethical in his dealings with the world around him. To slowly take in the pained, impossible trajectory of Philippe Noiret as Dellaplane as he struggles to identify and list the dead of World War I against the inhuman, opportunistic machinations of the State, is to realise how rare and precious such truly ethical drama is in cinema.
Not since Jean Renoir, indeed, have love and life mattered so much as urgent political principles. Life and Nothing But is masterpiece; it is also a film that demands of each viewer the highest and most radical response that one’s heart and mind can muster.
MORE Tavernier: My Journey Through French Cinema
© Adrian Martin December 1990