It is tempting to view Daddy Nostalgie (Bertrand Tavernier, 1990), Dirk Bogarde’s last film, as an actor’s swan song or as a great director’s meditation on aging. When the film was released, it was marketed and discussed in those terms, and dismissed to some extent as a “last waltz”. With the exception of two modest TV films, Bogarde had been in near retirement when he worked with Tavernier, who he knew from the festival circuit, since working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tom Stoppard on Despair (1977), a baroque adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, set to Euro decadence auto-pilot. By the mid-’70s, Bogarde was far more passionate about writing a series of memoirs, whose ironic tone gripped readers with tales of a charmed life lyrically detailed, but not entirely revealed. Living in Provence with his partner, Anthony Forwood, until the latter’s death of liver cancer in 1987, Bogarde had little need to prove himself in a career that including being a matinee idol in the ‘50s to art-house icon in The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1964), Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971) and The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974).
For Tavernier, Daddy Nostalgie, was an opportunity to explore new terrain and subtly weave in personal concerns. Coming between the war drama, Life and Nothing But (1989) and the drug trafficking thriller, L.627 (1992), the autobiographical roots of Daddy Nostalgie lay in the script by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan. O’Hagan and Tavernier were married from 1965 to 1980, but continued to work on films such as Round Midnight (1986) and La Passion De Beatrice (Beatrice, 1987). Born in England to an Irish mother and French-Spanish father, her background informs characters who slip with ease between different cultures and languages, but are not very good at communicating with those closest to them. John Gielgud, who had played a lion in winter type in Alain Resnais’ Providence (1977), opposite Bogarde, was originally considered for the lead.
Like Un dimanche à la campagne (A Sunday in The Country, 1984) which O’Hagan also wrote, Daddy Nostalgie centres on a family visit where much happens, but what does is irrevocable and revelatory. Caroline (Jane Birkin), a screenwriter, travels from London to stay with her father, Tom (Bogarde) and mother Miche (Odette Laure), at their modest home in the South of France. Tom is recovering from heart surgery, but is still keen to sneak in the pleasures of good food, sun and sea and his favourite bar. His once glamorous marriage to Miche has soured. Miche has her own set of friends, whom Tom avoids or disdains, and seeks solace in traditional Catholicism. While healthy and chic in appearance, Miche seems parochial, over-protective and humourless. Caroline, with her film writing and shared custody of a young son with an ex-husband in the UK, is now the centre of Tom’s attention.
Yet time is moving relentlessly for all three characters. Caroline will have to return to England to look after her son and resume her career. Tom’s bonhomie will be consumed by his failing health and Miche, all too conscious of how she and her husband have drifted apart, will soon be alone and grieving. Where there is possibility for this family is in the idea of a limitless present, where simple moments of connection fleetingly transcend an endpoint common to all of us.
Bogarde was not oblivious to how the film would be read as a final statement (he did last minute rewriting of his dialogue for a key cafe scene with Birkin). However, he was still in good health when the film was shot and would remain so until 1996, when a stroke forced him to return to England, where he lived with a carer until his death in 1999. Yet such is the perfect pitch of Bogarde’s performance, it is hard not to see him as Tom, an ex-businessman who escaped the banality of Home Counties suburbia by marrying a French woman only to find a different kind of disappointment; albeit one limned with self-awareness.
The performances of Birkin and Laure are also carefully modulated. While Birkin’s Caroline aligns with her father in battling off Miche’s prickliness, it becomes clear she has her own resentments. Similarly, Miche’s estrangement from husband, as portrayed by Laure, known primarily as a popular singer, obscures a deeper sense of regret and awareness of things to come.
Like Bogarde, Bertrand Tavernier spent much of his career as someone who refuses to be easily categorised. As a critic and publicist turned director, he shares a cineaste pedigree with New Wave directors like Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and Chabrol, but his work is not overtly autobiographical, self-reflexive or preoccupied with film style. While he has a fondness for long takes or wide-screen compositions – subtly deployed in Daddy Nostalgie to underscore how husband, wife and daughter have grown apart yet are inexorably connected – this preference is never as self-conscious as Robert Altman’s ubiquitous zooms. His ethos is closer, as he revealed in My Journey Through the French Cinema (2016), to that of Marcel Carne and Jacques Becker, both very much out of fashion when the New Wave hit, and the traditionalism of the “well-made film”.
By not allowing latent auteurist impulses to interfere with his direction, Tavernier avoids the trap of Daddy Nostalgie just being a film about any one thing – old age, death or family dysfunction. It is certainly about these and many other concerns, but there is no easy nostalgia here. Nor is its vision of life as unremittingly bleak as Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012). The great accomplishment of Daddy Nostalgie is that it immerses us in the preciousness of seemingly mundane activities – a morning stroll, sunning on the patio, meals or a conversation in a bar or cafe – and their evocation of not just memories, but also the beauty of a singular present. In one such suspended moment, Tom tells his daughter “We have a great talent for life you and I. Don’t waste it.” In this seemingly artless exchange, in a film that feels anything but, Bogarde, Tavernier, O’Hagan, et al. will touch the hearts of many viewers.
Daddy Nostalgie (Daddy Nostalgia, UK title: These Foolish Things, 1990, France, 105 Mins) Prod Co: Cléa Productions Prod: Adolphe Viezzi Dir: Bertrand Tavernier Scr: Colo Tavernier O’Hagan, Bertrand Tavernier Phot: Denis Lenoir Ed: Ariane Boeglin Music: Antonie Duhamel Prod Des: Jean-Louis Povéda
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Jane Birkin, Odette Laure, Emanuelle Bataille, Charlotte Kady, Michelle Minns, Sophie Delazio, Hélène Lefumat