He was a friend, a brother, a father. I owe everything to him. And now, overcome with sorrow, I don’t know how to speak about him. I must cry out my remembrance. It was his fidelity to his word, his sense of honor, that allowed me to make The Clockmaker (1974), even though the script had been rejected by practically all of the producers and distributors in Paris. For more than 18 months, as I was turned away and humiliated, he supported me, stayed in my corner, never retracting his commitment. Yet I had never made a film before, and if he had quit the ship, I wouldn’t be here today.
And then, some months later, when I was able to make the film and we were shooting in Lyon, he said to me, “It’s funny, I’m in many first films but never any second ones.” And I replied, “How much would you like to bet, Philippe, that you’ll be in my second film?” It was Que la Fête Commence.
We never parted. We shared everything — our passions, our uncontrollable laughter, our anger, our likes and dislikes. We were two emotionally maladroit provincials (I more than him), curious, open. We communicated obliquely, by allusions, anecdotes and knowing glances. When, at the end of a take, I said, “Cut,” he’d look in my direction, and before I could give an opinion, he’d say, “Tonton, let’s do that again.” He was so much a part of my life that I would show him the scripts and first assemblies of films he wasn’t even acting in. I needed his counsel, his friendship, much as I did with Claude Sautet.
He was a very generous actor who loved his co-stars. I saw him express his admiration for Michel Galabru in The Judge and the Assassin, for Isabelle Huppert and Eddy Mitchell in Coup de Torchon. For François Perrot and Sabine Azéma in Life and Nothing But. For Jean Rochefort as early as La Porteuse de Pain. And for Claude Rich and Jean Vilar and Gérard Philipe. Listening to him talk of the old days, of Hitchcock and Gary Cooper, flooded you with warmth. He loved to love, and his admirations were contagious. You got the sense that they fortified him. We were always talking about the breadth of our admirations — for Gary Cooper, who we both wished we had known, for Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Mario Monicelli, Marcello Mastroianni and Marco Ferreri
He taught me so much, made me discover authors, painters — a certain art of living, with elegance and discretion. He gave me a sense of actors and showed me that one could be exacting and passionate while remaining pleasant and gentle.
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He had this extraordinary politesse that made it seem as though everything came easily to him. He would pretend that he didn’t know which scene we were about to shoot, that he had to go read the script even though he already knew it by heart. Such modesty. No entourage, no time spent getting into character. Like his friend Mastroianni, he never needed anything. He was nourished by the warmth of making a film and of the crew, mingling with the technicians, watching, learning. My production company, Little Bear, made two of his last films, Father and Son and Edy, and my associate Frédéric Bourboulon tells the story that during the shooting of the first, on a small out-of-the-way street, during a break between scenes, believing himself to be alone, Philippe raised his arms to the sky and shouted out, “This is why I am glad to be making movies!” He was then surprised to see Fred watching him and gave a small, embarrassed smile.
I shared his engagements, his quests. I was at his side, in Verdun, during the filming of Life and Nothing But, when he was trying to comprehend what had been the actual experiences of his own father, as he trod in his footsteps. He was wedded to my struggle to make the film, even agreeing (along with Sabine Azema) to give up half his usual salary. And it’s the film he chose to screen when, in 2000, the Cannes Film Festival presented him with a tribute. He seemed to be one with the anger, the sense of duty and the subtle cracks in Major Delaplane, that profoundly republican officer (“Senator de Courteil has a terrifying idea of the Republic” — that line, written by Jean Cosmos, gives me the shivers each time I hear it), that man of another time (as he describes himself, adding “1913” because, in four years, a whole world had disappeared). A man who writes to the woman he loves: “I will wait for you, but not more than 100 years, maybe 101.”
Now I am the one who must wait. Will I be able to wait 100 years?
Award-winning French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier directed eight films starring Philippe Noiret, including The Clockmaker, Life and Nothing But and D’Artagnan’s Daughter.