The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul (L'horloger de Saint-Paul) Review

Lyons. Michel Descombes (Bertrand Tavernier) is a watchmaker who lives alone with his teenage son Bernard (Sylvain Rougerie). Then one day the police visit. Bernard has been arrested for killing a man. Inspector Guilboud (Jean Rochefort) is in charge of the case. Michel is forced to re-examine his own life and his relationship with his son.

One of the anomalies of DVD distribution, at least in the UK, is how some directors are over-represented in the format and others are hard to find. That’s nothing to do with their reputation, certainly not so in the case of Bertrand Tavernier. Out of nineteen cinema fictional features up to 2004’s Holy Lola, six have not had British cinema distribution, and one of those six was released on VHS. For a decade and a half, the Eighties and half of the Nineties, Tavernier was a regular visit to British arthouses, with only 1987’s atypically dark, brutal medieval drama La Passion Béatrice failing to obtain a commercial release. Although his work is available on DVD in France – though mostly not in English-friendly editions – the only Tavernier DVD available here until recently was Artificial Eye’s release of Laissez-Passer. Optimum have now released five of Tavernier’s features but let’s hope there will be more, not least while some of Tavernier’s finest work, such as Une semaine de vacances and Sunday in the Country, remain absent on DVD.

Bertrand Tavernier was a late starter as a director. Born in 1941 in Lyon, he made two shorts in 1964 but was not happy with them, feeling he needed more maturity and life experience before going any further. Throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, he worked as a critic and a press agent. Although associated with the New Wave in the latter capacity, his work harks back to classical styles of filmmaking. Tavernier is very much a humanist (though he has his darker, more cynical side), and his films tend to be interested in the workings of character than of plot. He does work within recognisable genres most of the time, but he often turns them into character studies.

So it is with his debut feature, adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon. It was also typical of Tavernier’s affiliation with an older style of French filmmaking that he hired veteran screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost to work on the screenplay. Watchmaker is not a whodunnit: there’s no doubt that Bernard did commit the crime he was arrested for. The story is Michel’s attempts to understand why Bernard did it. He meets work colleagues of Bernard and also of Liliane (Christine Pascal) and discovers what may have happened between the dead man and the latter. Also, Michel and the Inspector find a common bond, two lonely and unhappy men finding each other, and the film becomes a meditation on the lack of understanding between generations.

Philippe Noiret accepted the role of Michel against the advice of his agent, who was unhappy about him working with a first-time director. Noiret gives a commanding performance, and this began a regular collaboration with Tavernier over eight films up to 1994’s D’Artagnan’s Daughter. (Noiret died in 2006.) Never classically handsome, more hangdog and lugubrious in features, Noiret was still an actor capable of considerable sensitivity and versatility, and some of his work for Tavernier ranks amongst his finest. He would reprise the character in 1980’s Une semaine de vacances.

Watchmaker is a confident first feature, its use of Lyon as a setting giving it some of its freshness. The film is helped by the work of two other men who would become regular Tavernier collaborators: composer Philippe Sarde and DP Pierre William Glenn. Anyone expecting a thriller may find it a little too slow-burning, but as a character piece it’s absorbing. Watchmaker won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and the Prix Louis Delluc, and did well on arthouse release in the UK. Tavernier became a director to look out for, but his next three features did not gain British cinema distribution. He returned in 1980 to Lyon for the film which would establish his reputation, Une semaine de vacances.


The Watchmaker of Saint-Paul is one of five Tavernier films released by Optimum. It consists of a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. At the time of writing, the five DVDs are only available separately, not as a box set.

The DVD is transferred in its original ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It’s a very good transfer, faithful to the 70s Eastmancolor look of the film. Skin tones are accurate, colours vibrant where they need to be (though mostly muted) and blacks solid.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and nothing much need be said. Dialogue is clear, and Sarde’s music sounds just fine. Subtitles are optional, if your French is up to the task. There are only eight chapter stops, which is somewhat ungenerous.

Tavernier supplies both a commentary and an introduction. The latter is in two parts, filmed recently with an offscreen interviewer (Geoffrey Macnab, not credited on the disc). The first part of the interview (about fourteen minutes) is common to all five discs, where Tavernier discusses the beginning of his career up to the making of his first feature. Skip forward to the second chapter and you reach the second part, which is specific to the particular film on the DVD. There’s much of interest here, though Tavernier has a tendency to ramble. He’s much more focussed on his commentary. In both cases he speaks in English. There are no subtitles for this, which may be problematic if you find Tavernier’s accent hard going.

The remaining extra is the theatrical trailer.

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out of 10

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