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Those who noticed Claude Berri’s debut feature film, the modest black white production Le Vieil Homme et L’Enfant/The Two of Us way back in 1967 could hardly have anticipated that its director would, in a career that lasted over forty years, become one of the titans of French film production and a film-maker who would draw tributes from the President of the Republic down when his sudden death from a stroke was reported on Monday 12 January, writes Geoff Gardner.

Claude Berri won an Oscar for his short Le Poulet in 1966 and was nominated twelve times, without ever winning, for France’s Cesar. He was a writer, director and actor of great ability and he spent his lifetime deeply involved in all aspects of French film production.

For the next decade or so after his debut he was a moderately successful director of mostly warn human comedies, often with an autobiographical element, only a few of which travelled even to art house audiences outside France. Then in the mid-80s he delivered two stunning movies Jean De Florette and Manon des Sources and, following phenomenal success in France, they went on to become world-wide mega hits. They were based on novels and films made in the 30s by the great Marcel Pagnol and were solid, deeply emotional dramas set in the lush environs of rural Provence. Berri used some of France’s best actors to bring his stories to life. Screen icons Yves Montand and Gerard Depardieu were joined by relative newcomers but future stars Emanuelle Beart and Daniel Auteuil in heartbreaking stories of greed and venality triumphing over goodness. Audiences loved them and some have gone so far as to say that the films alone reinvented provincial France as a destination for tourists, visitors and second home buyers.

"early success"

From the start Berri was also an active producer of other director’s films and early on he backed films by directors as diverse as Maurice Pialat, Serge Gainsbourg, Claude Sautet and Patrice Chereau. His biggest early success came when he backed Roman Polanski’s Tess in 1979 and found himself with his first huge international hit. He continued to plough his earnings into production all his life and had a series of domestic and occasionally international hits scattered throughout the next twenty years or so of his career.

His company Renn Productions became a major player in French and European production. Following the success of Provence diptych he sought to become a heavyweight international producer as well and backed two big scale movies made by Jean-Jacques Annaud in the 80’s The Lover and The Bear as well as the French language blockbusters Germinal, Uranus and Lucie Aubrac. During this time he continued to produce small scale films as well including Jacques Demy’s 3 Places for le 26 and Claude Miller’s The Little Thief. He had huge domestic box office hits with a couple of star-laden Asterix movies.

Berri’s Renn Productions became a part of the Pathe empire in the 1990s but it does not seem to have deterred him from making both small and large pictures that were aimed squarely at middle class tastes. The last two films listed as his own productions were the hugely successful Welcome to the Sticks and the highly regarded and much lauded The Secret of the Grain. In those two films you can sense many of the impulses behind his career – a desire to please and make people laugh and a desire to encourage young, and occasionally unorthodox talent. All told he directed twenty films himself and produced over fifty. He was directing a new film, Le Tresor, at the time of his death.

It may be a bold stretch to say, as did the former director of the Festival de Cannes, Gilles Jacob, that with his passing, French cinema is now an orphan but it is true to say that the cinema needs producers who love making movies, love finding new talent, love pleasing audiences and who plough their success back into making more. Without film-makers of Claude Berri’s sensibility and ambition the cinema would be a poorer, less adventurous place.

Published January 22, 2009

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Claude Berri
July 1, 1934 – January 12, 2009, age 74

Jean De Florette

Lucie Aubrac

The Secret of the Grain

Welcome to the Sticks

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