Alain Corneau: Versatile film director who forged his reputation with a string of successful adaptations from novels
The French director Alain Corneau made 16 films in a variety of genres, from Série Noire, the bleak, sordid 1979 drama that featured a compelling performance by Patrick Dewaere as a door to door salesman looking for redemption in the wrong places, to Crime D'Amour [Love Crime], the psychological thriller starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier, which opened in French cinemas to critical acclaim a fortnight before his death from lung cancer. "He was a cinema great," Scott Thomas said, "an absolutely adorable, funny and sharp-witted man."
Corneau was best known internationally for Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All The Mornings Of The World), a delicate, painterly film about the relationship between the Versailles court composer Marin Marais – Gérard Depardieu and his son Guillaume – and his aesthetic teacher Jean de Sainte-Colombe, played by the ever-excellent Jean-Pierre Marielle.
First screened at the end of 1991, Tous Les Matins became a word-of-mouth success with over two million tickets sold in France alone, and won seven César awards, including Best Film and Best Director, the following year. "Many people got emotional about this picture, and that made it possible for it to escape cult status," said Corneau.
Tous Les Matins was released in over 30 countries and inspired a revival in French Baroque music and the viola da gamba, a bowed, fretted, stringed instrument which had been prevalent throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Jordi Savall, the Catalan musician who recorded the award-winning soundtrack with Le Concert Des Nations ensemble, recalled Corneau's constant presence in the studio, motivating and directing them, and displaying the same focus and determination as Sainte-Colombe.
Born in 1943 in a small town in the Loiret area of central France, he developed a passion for cinema when he began accompanying his father, who was a vet, to screenings in neighbouring Orléans. The proximity of a Nato air base helped feed his love of jazz and by the late 1950s he was drumming with a group entertaining officers and servicemen. His fascination for American culture was at the centre of Le Nouveau Monde, his 1995 autobiographical picture, and also informed Is There Jazz In Harlem?, the short film he made in New York in 1969 following his graduation from L'Institut Des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris.
After assisting Roger Corman on Istanbul, Mission Impossible (Target: Harry, 1969), he worked with Costa-Gavras on L'Aveu (The Confession, 1970) and struck up a friendship with the film's lead, the singer-turned-actor Yves Montand, who agreed to play the tough police inspector in the violent thriller Police Python 357, Corneau's second movie, in 1976. "He got me out of the jam I was in after the terrible failure of my first film, France Société Anonyme," said the director who worked with Montand again on two further polars – police dramas – La Menace (1977) and Le Choix Des Armes (Choice Of Arms, 1981). The latter also starred Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, who both signed up for Corneau's next project, the colonial epic Fort Saganne (1984) shot on location in Mauritania, which lived up to its extravagant budget and delivered big audiences despite its three-hour running time.
The quest for identity was one of Corneau's constants, developed most effectively in Nocturne Indien (1989), set in India and filmed in English, Le Prince Du Pacifique (2000) made on an island in French Polynesia, and Stupeur Et Tremblements (Fear And Trembling, 2003), shot in Paris in the phonetically-correct Japanese which actress Sylvie Testud learned in three months. After the melodrama Les Mots Bleus (Some Kind Of Blue, 2005), also with Testud, Corneau returned to the polar genre with Le Deuxième Souffle (The Second Wind, 2007), a reimagining rather than a remake of the José Giovanni noir novel first adapted by the influential Jean-Pierre Melville four decades earlier. Corneau's version featured Daniel Auteuil, Monica Bellucci and Eric Cantona.
The director attributed his versatility to the fact that most of his films were based on novels, such as A Hell Of A Woman by the US writer Jim Thompson in the case of Série Noire, or Tous Les Matins Du Monde by Pascal Quignard.
"I was lucky to be able to bring to fruition unlikely projects that were close to my heart like Nocturne Indien or Tous Les Matins Du Monde, which fulfilled my wish to make a film about Baroque music," Corneau told Le Figaro newspaper in August. "Some of my other films could have been better, but I avoid watching them."
Alain Corneau, film director: born Meung-sur-Loire, France 7 August 1943; died Paris 30 August 2010.
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