Claude Berri: Film director and screenwriterbest known for 'Jean de Florette' and 'Manon des Sources'

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The Independent Online

Claude Berri was a throwback: a film-maker who specialised in old-fashioned epics. He may have been a contemporary of French New Wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (who was his close friend), but his was not a cinema of shock tactics, polemics, or jump cuts. Especiallylater in his career, Berri tended to work on a very big canvas, albeit telling intimate stories. His movies were often period pieces heavily influenced by literature and painting. He was not railing against "le cinéma de papa" ("Dad's cinema" – Truffaut's term of disparagement for the old-fashioned style of film-making) and, as if to underline this point, he even made an autobiographical film in 1970 called Le Cinéma De Papa.

Berri's best-known films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both 1986), were shot in Provence on what was then the huge budget of $17m, and were a sensation both in France – where they out-performed Rambo and Raiders of the Lost Ark – and abroad. Based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol, they evoked an image of 1920s rural France that viewers found bothreassuring and compelling. To his detractors, these were examples of hidebound "heritage" cinema writ large – an equivalent to the Merchant-Ivory films being made in Britainin the same period. However, his studies of bickering peasants (played by such dominating screen personalities as Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu and Daniel Auteil) proved surprisingly accessible.

"If you dig down far enough, you reach the universal, the mythic. There we recognise human nature, which unfortunately, or fortunately, doesn't change," Berri reflected on why such diverse audiences seemed to relate so strongly to such closely focused and culturally specific films. Pagnol had once remarked that "there is no poetry outside of the commonplace." This was clearly an idea that Berri took to heart. It helped, too, that the two films were so exquisitely shot by Bruno Nuytten. The disputes over land and the back-breaking hardship of the peasants' lives could be forgotten as the films celebrated the changing seasons and showed off the landscapes to best effect. Tourists flocked to Provence in their wake.

The French were understandably hugely proud of Berri; President Sarkozy called him "the most legendary figure of French cinema". One reason he was so relished was that he never sold out to Hollywood. Hissubject matter, whether he was making movies about wartime resistance heroines (Lucie Aubrac, 1997) or huge Emile Zola adaptations (Germinal, 1993), was rooted in his homeland.A heavy-smoking, passionate and garrulous figure who loved art, he lived up to preconceptions of what one might expect a distinguished French film-maker to be.

Like Luc Besson (a very different kind of film-maker), Berri was an actor, writer and producer as well as a director. He had his own production company, Renn Films, and helped set up the distributor AMLF. He produced Tess (1979) for Roman Polanski, The Bear (1988) for Jean-Jacques Annaud and was closely involved, too, in the production of Milos Forman's Valmont (1989). His own filmography proved that it was possible to make films of scale in France without having to kowtow to the US studios.

He had a populist touch, too. He may have been best known internationally for "Florette" (as he called his twoPagnol adaptations) but he alsoproduced the "Astérix and Obélix" movies as well as last year's runaway French box-office hit, Welcome to the Sticks, a comedy about an urban sophisticate adrift in the netherland of northern France that was far removed from the world of Marcel Pagnol. Underlining his range, Berri also produced Couscous, one of 2007's best-reviewed art-house hits.

Berri felt that directors ought to have a taste of producing, if only to understand better the different facets of film-making. "Producing's interesting but fairly easy," he once said. "Directing is fascinating and harder." When I interviewed him at the timeof Lucie Aubrac, he suggested that staging elaborate crowd sequencesor big set-pieces – something at which he excelled – was really just a matter of logistics.

"To make a movie is like a military campaign, but I'm not alone," he said. "You have to have the right people. It's like being a cook. You give me onion, oil and vinegar. Then it's easy. If each department gives me the right thing I need, then it's easy." He dismissed the idea that the train explosion at the beginning of that movie had been a challenge to shoot. "You need money, yes, and eight cameras and a train. But it's not a problem. I can control that. It's much easier than the scene when Carole Bouquet has to cry. I cannot control whether I can do that."

Berri was born Claude Langmann in Paris in 1934, the son of a Polish Jewish father and a Romanian Jewish mother. (He later took his mother's maiden name as his surname, adding an "r", believing it was more memorable than Langmann.) His childhood was happy and relatively sheltered in spite of the war. His parents were furriers, a profession that he himself briefly entered in the late 1940s. As he told Shusha Guppy in a revealing interview in the late 1980s: "My father was a craftsman furrier, who specialised in mink tails. You had to match hundreds of tails to give the illusion of unity in a coat, which gave me a good apprenticeship in using nuances of colour and light."

As a 17-year-old, Berri took his first steps into acting. On stage, he was understudy to Clément Thierry fora production of Les Oeufs de l'Autruche. He played the role six times... and his father attended every performance. Early films roles included an uncredited walk-on part in Jacques Becker's Rue de l'Estrapade (1953) and a small part in Jean Renoir's French Can-Can (1954). Berri revered Renoir, the great humanist of French cinema, oncecalling him "the most important influence in my life." Berri's autobiographical early feature Le Viel Homme et l'enfant (The Two of Us, 1967), about the friendship between a young Jewish boy and an anti-semitic old man, starred one of Renoir's favourite actors, Michel Simon (of Boudu Saved From Drowning fame.)

There were some odd turns along the way before Berri became established as a film-maker. He served in the army, doing his National Service in Morocco in the mid-1950s. At one stage, he even sold TV sets. It wasn't until the early 1960s that he began to direct short films. His career blossomed partly through chance. His short, Le Poulet, won an Oscar in 1965. It had been made in 1962, but had only surfaced in the US (and come under consideration for awards) some time later. With an academy award as a calling card, he was able to find financing for his early features.

His first films were on a far smaller scale than his subsequent movies. He wrote and directed as well as appeared in such movies as Marry Me, Marry Me (1968), The Man with Connections (1969), Le Cinéma De Papa and Sex Shop (1972). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he was prolific as both a director and as a producer. He made comedies, for example 1977's In a Wild Moment (which was remade by Stanley Donen as Blame It On Rio in 1984) and even film noir, the well-received Tchao Pantin (1983).

Truffaut had praised The Two of Us. "He helped me a lot, he encouragedme enormously," Berri said of the help Truffaut gave him early in his career. They stayed close friends and Berri was one of Truffaut's last visitors before his death in 1984. Both mined autobiographical themes in theirearly work, but the two directors now seem to belong to very differenttraditions. It's Berri's big-scale, heritage films that are likely to be remembered – Jean de Florette, Germinal etc, not his more personal work. He was midway through shooting Treasure, a new feature, and his 20th film as a director, at the time of his death. (The producers have said that the film will be completed.)

Several of Berri's family members have also been active in the filmbusiness. His son Julien Rassam, who died in 2002, was an actor. Another son, Thomas Langmann, is an actor and producer.

Geoffrey MacNab

Aside from his activities in the world of film, Berri was also an enthusiastic and significant collector of modern art, which he called his "second life", writes Marcus Williamson. He founded his collection of paintings in the early 1970s, buying a gouache by René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist. Berri was later introduced to contemporary American art and his documentary film made for French TV, Claude Berri meets Leo Castelli (1991), tells the story of the New York art dealer who became an adviser and friend.

Berri bought his first photographic artwork, a piece by Brassai depicting Parisian graffiti, in 1996. By 2005 he had decided to sell a portion of his large photo collection, which by that time included notable works by Man Ray, Hans Bellmer and Claude Cahun. The auction preview exhibition at Christie's, Paris, in November 2005, showed 123 photos and was one of the highlights of the season.

Last April saw the opening of the Espace Claude Berri, a gallery designed by the architect Jean Nouvel and located in the Marais area of Paris, close to the Pompidou centre. The gallery shows pictures from Berri's own collection as well as works by living contemporary French, American and Indian artists.

Claude Langmann (Claude Berri), film-maker: born Paris 1 July 1934; married Anne-Marie Rassam (died 1995; one son deceased, and one son); died Paris 12 January 2009.