The very sad news that Jean-Pierre Bacri died earlier this week at the age of 69 has resulted in a flood of tributes in France for this much-loved actor and screenwriter. Some have looked at the wide range of movies that he starred in, including Luc Besson’s Subway (1985), Cédric Klapisch’s Un Air de Famille (1996) and Alain Resnais’ On Connaît la Chanson (1997), not to mention the glorious series of films that he co-wrote and acted in with his one-time partner Agnès Jaoui.
I would like to focus on one of those collaborations with Jaoui, Le Goût des Autres (The Taste of Others, 1999), which she directed, and to recall an unforgettable evening I spent with the couple 20 years ago.
In 2000, during a sabbatical from my lecturing job in Cambridge, I spent much of my time in Paris as the only researcher in a small library working under the forbidding dual gaze of an austere librarian and the death mask of Blaise Pascal. Evening trips to the cinema were a much-needed antidote to my daytime rigor, and it was there that I discovered Le Goût des Autres. The humanity, humor and grace of Bacri’s performance as a nouveau-riche businessman whose life is changed by a visit to the theater entranced me immediately, and I returned to watch it at least five times during my Parisian sojourn.
One reason why Le Goût des Autres particularly appealed to me was the fact that the character played by Bacri was transformed by seeing Jean Racine’s Bérénice, perhaps my favorite 17th-century play. The subtle way Bacri and Jaoui managed to mirror one of the film’s major storylines – a woman (played by Jaoui) is caught between two men – with the plot of Bérénice – two men are in love with the central female character – only served to feed my passion for the movie.
Le Goût des Autres went on to win several Césars (the French Oscars), including Best Actor for Bacri and Best Film, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by the actual Oscars.
Soon after my return to Cambridge in the UK, I received a phone call from someone at the local arts cinema, who asked whether I might be willing not only to lead a question-and-answer session with Bacri and Jaoui after a screening of Le Goût des Autres but also to give them a brief tour of the sights of Cambridge before dining with them while the film was being shown to the audience. Trying desperately to maintain a professional demeanor and to conceal my excitement about the prospect of spending an evening with the stars and writers of the film that had been my obsession for the past few months, I replied that it would indeed be possible.
Just before leaving to meet Bacri and Jaoui, I hesitated over whether to take my camera with me (this was before the days of cellphone cameras) but decided against it for fear of appearing too eager. A few minutes later, instead of being the groupie taking photos of the stars, I found myself in the surreal position of being told by them to stand in front of various Cambridge landmarks while they took photos of me.
The dinner was a delight. Their intellectual curiosity and generosity of spirit made conversation with them effortless. When I asked them why they had chosen Bérénice (the title role of which is played in the film with wonderful grace by Anne Alvaro) as the focal point of the movie, Bacri explained that watching Alvaro in the theater had been one of the main inspirations for the film.
As we left the restaurant and walked toward the cinema for the start of the Q&A session, Bacri put his arm around my shoulder and said (I’ve never forgotten his words), “Tu me plais, toi. Ce n’est pas ce que tu es mais ce que tu n’es pas que j’aime vraiment. Tu n’as pas un certain cynisme.“ (I like you. It’s not what you are but what you are not that I really like – you aren’t cynical). Any nervousness I felt about leading the Q&A evaporated immediately.
Since then, I have followed their careers with added interest. While I bitterly regret the fact that I lost the piece of paper on which they had written their phone numbers, telling me to get in touch when I was next in Paris, that evening 20 years ago still remains fresh in my memory.
Bacri’s magnetic screen presence and genuine warmth as a person will be sorely missed.
Here are some highlights from his career: