This 1974 film, part character study / part crime drama film and directed by Bertrand Tavernier is based on the novel L'Horloger d'Everton by Georges Simenon. The film won the Silver Bear – (Special Jury Prize) at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The story essentially draws us into the world of a middle-aged man who finds himself in the middle of a police investigation and its attendant media circus.
Bernard Tavernier, an ex-film critic who became a founding member of the French New Wave movement, collaborated with screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost to adapt Georges Simenon's novel to the screen. Tavernier preferred the pre-war style of filmmaking, with its more directly narrative style.
The Clockmaker takes its time with the story – there's some mystery involved, but the film unfolds in a completely naturalistic way, chronicling Michel's actions in the days after the murder with little dramatic manipulation or compression. It feels very authentic – almost verite or documentary in mood. This quiet, intimate approach is what gives The Clockmaker much of its power—it recognizes that life-changing events often happen moment by moment, rather than in the artificially structured manner demanded by fiction.
The dialogue even comments on the gaps between "movie reality" and reality on several occasions, and Tavernier's film is careful to maintain a cinéma vérité feel. (This is not to suggest that film has a low-budget or documentary style—excellent cinematography and careful, almost geometric composition provide evidence of the director's hand at work, particularly in a Lynchian opening shot of an automobile burning ferociously in the night.)
Philippe Noiret contributes another strong performance to the New-Wave cinema, and he does it in such a transparent way that he scarcely seems to be acting. He communicates his feelings mostly through his actions, gestures, and his hangdog expression. Noiret was Tavernier’s favorite actor and the two has a long association, this the first of a dozen films he made with Bertrand Tavernier, who called Noiret "my autobiographical actor" because they both espoused the same perception of "realism".
Noiret's Michel makes his decisions privately, but the thought process is very visible onscreen—whenever he so much as brushes a hand across his forehead, we know exactly what he's feeling. His performance is a critical element of the film—we never even meet many of the characters who are mentioned or glimpsed in photographs, and the story is carried on Noiret's shoulders.
Jean Rochefort also contributes an effective, credible performance as Inspector Guilboud, a bureaucratic but human official. In the 1970s, Rochefort's reputation as a comedy star of sex farces and black comedies was firmly established, culminating with his classic role in Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974),
There's a political subtext to the film—Bernard's alleged victim is a hated factory supervisor, an authoritarian lecher who uses his power to harass the working girls and fight the union, and we learn that Michel himself has a history of resisting abusive authority. But The Clockmaker is not a political film—the political discussions and opinions voiced by its characters lend texture and realism to the story, but have little to do with its intended message. It is a portrait of one man's relationship with his son, and the potential for redemption in time of crisis. It's intimate, touching and thoroughly credible.
Bertrand Tavernier’s films have been paid little attention by the more important contemporary film critics/theorists: his work is resolutely ‘realist’. Through all his films, certainly, the bourgeoisie ‘talks to itself’ but the voice that articulates is never reassuring, and bourgeois institutions and assumptions are everywhere rendered visible and opened to question. Tavernier’s protagonists are always bourgeois: troubled, questioning, caught up in social institutions but not necessarily rendered impotent by them, capable of growth and awareness. His early work was dominated by mysteries, but his later work is characterized by a more overt social commentary, highlighting his left-wing political views and presenting a critical picture of contemporary French society.
‘The Clockmaker’ is a very intimate film, low key in its delivery but nevertheless touching and powerful. It was a very worthy debut film for Tavenier.