In 1986, director Bertrand Tavernier turned his attention to… the growth of jazz in 1950s France, courtesy of black American expatriates? An odd choice for the director of Coup de torchon — and featuring Martin Scorsese in a supporting role no less — but Tavernier could write his own ticket at the time, and write it he did.
The story is as threadbare as something that might have been conceived over bottomless goblets of wine at 3am in a smoke-filled Montmartre jazz club. Francis Borler (François Cluzet) is absolutely obsessed with sax player Dale Turner (real-lilfe musician Dexter Gordon), to the point where he leaves his pre-teen daughter at home and spends his nights sitting outside clubs in the rain while Dale plays his sax inside.
But Dale is pretty far gone, ravaged by alcoholism and pulling himself up every night, he seems, for what might be his last trip to the stage. Dale and Francis meet in the rain, and Francis brings him home, where Francis’s eerily silent and grown-up daughter Berangere (Gabrielle Haker) sits quietly in wait, keeping the place as tidy as she can. (Haker would never make another film, and it’s a shame; she could have had a great career in psychological thrillers of her, with her wide-open, unblinking eyes and odd face.) Dale moves in, so Francis can keep this genius dried out. Ultimately the film becomes a study of a sort of detente among Francis, Dale, and Dale’s alcoholism. How will it end?
In the second hour of the film, the jazzy mood and jazzy songs (Herbie Hancock won an Oscar for his score) begin to lose some of their ability to carry the film. How much you end up enjoying ‘Round Midnight will likely depend on how much you like jazz being played while the camera pans around empty apartments and dirty dishes and how much you enjoy montages of Francis searching hospitals for his off-the-wagon friend. Both consume copious amounts of screen time until the film abruptly jumps to New York, with Dale and Francis palling around with the aforementioned Scorsese before parting ways and, well, that’s that.
You may feel a little cheated by the lack of a real story here, but Tavernier may have been on to something: He’s not just writing about a dying old man, he’s writing about jazz. By the 1980s the genre had been thoroughly wrecked by ‘modern’ interpretations, but Tavernier (owing a huge debt to Hancock) brings it back to its roots, at least as far as Paris is concerned. In a jazz club, a song isn’t over until the bandleader holds up his hand to signal to stop playing and, just as the story of Dale Turner tells us, that’s that.