None but the French have swum so easily in the rude and mysterious currents of American culture. They found philosophy in our comic strips, published our expatriate novelists, embraced Hollywood movies and dubbed their directors "auteurs." And when the pioneers of bebop pushed jazz away from melody and into the ionosphere of improvisation, French intellectuals were happy to welcome these black American outlaws to Paris after World War II. Bud Powell, the pathfinding bop pianist, settled there in the '50s, made friends and musical history and went a little crazy. Dexter Gordon, a crucial link in tenor-sax bop between Lester Young and John Coltrane, spent some time on the Left Bank as well. Now Gordon, 63, returns to play an American jazzman in Paris whose resume blends incidents from his, Powell's and Young's lives.
By the time Dale Turner (Gordon) gets to Paris to play an open-ended gig at the Blue Note in 1959, he is both a bop legend and a physical wreck. Too much booze and junk, so much energy spent to expand the boundaries of jazz. "Oh, yes, I'm tired," Dale croaks in his slow, reedy tones. "Of everything except the music." Francis (Francois Cluzet), a commercial illustrator who worships Turner's artistry, wants to change that. The mousy Frenchman is thrilled to be spoken to, listened to, used by his idol. He will manage Turner's life and finances, fight to free Turner from the embrace of asylums, badger his ex-wife for money to support the musician, leave his young daughter at home alone till dawn so he can listen to an old master in a smoky nightclub. For the French, love is l'amour fou. Francis is wise enough to love Turner and mad enough to let this parasitic devotion rule his life.
It is a poignant and beguiling love story. For Turner gradually comes to appreciate Francis' obsessive affection. His sets are going great (and the film is full of good jazz played by such stalwarts as Herbie Hancock, Billy Higgins and Wayne Shorter). He is pleased to swap solos and memories with an old-flame vocalist (the wondrous Lonette McKee) whose love still shines in her eyes. He swears off alcohol and becomes an odd-couple chum of Francis' daughter's; he even attends the girl's birthday party with Francis' parents in Normandy. Still, Turner will always be a foreigner everywhere but inside his music. Paris may be a "very pretty town," but "happiness is a warm, wet Rico reed." The man has to go home to die.
"You just don't go out and pick a style off a tree one day," Turner tells Francis. "The tree's growing inside you, naturally." Tavernier has dared to find his new film's style in the cool, dark colors and loping harmonics of bebop, and especially in the laconic tempo of Gordon's speech and walk. Gordon, whose only previous movie gig was a stroll-on in the 1955 melodrama Unchained, commands the screen with the dignity of an exhausted emperor. He mines humor from his fastidious diction, has a ponderous grace and takes pauses that could drive Pinter nuts with impatience. No trained actor could have delivered this performance. For it is not so much a performance as an inspired riff on the theme of native sons abroad, talking to each other in a language they are creating, on the fly, with each new blue note.