JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA
(Voyage à travers le cinéma français) B
France (195 mi) 2016 d: Bertrand Tavernier
Born in Lyon, home of Lumière’s first studio that is considered the birthplace of film, so Bertrand Tavernier, director of such diverse films as A SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY (1984) and ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT (1986), feels an inherited birthright to preserve what survives of French film. Given the best of a postwar education, Tavernier is the son of a Resistance fighter René Tavernier who provided shelter to French communist poet Louis Aragon during the occupation, a patriot whose writings and moral outlook helped shape his view as an artist, as his father believed words were “as important and lethal as bullets.” Accordingly, Tavernier devoured French films as a child, deciding at the age of fourteen that he wanted to direct, keeping a scrapbook of cinema memorabilia for his favorite films and directors, developing a lifelong obsession for French film’s place in history, which this film lovingly examines over the course of more than three hours, exploring directors, composers, and actors, providing a treasure-trove of clips while offering his own unique commentary. This is a whirlwind project that may only just be the tip of the iceberg, as Tavernier plans an additional 8-hour television series that delves into Tati, Bresson, Pagnol, Ditri, Clouzeau, French cinema during the occupation, foreigners working in French cinema, forgotten people like Raymond Bernard, Maurice Turner, or Anatole Litvak, and lesser known women or underrated directors, including an additional 40-minutes on Julien Duvivier, one of his personal favorites. So consider this a Master class on French films, perhaps a parallel work to Godard’s HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÈMA (1989) or Scorsese’s A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH MARTIN SCORSESE THROUGH AMERICAN FILMS (1995), but viewed through the gentle refinement of a man of letters, as Tavernier has been described as “a warm and gregarious man with an encyclopedic knowledge of American and international film,” who has worked within the industry his entire life and currently serves as the president of the Institute Lumière in Lyon, while Cannes Festival director Thierry Frémaux, a graduate of the university, is also its director, where the primary goal is preserving French films. As a law student who preferred to write film criticism, Tavernier founded his own cinema magazine L’Etrave, worked as an assistant director with Jean-Pierre Melville, and got a job as a press agent to help usher in the French New Wave, so it appears there is no one better to provide a bridge between the past and the present for modern day viewers.
One of Tavernier’s earliest memories at the age of four is looking out the window and seeing bombs flashing in the sky, which he feels is reminiscent of a similar feeling he gets when stepping into a movie theater, where in a darkened theater a projector illuminates images that bombard his imagination. At about the age of six, he was sent to a sanitarium where he was bedridden while treated for a misalignment of his eyes probably due to tuberculosis, very possibly caused by malnutrition due to wartime shortages. Once a week they showed films at the sanitarium, where the first film he recalls seeing is Dernier Atout (1942) by Jacques Becker, which left him deeply impressed, claiming Becker loved American films, particularly Ernst Lubitsch and Henry Hathaway, taking from them what he liked, in terms of rhythm and pace, keeping dialogue to a minimum, but making his films exclusively French. Offering clips from half a dozen of his films, many of which have recently been restored by Pathé and Gaumont, who funded the film, where mutual interests in this project collide, allowing Tavernier to take delight in some of his favorite scenes, pointing out Simone Signoret’s enthralling entrance to a dancehall in Casque d’Or (1952), seen later gunned down on the streets of Paris by Resistance informants in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969). The opening image of the film comes from Vigo’s L'Atalante (1934), one of the most enchanting films ever made, claiming the music composed by Maurice Jaubert gave the film a sublime lyrical quality, with Tavernier standing in front of the camera overlooking a beautiful pastoral view from his home, recalling his initial taste of cinema where he rarely left the screening rooms of Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque Française, taking it all in, where he still recalls taking to the streets in May ’68 to defend the proposed firing of Langlois by French culture minister André Malraux, but New Wave filmmakers protested, shutting down the Cannes Film Festival that year until he was reinstated to his position. Tavernier tries to restore the fallen reputation of Marcel Carné, claiming the man couldn’t write a screenplay, yet could direct masterpieces, holding a special affection for Hotel du Nord (1938), claiming it is years ahead of its time in depicting the working conditions of women, while making no moral judgments about prostitutes and homosexuals, instead showing them with a great degree of warmth, finding a common humanity.
Tavernier exalts in the films of Jean Renoir, while taking a look at actor Jean Gabin, who could do no wrong before the war, displaying his versatility in La Grande Illusion (1937), where he interrupts a vaudeville style performance by French prisoners in a German POW camp to announce a French victory at the epic battle of Verdun, a momentary glimmer of hope, where the entire group spontaneously bursts into singing “La Marseillaise,” but was later chastised for joining Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier in the United States while France was occupied, where Gabin wasn’t viewed the same upon his return, claiming he spent the war in Beverly Hills. While resurrecting interest in relative unknowns like Duvivier and Edmond T. Gréville, Tavernier’s insight into Melville is particularly noteworthy, having worked with him at Melville’s own Studio Jenner set, pointing out a familiar staircase used in several films, but also side doors and back alleys. Melville was known as a tyrant on the set, yet was never punctual himself, often appearing hours after the actors were scheduled to arrive, where Jean-Paul Belmondo goes into a incensed screaming rant on his obvious inconsideration of others on the set of Le Doulos (1963), yet Tavernier also exclaims the virtues of Melville, who loved American films as well, especially William Wyler, recalling a long tracking shot of Lino Ventura running down the street in Army of Shadows (1969), where he refuses to interject music, as American filmmakers would do, where instead all you can hear is the sound of his feet hitting the pavement, nothing else, in a style that more closely resembles Bresson. Tavernier apparently previewed a rough cut with American director Martin Scorsese, showing him scenes from Jean Delannoy’s Macao: LeEnfer du Jeu (1939), including a terrific tracking shot of a war between China and Japan, with the Japanese relentlessly bombing the city, shown through continual explosions, where houses are destroyed, but the shot ends on the legs of a beautiful woman mending her stockings in the midst of this mayhem. Scorsese reportedly stood up and exclaimed, “What a great shot! I want to see that film.” This reaction is precisely what the director is looking for, to reinstill enthusiasm for French films, both known and unknown, where he greatly admires Godard, Chabrol, and Varda, showing clips from Godard’s Contempt (1963), with the obligatory Brigitte Bardot nude scene (that is not a nude scene) demanded by the producers, but also Pierrot le Fou (1965), Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), holding a special place for Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution in Alphaville (1965), reminding one of the characters who breaks out into English, “Speak French. Nobody likes subtitles.” Chabrol is curiously described as “understood only by pharmacists and himself,” as if he’s some kind of danger to the status quo, but by the end, Tavernier is extolling the virtues of Claude Sautet, an author who also studied painting and sculpture before discovering a passion for cinema. By the end, Tavernier can be seen chatting with Thierry Frémaux, as both are intimately involved with preserving French films. A beautifully edited work, that includes inspirational clips from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), but also, oddly enough, an evaluation of French film composers, it continuously elicits a love for cinema through an appreciation for French culture, challenging our long-held perceptions with plenty of fresh new insights.