Film

Tavernier’s “My Journey Through French Cinema” Is More an Idyl Than a Crash Course

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The key word in the title is My. Bertrand Tavernier’s three-hours-and-change film-essay is not a history lesson. It’s an invitation to take the seat next to a renowned director as he shares the movies that mean something to him.

We begin in Tavernier’s childhood, during the war. In Lyon, his father, publisher René Tavernier, hides refugees in the family home. We conclude just as he is about to graduate from his position as Rome-Paris Films’ press liaison to become a director in his own right. That journey is inexorably linked with the films he watched along the way.

Tavernier’s most notable hit in the United States is probably 1986’s ‘Round Midnight, which features an amusing cameo from Martin Scorsese as a scuzzy nightclub manager. Scorsese helped paved the way for this type of film with his 1990s explorations of American and Italian cinema. Both directors have a similar origin story: They were sickly kids (Tavernier even spending years in a sanatorium) who had their minds expanded at the movies.

Tavernier’s approach is more relaxed than Scorsese’s. He isn’t interested in delineating historical context. There are other places to learn the ins and outs of the post-Vichy collaborator purges in the French film industry, or why Cinémathèque co-founder Henri Langlois got sacked in 1968. Tavernier would rather share anecdotes about actors, directors and composers, nipping around the edges of his subject.

This leads to his film’s principal frustration, which takes about an hour to reveal itself. There seems to be no larger point. I’m not sure “isn’t this great?” passes muster as a thesis. There are fascinating observations at every turn, some of them specific, such as examinations of how music in French movies differs from that of their Hollywood counterparts, or how even the most basic film grammar, the shot–reverse shot, can exude elegance when crafted by a master. But it all unspools in such a way that, if the reels got mixed up, it probably wouldn’t matter.

The first movie Tavernier ever saw was Jacques Becker’s Dernier Atout (The Trump Card), and he presents Becker as something of a quintessential film artist. He then free-associates his way to discussing actor Jean Gabin (making a case for his later work, which some have shrugged off), directors Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, composers Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma, and the B-pictures of actor Eddie Constantine. As with any movie that depends on clips from older films, the emotional impact here is somewhat dependent on your own prior knowledge of the material. It’s not like you need to have seen Le Trou or Rules of the Game to get what Tavernier is talking about, but the familiarity certainly doesn’t hurt.

The second half is far juicier, representing as it does Tavernier’s years working as an assistant for Jean-Pierre Melville, that larger-than-life figure in trench coat, sunglasses and tan fedora. Tavernier has something of a mixed opinion; audio of an argument between Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo puts Christian Bale’s on-set ranting to shame. Toward the end we finally get to Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and the films of the Nouvelle Vague, a term Tavernier never uses. The last section is devoted to Claude Sautet, a somewhat overlooked director whom Tavernier has been championing in essays for decades.

Tavernier was on the set of Contempt the day that producer Carlo Ponti demanded Brigitte Bardot appear nude, and he was the one who brought Samuel Fuller to the set of Pierrot Le Fou. Perhaps it is a tribute to the freewheeling editing style of that era, but by this late stage of his journey Tavernier is no longer speaking to us from an editing suite; rather, he’s in a library with a man in half-profile who is never introduced. (I am fairly certain it is Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux, but why ruin the mystery?) When someone with this level of insight and a vast trove of material wants to share, I can hardly fault anyone for wanting to sit at his feet to listen. And watch.

My Journey Through French Cinema
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Cohen Media Group
Opens June 23, Quad Cinema

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