It’s tempting to say that Bertrand Tavernier’s 3-hour-and-15-minute documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” is a feast for everybody who loves classic Gallic movies. This is certainly true. But it’s also a movie for people who just plain love movies – from anywhere. Plus, it’s a great introduction to French cinema for all those who have yet to make its acquaintance. Have I left anybody out?
Tavernier is a celebrated film director in his own right (“The Clockmaker of St. Paul”), but before he was a filmmaker, he was a critic and publicist. Before that, he was a wide-eyed child marveling at the images he saw on the screen in Parisian neighborhood theaters. He says in the film, which he narrates, that watching his first movie reminded him of how joyous he felt at age 3 seeing the torches in the streets announcing the end of World War II.
The documentary covers mostly films from the 1930s through the ’70s, and the hundreds of clips, archival interviews, and stills are highly idiosyncratic. This is, after all, a personal journey. He makes no pretense to cover everything. How could he?
Still, there are major gaps along the way: Very little attention is devoted to, for example, Robert Bresson (“Diary of a Country Priest”), Jean Cocteau (“Orpheus”), Max Ophüls (“The Earrings of Madame De...”), and many other masters. (He has said he will make a second installment.) On the other hand, Tavernier confers quality screen time on such relatively obscure directors as Gilles Grangier and Jean Delannoy, the implication, of course, being that they, too, deserve their place in the pantheon.
As is true of most French cineastes, especially those who started out as critics, Tavernier is biased in favor of the auteur theory, which maintains that the director is the primary author of a movie. But he is not doctrinaire about this. He singles out a great screenwriter like Jacques Prévert, who worked with Jean Renoir (“The Crime of Monsieur Lange”) and Marcel Carné (“Children of Paradise”) among others. One of the most revivifying aspects of “My Journey” is how much time Tavernier devotes to such great French film composers as Joseph Kosma (“Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game,” both directed by Renoir) and Maurice Jaubert (Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” and Carné’s “Port of Shadows”). Jaubert’s scores are inseparable from the poetic mood of those masterpieces. He died young, leaving behind a vast array of music, some of it, according to Tavernier, still unrecorded. What treasures lie in wait?
Tavernier worked as a publicist for Claude Sautet and Jean-Pierre Melville, and so we get many behind-the-scenes anecdotes about them, as well as a wealth of clips, some of them from films even film critics may find obscure. (The documentary made me wish for a parallel retrospective of some of the rarities.) He pays homage to Jacques Becker, a highly versatile film artist in whose films, says Tavernier, “the formal and visual command never interferes with emotion.” He analyzes how French gangster films, even though many of them were modeled on hard-boiled Hollywood movies, often inserted sequences that were inimitably “French” – such as the moment in Becker’s “Touchez pas au grisbi” where we see tough guy Jean Gabin brushing his teeth in his pajamas.
Tavernier doesn’t dwell unduly on the celebrated critics-turned-directors of the French New Wave such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut who arose in the late 1950s and early ’60s. If he had, he might have had to reckon with the antagonism, in most cases unwarranted, that these Young Turks, as critics, showed toward so many of the “classic” directors (such as Carné) that Tavernier admires.
One puzzling aspect of “My Journey” is its treatment of Renoir, whom Tavernier idolizes as an artist but not so much as a man. Renoir, the son of the iconic painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is for me one of the three or four greatest directors of all time, and Tavernier, who likely agrees, nevertheless goes out of his way to present vilifying evidence of Renoir’s character, much of it, it seems to me, unfairly drawn. Renoir’s sporadic coziness with the Vichy government is trotted out, and Gabin is quoted as saying of Renoir, “As a director, Renoir was a genius. As a person, he was a whore.” Apparently there were those in France unwilling to forgive the director, who was severely wounded fighting for France in World War I, for decamping to Hollywood during World War II and taking out dual French-US citizenship.
To which I can only say, “Tant pis” – that’s tough. Grade: B+ (This movie is not rated.)