My Journey Through French Cinema

(Voyage à travers le cinéma français, Bertrand Tavernier, France, 2016)


Two important facts can be established at the outset about Bertrand Tavernier’s fond survey of French cinema. The first fact is declared in one English version of its title – it’s his journey, not an objective or purely scholarly overview. (The other version weakly announces this partiality and subjectivity: a journey.) The second fact can be furnished from numerous interviews given about the project: there is an eight-part TV series (taking the place of an originally envisaged two further feature films) to follow it up. These facts immediately set a limit to the amount of carping that any critic can make along the lines of ‘what about Ophüls/Tati/Pialat?’ or ‘where’s Darrieux/Moreau/Delon?’.


Tavernier fully exercises his right, as a respected filmmaker and erudite cinephile, to trace a line through the history of this national cinema on the basis of his personal experience. So we start with a childhood revelation of cinema’s power – in Dernier Atout (1942), a movie which, only decades later, Tavernier tracked down and realised was an early, dazzling effort by Jacques Becker. Once his voracious teenage viewing had changed locale from Lyon to Paris, Tavernier involved himself in writing criticism and programming a cinema, and then obtained various jobs within the film industry.


All this activity led to contacts with Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Sautet and less well-recognised figures including Edmond T. Gréville (who had a dual career in French and British cinema) and Jean Sacha. References to Tavernier’s own films are kept to a discreet minimum – and, in this, it is the polar opposite to Godard’s gloriously solipsistic Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998).


Although Tavernier, in interviews, plays down the association, it is hard not to bracket his journey with the well-known, equally extended documentary-essays by Martin Scorsese on American (1995) and Italian (1999) cinema. With one big difference that turns out to be Tavernier’s masterstroke: he almost never bothers to retell the plot of the films from which he extracts clips (there are around 600 in total). This allows him to move at great speed from one vivid highpoint to the next.




In a Sight and Sound poll of 1998, Tavernier made the stirring and provocative remark: “I don't much like these [canonical] lists: too many beautiful and important films are missing, and they leave out the texture, the richness and life of cinema by not including all those ‘imperfect’ films which are more meaningful and alive than frozen, dated ‘classics’.” He remains true to his word here: imperfect films are generously included in My Journey if they boast some fine moments or elements – and especially if they belong to a despised or underrated popular genre.


This is Tavernier’s cue to launch into, for example, an appreciative defense of Eddie Constantine’s screen career in action cinema of the 1950s and early ‘60s, before he was elevated to hyper-ironic/iconic status in art films by Godard and Fassbinder. Although Tavernier is often painted (especially by his detractors) as a conventionally classical aesthete, My Journey fully displays his taste for delirious inventiveness in cinema, and his predilection for what he calls “the modern”.


Tavernier, in fact, deploys an ingeniously indirect, sideways manoeuvre in order to fulfil the inevitable obligation to include certain, widely beloved classics. Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carné, for instance, are dovetailed into the lengthy appreciation of Jean Gabin’s career as an actor. Jean Vigo is there too, but less for himself than for his close collaboration with a special composer: Maurice Jaubert, whose work only became available on disc 35 years after his death, when François Truffaut had it re-recorded for use on his own soundtracks. (Other composers are also highlighted, such as Joseph Kosma and Antoine Duhamel.)


My Journey casts the history of French cinephilia in a sometimes unfamiliar light. “Contrary to the myth about cinephiles”, Tavernier declares of himself and his friends of the early ‘60s, “we were into politics” – and hence he provides a special place for films well outside the Nouvelle Vague, including Jean Panijel’s Algerian War documentary Octobre à Paris (1962) and Pierre Schoendoerffer’s Vietnam drama La 317 section (1965).


There are some special nods to critics, too. Not to André Bazin or anybody majorly associated with Cahiers du cinéma – apart from Truffaut, with whom Tavernier enjoyed a friendship. Rather, a disparate group of writers, each with a singular voice: Roger Tailleur (Positif), Jacques Lourcelles (author of a massive and indispensable Dictionary of Films from 1992), Michel Cournot (belles lettres journalist of the ‘60s), and the once-surrealist Louis Aragon – whom, as it transpires, Tavernier, as a young attaché de presse, invited to see and respond to Pierrot le fou, resulting in a classic text titled “What is Art, Jean-Luc Godard?” (translated – incompletely – into English in the early ‘70s anthology Focus on Godard).


Intriguingly, when we arrive at the contemporary Cahiers capsule review of this documentary (no. 726, October 2016) – brief, but reasonably respectful – we find a reference that may allude to a hidden story. Tavernier’s “ecumenical” taste in cinema is compared unfavourably to the more strident, opinionated, polemical and even “iconoclastic” stance of another filmmaker, the fiercely independent Paul Vecchiali, in another massive testament-tome, Encinéclopédie (2010), devoted merely to French productions of the 1930s! That book was originally slated to be published by Actes Sud, the Lyon-based company with which Tavernier is closely associated. However, Vecchiali’s impertinent abuse in it of one Stanley Kubrick drew Tavernier’s censorious ire – and so the entire manuscript went to a much more modest press, Éditions de l’Œil.


My Journey Through French Cinema is a surprisingly moving film – one of the best historical compilations of its type. (Tavernier uses short extracts from archival interviews, as well as unfussily staged scenes of himself addressing an off-screen interlocutor, to break up and fill out the flow of clips.) The dominant tone is set in its first case study, devoted to Jacques Becker. We are instantly plunged into a whirlwind of strong, intense, memorable moments from this underrated auteur’s work – a breathless montage that would make anyone wish to see all these movies for the first time, or once again.


Yet it is not simply Tavernier’s enthusiasm, or his emotional attachment to a director’s oeuvre, that communicates itself here. I do not agree with the Cahiers reviewer (Joachim Lepastier) that “there is nothing innovative in the form” of this project. Each section of the documentary rests upon a series of specific points he wants to make – about Renoir’s staging in deep focus, for instance, or how Gabin’s famous slow walk was never exactly the same speed from one role to the next – which is usually illustrated by at least three separate examples, either across several films or within one.


When asked why he didn’t simply write a book on all this (on the model of his earlier publications, such as the monumental 50 Years of American Cinema co-authored with Jean-Pierre Coursodon), Tavernier has wisely replied: “No, I needed to illustrate my ideas with shots. When I place three in a row, that wields an effect no text can render.” It’s the same logic declared today by the digital natives of the online, no-budget, audiovisual essay genre – except that Tavernier had the resources, and the influence, to make his essay as a bona fide film for the big screen, thus necessitating the creation (in many cases) of new prints by the rights holders.


French citizens often exude a pride about their national cinema that is admirable and even enviable, but also sometimes a little scary and blinkered. It is notable that, throughout My Journey, Tavernier is willing to entertain only one other point of comparison: with American cinema, which he knows and loves probably almost as well as its French counterpart. He does this in order to praise the underrated, apparently American virtue of storytelling economy (as in Becker), but also to point out the essentially French distinction within, for instance, certain crime/gangster movies like Sautet’s Classe tous risques (1960), with its plotless, melancholic temps morts.


Tavernier gives us the key to his underlying sensibility here. As Christian Viviani (Positif, no. 668, October 2016) has noted, he prizes a “novelistic approach to everyday life, showing people who work, who gather around the table in a bistro or dance hall, whose deepest emotions are translated by details, small touches, where the most spectacular events are placed ‘at eye level’.” So this history or journey is, ultimately, a lively continuation of one of French cinema’s most distinctive and enduring triumphs: its poetic realism.

MORE Tavernier: Life and Nothing But

© Adrian Martin August 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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