My Journey Through French Cinema

Studio: Cohen Media Group
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier

Jun 23, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Bertrand Tavernier has been in and around French cinema for over half a century, gleaning what he can from the greats and working in numerous roles. He’s tried a spot of acting, produced, served as an assistant director and publicist, eventually establishing himself as a writer and director. All this is put to use over the course of a three hour plus stroll through various figures from the first few decades of French film history.

The title is very much an accurate summation of what Tavernier is trying to achieve here. He’s not providing a comprehensive account of French cinema, nor is he particularly focused on specific themes. It’s not a behind-the-scenes exposé either, although plenty of fascinating anecdotes emerge along the way. Instead, Tavernier picks out mostly directors, a couple of composers and an actor, and explains what it was that they did so well.

It’s loosely connected to his own progression, hence the title. He starts with people who first instilled a love of film in him—Jacques Becker and Jean Renoir features heavily here—and moves forward to the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Sautet. Sometimes Tavernier appears himself, but mostly it’s his voice talking over clips with the occasional addition of footage from interviews or TV appearances involving the people he’s discussing.

The documentary jumps between different figures, but it never rushes. He takes his time before moving onto the next person. Some, like Jean Gabin or Melville are given a lot more time, others are lesser known but fascinating figures like composer Joseph Kosma who worked with Renoir amongst others.

Without turning it into an endless parade of gossip, a wonderful collection of stories emerges anyway. We learn Melville and actor Lino Ventura communicated only through an assistant during the filming of Army of Shadows. Again, with Ventura, Sautet sat with him during evening meals while making Classe tous risques to make sure his star didn’t eat too much and gain weight. There are asides on Godard’s desire to meet only his harshest critics amongst film journalists, and the negative reaction François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player received from a French audience.

As fun as these snippets are, what really comes across is Tavernier’s love of film, and his intimate knowledge of the components that make the best movies work. He talks of Melville’s “maniacal precision” with setting up reverse angle shots, and the way he used every corner of the studio, right down to connecting corridors, in his film sets. He admired Gabin’s ability to bring out vulnerability in characters, or Eddie Constantine’s aptitude when it came to fight scenes.

It’s a long ride, entirely male-focused with a preponderance of crime films, but it’s also his personal journey and to feature anything else wouldn’t be right. At its best, My Journey Through French Cinema shows different ways to look at films, and at its worst it still gives plenty of excellent recommendations.

cohenmedia.net

Author rating: 7/10

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