For most moviegoers, a shortlist of the great French directors usually includes New Wave stalwarts like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer at the top, followed by singular auteurs like Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson and the comic genius Jacques Tati.
But with the third largest film industry in the world, and one that saw the veritable birth of cinema back in 1895, there are a host of other Gallic talents whose contributions to the seventh art are perhaps just as vital — filmmakers whose work has been unduly swept aside by modern critical canons that have “a certain tendency,” quoting Truffaut, to see French cinema through the sole prism of the Nouvelle Vague.
It’s these artists that veteran writer-director Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight, Captain Conan) pays tribute to in A Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage a travers le cinema francais), masterfully exploring some of the forgotten glories of French movies in the way that Martin Scorsese shined a light on several bygone American auteurs in his A Personal Journey series. Made “with the complicity” of Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux — with whom Lyons native Tavernier runs the Institut Lumiere film foundation — this three-hour-plus documentary naturally premiered on the Croisette, and should find a home in festivals, cinematheques and on cable networks catering to film lovers.
Using his own experience — starting from the earliest films seen as a budding cinephile and ending with his first feature, The Clockmaker (1974) — as a way to revisit some of the directors, actors and composers who graced French movies between the 1930’s and 70’s, Tavernier focuses on a dozen or so major and minor auteurs, showcasing their artistry in hundreds of film clips that he comments on with historical insight and aesthetic precision.
The first, and perhaps most significant, of the filmmakers he tackles is Jacques Becker, a precursor to the Nouvelle Vague whose tightly crafted genre films – the dark period romance, Casque d’Or (1952), the crime drama Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954) and the Bressonian prison saga, Le Trou (1960) — were filled with stylistic flourishes that were “perfectly in tune with the sentiments of the characters,” in a body of work that reflected how much Becker “understood and assimilated the American cinema” compared to other directors of the time.
Indeed, if there’s one through line that runs across Tavernier’s sprawling study, it’s the resurrection of the type of movies made by Becker, but also by Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Sautet (both featured extensively in the film’s final hour), that were able to mix a certain commercial appeal with something more personal, telling the kind of genre stories that the art house friendly filmmakers of the New Wave and afterwards would gradually shy away from.
Although he mostly concentrates on auteurs whose movies clearly reflect his own taste — Tavernier made two major French genre films himself: the colonial thriller, Coup de torchon (1981), and the policier, L.627 (1992), the latter of which plays like a Gallic precursor to The Wire — he devotes plenty of screen time to more widely renown artists, including the great Jean Renoir and his fetish actor Jean Gabin, whose massive filmography is dissected in several well-chosen excerpts from classics like Marcel Carne’s Le Jour se Leve and Henri Verneuil’s Un Singe en Hiver.
Other lesser-known talents are given significant screen time, including composers like Maurice Jaubert (L’Atalante, Port of Shadows) and Joseph Kosma (The Rules of the Game, La Grande Illusion), while an entire section is allotted to the movies of French-American action hero Eddie Constantine — an actor best known for starring in Godard’s modernist sci-fi flick Alphaville, although he also headlined dozens of forgettable thrillers from the 50’s and 60’s, many of which were helmed by the blacklisted Hollywood director John Berry (He Ran All the Way).
If the work of the Nouvelle Vague is less prominent here than elsewhere, Tavernier nonetheless gives Truffaut and Godard their due when detailing his earliest gigs in the film industry, including a stint as publicist for the infamous Breathless producer Georges de Beauregard. He also describes the time he worked as an assistant to film noir guru Jean-Pierre Melville, offering up a fascinating analysis of the director’s working methods while providing a few choice behind-the-scenes tidbits (including a rare audio excerpt of an on-set meltdown that Jean-Paul Belmondo had while shooting Melville’s seldom-seen Magnet of Doom).
What results from Tavernier’s lengthy analysis — apparently the first in a planned two-part series — is a vision of the French cinema that, even if it sticks to certain ideals of the politique des auteurs, doesn’t ignore the work of other contributors (including a major screenwriter like Henri Jeanson, featured in one memorable scene where he outright disses director Marcel Carne), while revealing the artistry of filmmakers whose popular sensibilities go against our notion of le cinema francais as something freewheeling and deeply individualistic.
Ultimately, it perhaps comes as no real surprise that Tavernier presents his country’s film history as a sort of long and passionate love affair with the U.S. He is, after all, a former film critic who authored such works as the massive interview collection Amis Americains (American Friends) and the encyclopedic 50 ans de cinema americain (50 Years of American Cinema).
Yet as much as Journey reveals a Gallic cinema that seems to be forever beholden to Hollywood, it’s true merit lies in precisely the opposite: highlighting a select group of auteurs and craftsmen who managed to remain — through their exceptional sense of style, uninhibited morals and elegant brand of pessimism — quintessentially French.
Production companies: Little Bear, Gaumont, Pathe
Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Screenwriters: Bertrand Tavernier, with the complicity of Thierry Fremaux
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)