In “My Journey Through French Cinema,” the filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier becomes — for three hours and ten minutes — that favorite college professor, the one with thousands of stories, anecdotes passed on second or third hand.
“Journey” is a long personal essay, heavy with excerpted scenes, of the French cinema of Tavernier’s life, the movies that moved him and directors, from Jean Vigo (“L’Atalante”) and Jean Renoir to Jean-Luc Goddard and Claude Sautet (“Un Coeur en Hiver,” “A Heart in Winter”).
Tavernier, 76, is best-known on this side of the Atlantic for his ’80s jazz-noir pic “Round Midnight,” and the lone “Hollywood” film among his credits, “In the Electric Mist,” a Tommy Lee Jones crime thriller based on a James Lee Burke novel. He’s had a solid if not stunning career that stretched from the ’70s to today, as he winds that career down and takes stock.
“My Journey” is an autobiography, with Tavernier recalling the post-war French cinemas with the fanciful names, “Le Florida,””California” and “Far West” where he first fell in love with movies.
The surprising thing about the documentary is the filmmakers he chooses to cast a spotlight upon, genre directors little known outside of France or Quentin Tarantino’s video collection — Jacques Becker, Jean-Pierre Melville among them.
Yes, he was impressed and moved by the films of Renoir (“Grand Illusion”) and Marcel Carne (“Children of Paradise”). He acknowledges a debt to Truffaut, Chabrol and Goddard, and includes clips of interviews each director gave for earlier documentaries, French TV profiles and the like.
And Tavernier, who like many of his generation, got his start as a critic, picks at the reputations of the high and the mighty. Renoir, “under-rated” as a technical filmmaker, created lovely movies that are somewhat undercut by his efforts to kiss up to the Vichy collaborationist government during World War II.
Jean Gabin, the working class leading man who dominated French films in the ’40s and 50s, is remembered for bringing a particularly “French” style to acting. The movies of B-movie action hero Eddie Constantine are embraced, as are “The 400 Blows” and the ’60s work of Goddard (“Breathless,” “Pierrot le fou”) and the crime dramas of genre director Melville (“Army of Shadows,” “Bob le Flambeur.”).
Tavernier passes on anecdotes about each, analyzes scenes and the way the films stand out from the cinema of their era and what impressed him at the time. He breaks down the way Renoir used movement and tracking shots, the spare acting of Gabin and the music of Maurice Jaubert, among others.
His documentary weaves a spell of sharp-eyed, deep analysis, noting this director’s “narrow sets” and “deep depth of field,” that one’s embrace of music and silences, or jazz and traditional French accordion tunes.
All of which influenced Tavernier, and more importantly, world cinema. Watch the moment from “Grand Illusion” that “Casablanca” borrowed, sample the simplicity of filmmakers like Becker, whom Tavernier compares to “Red River” maestro Howard Hawks — simple, pointed, propulsive scenes shot at eye level, without any camera trickery.
And sample scenes from ancient, almost forgotten French films with Louis Jordan, Eric von Stroheim and Sessue Hayakawa as their stars.
‘Tavernier tells this story, in French with English subtitles, and opens our eyes to a world of French cinema only the hardest of the hardcore Euro-cinephiles will know.
Yes, it’s too long, and only gets truly interesting in the third act when Tavernier recalls using his reviews and essays to get the attention of filmmakers he wants to work for (unethical here in the States, commonplace in France).
And the filmmaker takes his eyes off the ball with the subtitling — white subtitles on black and white footage — a mistake most filmmakers learned to avoid 15 years ago.
But “My Journey” makes for a great crash course in French films beyond the classics taught in every film course in every film school — Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Vigo’s “L’Atalante,” Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” and Truffaut’s “400 Blows.” It’s worth the three hour investment in time only if you keep a notepad to jot down the hidden gems in France’s rich post-war film tradition.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Cast: Bertrand Tavernier, Jean Gabin, Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut
Credits: Written and directed by Bertrand Tavernier. A Cohen Media release.
Running time: 3:10