Bertrand Tavernier joins a growing list of filmmakers who’ve made what amounts to an epic video essay with My Journey Through French Cinema, a three-hour-plus leap into notable French filmmaking from roughly 1930 to 1980. The title recalls that of Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson’s A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, but Tavernier is more academic and analytical in his approach. The form’s apex may be Histoire(s) du Cinéma, in which Jean-Luc Godard constructed a disjunctive version of film history that’s built as much on the backs of philosophers like Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson as the filmmakers whose work he sampled. Tavernier doesn’t experiment with form or editing in his conception of a national cinema, but rather comingles personal recollection with appreciative arguments regarding an auteur’s significance for an endearing testament to the power of art and the places in which one experiences it.
My Journey Through French Cinema builds its testaments around sections devoted to examining a subject’s body of work, which gives the documentary the feel of several short essays stitched together by Tavernier, whose on-screen appearance provides the subjective anchor necessary to ground an analysis of a particular time and place. Tavernier describes himself as a child of the Occupation, whose relationship with cinema began, in part, as a means to make sense of France’s changing global identity. Thus, Tavernier begins with a prolonged discussion of Jacques Becker, a filmmaker whose relatively minor status in the French cannon today is the result of film history’s selective memory and tendency to revere pre-WWII cinema and the French New Wave, thus minimizing the films made between 1945 and 1960. That Tavernier devotes much of his film’s running time to precisely this period speaks to the specificity of his formative years, but it also plays as a call to revisit this largely undervalued period of French filmmaking.
Part of the film’s charm derives from Tavernier’s recollections of the various theaters where he saw particular films and the circumstances of each screening. He rattles off the names of movie theaters with an intensity that begets a mythology unto its own, just as the Cinémathèque Française would become synonymous with the French New Wave. In a typical aside, Tavernier recalls an exchange with Quentin Tarantino, who marveled that Tavernier frequented a theater named Far West. These sorts of tidbits are frequent, but by and large, the film remains tethered to a rigorous discussion of artists. In a fascinating sequence, Tavernier looks at the use of music across a number of films, including Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, to note how his own edification as a filmmaker was informed by realizing that classical music and jazz could both be inventively used in the making of a contemporary film.
While the scope of My Journey Through French Cinema necessarily sounds elementary or survey-based, Tavernier pitches names and insights quickly enough to keep from falling into summaries of dates and glosses of entire bodies of work. Take the prolonged section devoted to Jean Gabin: Although Tavernier hits the necessary pre-war highlights such as Grand Illusion and Le Jour Se Lève, he’s more taken with Gabin after the war in La Marie du Port and Touchez Pas au Grisbi, when the actor’s career was upset by the turmoil of his own ego. Nevertheless, Tavernier remains nothing but loving toward the graying actor, whose on-camera presence reveals an aging talent who’s bitter toward both the French industry and Hollywood as well as himself.
Tavernier was a generation behind Godard and François Truffaut, whose films would also serve as a significant influence on Tavernier’s own. Nevertheless, the exquisite My Journey Through French Cinema consistently avoids mere hagiography by looking to the films themselves, so that Pierrot le Fou isn’t just a reference point but also a serious text demanding careful analysis and consideration. If Tavernier’s presence and offerings make anything clear, it’s that film history necessitates a virtuoso practitioner unto itself, whose eyes, ears, and heart remain committed to returning to the point of initial contact, whether through re-viewings or archival research, and not being satisfied with glimpsing the past through the goggles of the present.