Helmer outlines some of the themes he will explore in his three-hour documentary
Acclaimed French director, Bertrand Tavernier, is currently producing and directing an ambitious documentary that will explore French cinema from the 1930s through to the early 1970s, inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Personal Journey through American Movies” (1995) and “My Voyage to Italian Cinema” (1999).
In this exclusive interview with Variety, he talks in-depth about the project and about French cinema in general.
Could you begin by telling us a bit about your documentary project, a “Journey into the Heart of French Cinema”?
The inspiration for this project is Martin Scorsese’s great documentaries on American Cinema and Italian cinema. I love both of them. His “Voyage to Italian Cinema” is obviously closer to his own family and personal roots. He had a personal approach which was a great help. I love the fact that someone like Scorsese spent a lot of time trying to speak about the films that were made by all those great directors.
My project is also related to my own life – the people I’ve met, the films that I’ve discovered. It’s not just about the films themselves. It’s also talking about the film composers, the screenwriters and of course the directors.
I’m the grandson of films by Renoir, Duvivier, Ophuls. I saw their films at the same time that I discovered other directors such as John Ford or other great American masters. I’ve written many books about American cinema and I also wanted to explain how there were many French films that have been incredibly important for me.
A film such as “Le Jour se lève” (Daybreak) directed by Marcel Carné and written by Jacques Prevert. It’s a masterpiece.
Can you name some of the directors you’ll be talking about?
The important directors, the ones I love. People like Renoir, Ophuls, Becker, Duvivier and also some directors who have been forgotten or neglected, such as Anatole Litvak who made some very good films in France in the 1930s. Or directors like Maurice Turner, Raymond Bernard. In French we don’t have the word for “maverick”. But many of these directors were truly mavericks. People who were marginal. People who were never in the system. Who sometimes only made a few films. People who directed a few films and then were screenwriters, then came back to directing. They were never locked into a single category. So I also want to talk about these people. And about some very bad films as well!
I will talk about many films by French directors who are less well known.
I’m very grateful to many of these directors who fought very hard against the dictatorship of the cinema owners – who were cutting scenes from their films. There is a beautiful letter by Duvivier. Very early on. He was fighting against the cinema owners who were cutting scenes from his film. In “Poil de Carotte” (The Red Head). The letter talks about how it hurts him. How he feels insulted.
Many of those people fought to defend the director’s right to the final cut. They fought of course against the money people, the producers. They fought against censorship. French censorship was really tough back then. It wasn’t as strict as the Hays Code but it was really tough.
Those people – such as Clouzot, Autant-Lara, Duvivier, Becker – they all fought to defend artistic freedom. And if we have the freedom of expression today in the cinema, it’s because of them. It’s because of the struggles that they led. You have to be grateful for that. Because a lot of them took chances. For example, Autant Lara nearly sued his producer to protect his final cut on “Devil in the Flesh.” To defend his position he started to organize a general strike throughout the film industry, because he was the president of the film technicians’ trade union. All the technicians – the grips, the gaffers in French cinema – were willing to go on strike if they touched his final cut.
In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, there were a few groups who owned cinema chains, but most of the cinemas were owned by individuals who had five-to-six cinemas in the same province. There was a myriad array of independent exhibitors. Of course you had companies like Gaumont and Pathé but it wasn’t like now. There were many small operators, There were also many cinemas, especially in the West of France, that were under the influence of the Catholic Church. If the films had a bad moral scene they were simply never shown. This took place in several hundred cinemas in France.
Was it easy to access the films you want to use in the documentary?
I was surprised because there are a few companies with big catalogues, and I thought that they would be very excited by the project – because my documentary would be a way to promote their catalogues. Sometimes they didn’t even know that they owned the films I was looking for. I’ve had to overcome many obstacles. But Gamount and Pathé reacted very well. I found people who wanted to help me with the project. Both companies are doing a greater job of restoring the films that they own. In the Lumière Festival there are about 12-14 films that have been restored by Pathé and about the same number from Gaumont.
Both Gamount and Pathé, together with Canal Plus, are involved in my documentary as co-producers and co-financiers. They have enormous catalogues, also have some wonderful documents in their archives, such as interviews with directors. I’m finding a lot of wonderful stuff.
What will be the format of the project?
I’m now doing a film that will be around a three-hour film to be released theatrically. Then I hope to direct a series afterwards for TV. I don’t know how many hours. But I have the material. At the present moment, I am editing everything and then I will see what I have to cut out of the final film and what I have to keep for the TV version.
Have you talked to Martin Scorsese about this project?
Of course! I will talk to Thelma Schoonmaker, his film editor, during the Lumière Festival, who will be attending in order to present “The Tales of Hoffman” and of course when I have something to show to Scorsese, I hope to be able to show it to him. I’d love to get some advice and for him to have a look. Ideally I would like to have him involved in the project at a later stage and make some comments.
Will you use the same approach as in Scorsese’s documentaries on American and Italian cinema?
His documentaries stopped when he began as a director and I follow the same approach. Otherwise, there would be a conflict of interest if I started to talk about more recent cinema. My documentary won’t be chronological, It pursues themes or follows a specific director or line of thought. I’m trying to establish a very free narrative. It starts in the 1930s with the first talkies and continues up until the moment when I started working as a director at the end of the 1960s.
The Nouvelle Vague marked a major shift in French cinema and contributed to eclipsing some of the films made before the 1960s. Your film “Safe Conduct” (2002) about filmmaking under the Vichy regime was accused of being anti-Nouvelle Vague, do you think your documentary may provoke a similar reaction?
The debate about “Safe Conduct” was absurd. It’s like some pointless vendettas where people are still fighting a war and they’ve forgotten what it was originally all about, because it was their great-great grandparents that started it. In “Safe Conduct” it’s laughable to say that the film was an anti-New Wave statement. Some of the commentators hadn’t even been born in the period that was depicted in the film. I was doing a film about a few people who behaved rather bravely in a moment when it was very difficult to behave like that. It was about some people who tried, in their films, to avoid any possibility of propaganda for the Vichy regime. That is repeated in my film. Some of the people were communists or in the resistance even if they were working for a German film company in occupied France. There were lots of paradoxes.
During the war years, and contrary to the Italian situation, there wasn’t a single film made which showed people giving the fascist salute. This wasn’t the case in Italy. Rossellini made three films that can be labeled fascist. There were a few short films made during the Vichy regime, not made by established directors, which were anti-Semitic.
They also made lot of stupid conservative films, religious films. But with one exception, there wasn’t one anti-Semitic film. By contrast, before the war in French cinema there were many lines of dialogue and attitudes and scenes that were anti-Semitic. During the occupation it stopped, because a few people paid attention to that.
But do you nonetheless fear that your documentary will be attacked by some critics?
I don’t want to restart a war with this documentary. The directors of the Nouvelle Vague were right in attacking some things that were very rigid within French cinema. Many directors were in decline, that’s true. But in their condemnation, they criticized some people who have since been rehabilitated.
This worse thing is that some of the heirs of this movement, who keep repeating the same slogans, have neither the knowledge nor the talent of Truffaut and Godard. I was the press attaché, the press agent for many Nouvelle Vague films. I fought for Godard. I was the press agent for “Pierrot le Fou” and “Contempt,” of many of the films by Godard, Chabrol, Varda and so on. I loved those films. In the documentary I will explain how I fought for those films. How I fought for Agnes Varda, on “Cleo from 5 to 7”. Because of my father, I arranged a screening of “Pierrot le Fou”, for Louis Aragon, the greatest communist poet and writer. And he went to see the film and he wrote a three-page article in a very important weekly. So I fought for their films.
But at the same time I want to fight for some films directed by Claude Autant Lara, or by Duvivier – who has been forgotten and underrated. I discovered by the way that Duvivier was the favorite director of the composer Stephen Sondheim, which I thought was wonderful.But that’s not to say that all the films that the Nouvelle Vague attacked were great works. That wouldn’t be true. Some of the last films by Carne were dreadful for example.
How have you chosen the films to include in the documentary?
I don’t want to talk about directors I don’t like. This is a documentary that is made out of love. I want to talk about my love for these films. I forget about the categories of directors. It’s about trying to find what is still alive today in the work of directors from the past.I’m trying to see what all those people who are no longer with us have to tell us about life today.
Scorsese’s “Voyage to Italian Cinema” was also a journey into Italian national identity and his own identity, can we say the same about your project?
Yes, my documentary is obviously about French identity. But equally important for me, is that I’ve found my own identity through these films. I learned how to find it through looking back at these films. This was already important when I was making “Safe Conduct”: I became more respectful of many people who I think were very brave and very honorable at a time when so many French people acted atrociously.
In the documentary, I will be showing films that made a great impression on me from the age of six onwards. When I go deeper in the documentary, I will explore what I have learned from these films as I was actually making it. I’m learning new things every day. Maybe because all my films have been made because I wanted to learn. I mean in terms of the subject, the period, the moment in history, the place – like Louisiana for “In the Electric Mist” or the diplomatic service and foreign policy in “The French Minister.”
Maybe this desire to learn about other things is also ultimately a desire to learn about myself. One thing I’m proud of is that I’m still as passionate and curious as when I started making films. I’m absolutely not disillusioned, tired or disenchanted.
What kind of things have you learned by looking at these films?
I’ve learned so many things from looking back at these films. For example, how to direct scenes involving a lot of people, like in the films by Jean Renoir. How to create the feeling of a period. How to be organic when you film a specific social class. In “The Rules of the Game”, you have a deep impression of truth. In all the different social classes – from the servants to the masters. They all ring so true, This was a shock for me at the time. It’s something that has stayed with me.
There’s something I love in a director such as Jacques Becker. It’s the fact that he distrusts the plot. He tries to go away from the plot. Becker is fighting against the plot. He wants to create the impression to the audience that it’s the characters who are writing the screenplay rather than the writers. And he succeeded. When you see a film like “Casque d’or”. When you see all his films. For me, they’re some of the most intelligent and moving films ever made. For example “Antoine and Antoinette”. I think it’s a masterpiece.
Becker represents the essence of talent. He loved American cinema. He grabbed what was useful for him from it. Above all, the sense of space and rhythm. But he kept a very personal, very French touch in all his films. And I think that’s what makes his films so modern. His films are never dated.
Other things I’ve learned, for example, is the use of camera movements in Jean Renoir’s films. Or the sense of time and place in Becker That was very influential for me.
I’m constantly discovering films, some of which are marvelous, which I’ve never seen before. In Lyon I will be presenting some films, some of which are absolutely wonderful. For example, a film by Henri Decoin called “Au grand balcon”. I think it’s a very beautiful film. Henri Decoin, who is a very underrated director made about fifteen films which are very accomplished.
And then there’s his life. He’s one of the rare French directors whose life was like that of an American director. But contrary to the American directors he never talked about himself. That’s very strange. His life was like someone such as John Huston or Howard Hawks. He came from a very poor neighborhood. He was unable to go to school, He had to earn money from the age of eight. He was swimming across the River Seine on New Year’s Eve at the age of fifteen, just to get some money for his family.
Then he went into the army and received many medals and decorations. He was also a pilot. He flew in 11 aerial missions. He was also a swimmer for the French Olympics team. And he never mentioned these incredible facts of his life. Never. In his interviews, he never mentioned those incredible facts. I want to look at his films and try to understand why.
Is the project partly about nostalgia or looking back at the “good old days”?
Nostalgia is something we must avoid. The documentary must not be nostalgic. You have to look back at these films in the right way – to praise what is very much alive. Without being nostalgic.
I hate it when people say that cinema in the 1950s was much better than it is today. It’s true that there are some things that no longer exist. It’s true. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s good. And sometimes it’s replaced by things that are exciting. For example, in terms of cinema, we now have some films from Turkey, Russia, Korea and Japan. You never had such a wide range of different types of films before. Never. This is something that is completely new and exciting
Of course, you had moments in French cinema and American cinema in which there were many masterpieces that were very well crafted, with great dialogue.
When you see masterpieces like Victor Fleming’s “Bombshell”. Such films are incredibly well written and also very bold socially and sexually. That type of cinema has been lost or at least damaged. But that perfectly crafted, very-well-written cinema has been replaced by films that are more adventurous, that are exploring new territories. It’s fascinating. Like the Turkish film “Winter Sleep” which won the Palme d’Or this year.
When will “Journey to the Heart of French Cinema” be released?
The documentary will be released in 2016. I still have to see about 300 films! I’m also writing a screenplay for a new feature film. I can’t do just one thing at any one time!