Claude Lelouch’s “From One Film to Another,” a celebration/apologia for his 50 years and 41 titles as a filmmaker, begins with a reckless, nine-minute pedal-to-the-metal drive across Paris, stopping for nothing and no one. This 1976 footage, taken by a camera mounted on the Lelouch-driven sports car, becomes a metaphor for the cineaste’s career — breaking all rules, going for broke, failing often but producing the occasional miracle. Detractors (they are legion) and supporters alike of the French “anti-Godard” will find ample ammunition for their views in this whirlwind compendium.
Cobbling together snippets of his films and savvily deploying behind-the-scenes footage under Lelouch’s nonstop narration, this exhausting and exhaustive drive-through filmography praises with faint damns. Lelouch admits his faults as a “spoiled child” of cinema even as he pleads excessive love for his chosen field. He freely allows that he coasted for years on the pared-down simplicity of “A Man and a Woman,” often trying to recapture the magic, but was never content to leave well enough alone.
Certainly excess is the hallmark of Lelouch’s filmmaking. Why have one ending when you could have four or five? Seemingly incapable of resisting any cinematic temptation, Lelouch has often thrown in everything but the kitchen sink — though if he had used it, it likely would have formed the centerpiece for a musical number or sentimental flashback. Thus polar bears, whirling dervishes, New York nightclub extravaganzas, and cowboys and Indians can find themselves in the same picture, if not necessarily the same frame.
Yet there is something endearing in the exuberant generosity of Lelouch’s moviemaking, perhaps best expressed by his love of the camera and desire to personally shoot every frame of his films himself. Clips from a Lelouch film released just last year, “What Love May Bring” (“Ces amours-la”), reveal the roots of his fetishization of process. The pic, which now reads as this film’s first draft, depicts the director’s fictional stand-in on a teenage trip to Russia and chronicles his life-changing epiphany when he encounters the spectacle of a complicated camera setup for Mikhail Kalatosov’s “The Cranes Are Flying.”
Indeed, Lelouch may be the only director whose making-of docus look better than the final products: Scenes of him enthusiastically mounting dollies and riding cranes in convoluted takes, while energetically overseeing the action below, convey a concentration and intensity that are fascinating to witness.