Bertrand Tavernier: ‘My Journey’ Has ‘Made Me Proud to Be French’

The great French director and film buff talks about ‘My Journey Through French Cinema,’ his monumental documentary on French cinema

Bertrand Tavernier

Bertrand Tavernier’s ambitious documentary, “My Journey through French Cinema,” explores Gallic 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).

Tavernier’s love affair with French cinema first began when he suffered from tuberculosis in post-World War II Lyon. He says that cinema gave him his inner strength to recover. With a great twist of irony, while making “Journey” he underwent an operation to remove a tumor, and says that his love for cinema was once again his savior.

“Journey” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, followed by screenings at Cannes Classics, Telluride, New York and San Sebastian. It will have its first French screening since Cannes on Oct. 9 at the Lumière Festival in Lyon. It will be released theatrically in France on Oct. 12, and in America in March-April 2017, distributed by Cohen Media. It has been sold to multiple territories, including Spain, Portugal, Italy and Mexico.

In this exclusive interview with Variety, he talks in-depth about the project and French cinema.

What have been the initial reactions to your film?

In Telluride, the audience for the film included two extraordinary documentary filmmakers whom I greatly admire – Ken Burns and Charles Ferguson. Ken later wrote to me saying that it was the three fastest hours of his life. I thought that was a really nice statement from such a great director.

The film historian, Leonard Maltin, whom I greatly admire, said that the film was so alive and so funny and filled with energy. He said he learned thousands of new things he didn’t know about French cinema.

It’s great to receive such positive reactions. Then there have been more personal reactions. At Telluride, I met a young student who told me that I’d said in my documentary that when you make a film you should have the arrogance of wanting to change the world and the humility of wanting to touch two or three people. He added: “You just met one. I think your film changed my life.” That was a wonderful moment for me.

How difficult was it to get this project off the ground?

It’s quite daunting when I think back at the many problems I experienced to fund the film. It was pretty desperate until the people at Gaumont and Pathé decided to support the project. They saved the project. But before that. I had been waiting 14 months to be received by an official at another group. I had no chance to explain what I was doing. Experiences like that are humbling. You see how you are viewed by people at the top of the large media groups. At first you have the impression that there is no consideration for you. It makes you modest. But once Pathé and Gaumont came aboard it changed everything.

What problems did you face in tracking down archive films?

Pathé and Gaumont have already restored many classic films and as a result of this project have decided to restore many more. My film has been very useful in this process. Some films were not available before the start of the project. There were many archive films at Gaumont that I needed for my project, such as Jean Delannoy’s “Le Garcon Sauvage” and “Ça Va Border,” starring René Chateau, which had never been restored before. The clips in my documentary are very beautiful, including excerpts from great classics such as Jacques Becker’s “Casque d’Or” and ”Rendezvous in July” which have now been restored. Other titles include Julien Duvivier’s “Panique,” and “Voici le temps des assassins”.

More titles in the libraries of Gaumont and Pathé will soon be restored, such as “Le Grand Balcon” by Henri Decoin. Pathé and Gaumont already had a great policy for film restoration, now it’s even more dynamic.

Have you already received some feedback in France?

I’ve received some very beautiful e-mails from various directors, such as Xavier Giannoli and Philippe Le Guay and also a wonderful e-mail from Serge Toubiana, former editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers du cinema, who expressed his admiration for the film. I’ve received some very moving messages.

But I’ve heard nothing from Frédérique Bredin, the lady at the head of the French CNC. Apparently she never said a word to Pathit’s seems that for Pmoving, well the film. I’ady received some feedbackjc films and as a result of this project haved. In tellué and Gaumont. It seems that for her it’s not sufficiently interesting to express an opinion. But Christophe Tardieu the CNC’s director-general said it was a masterpiece and said I should have a statue built in my honor. To be honest, I’d prefer to have a money to finish my series – I would trade a statue for the money…

Tell me more about the accompanying 8-hour TV series

In addition to the film, I will make a TV series, with a further eight hours, filled with many things I wasn’t able to put in the film, including sections about Tati, Bresson, Pagnol, Ditri, Clouzeau, French cinema during the occupation, foreigners working in the French cinema etc. And also the people who have been forgotten – such as Raymond Bernard, Maurice Turner, Anatole Litvak, many underrated directors, and also many women directors who are less well-known. The TV series will include almost 40 minutes on Julien Duvivier, one of my pet directors.

With the film and the series we can release a DVD or a complete VOD version. I have to finish the series by the end of 2016. Most of it has already been edited. I have the first cut with over 75% already in place. In a few days time, I will record an interview for the film, adapting the voiceover etc.

Has this been an interesting experience?

The problem is that I keep discovering new things. It’s a bit of a nightmare. It has no end. But it’s very exciting. It’s really exciting to be in editing room and observe my closest collaborators becoming totally excited when they discover a film that they’ve never heard of and it surprises them. Even for me, I’m continuously uncovering new works that surprise me. Or I’ve watched some films I’d seen before and I fell in love again. This sense of admiration has a genuine healing effect. You known, I had a cancer while making the film. I worked very quickly after the operation. My editor came to the hospital. I was rewriting on the bed. Looking at clips on the computer, the surgeon said that I was three months ahead of my normal recovery progress, in terms of what he had expected. He said that maybe it was due to my passion for cinema. That had given me so much excitement and hope. Medicine has a lot to do with this film. Even when I first became interested in cinema as a child it was when I was bed-ridden due to illness.

You have said that this project was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s personal journeys into Italian and American cinema. Has he seen your documentary?

Scorsese saw the rough cut of the 90-minute documentary, with me translating it into English as we watched. He reacted immediately. He said that by looking at the film he understood why he had originally wanted to become film director. I was showing a clip from Jean Delannoy’s “Macao: L’Enfer du Jeu” – a great tracking shot. The film shows a scene during the war between China and Japan. Japanese planes are bombing the city. We see explosions, in the tracking shot, as houses are being destroyed. The shot ends on the legs of a beautiful woman trying to patch her stockings. Martin stood up and said: “What a great shot! I want to see that film.” I succeeded in my goal, I think.

My project is indeed a tribute to what Martin Scorsese has done before me with his two documentary projects. It was amazing to have such an important director talking about American and Italian cinema. In a world where everyone only fights for himself. But my film is totally different from his projects. He devoted only about two minutes to any one film, to give a broader picture. I wanted to study fewer directors. So I spent 25 minutes on Becker. I try to go deep.

But I remain inspired by what Scorsese did, talking about his youth and his parents and how his life was linked to watching films. I found that wonderful and very, very moving. I think that very often creators are better than the historians or critics to talk about works of art. For example, I think the best text on Alexandre Dumas was written by Robert Louis Stephenson. Admiration is something that is inspiring, healing, comforting. I felt so good after making this film. This is the ambition behind my film. I’m not a guide in a museum. I’m not a film historian, or a film critic. I’m not someone from a university. I am a film director. I want to talk like a director, as Scorsese did in his projects. I want to show what is both creative and has a lasting effect in those films. What inspires me as a director. The use of a certain lens by Marcel Carné, or in Jean Sacha’s “This Man is Dangerous”, where everything is shot with an 18.5 mm lens, like in Orson Welles, or films with great depth of field, like in the films of Renoir, or the way that actors are handled by Sautet and Renoir. I want to show what lives on in each film many years later, it’s still alive.

Is this just a project about film history, about the past? 

Not at all. Most of the films deal with subjects that are still on the front pages – crime, immigrants, workers, people killed by the police. Today’s working class lives in very different conditions, but you still find the same spirit of trying to help each other. Many directors were interested in how women were treated in society. The condition of women workers. They were combatting the clichés of the time. You just have to look at the way that prostitutes are depicted in Marcel Carné’s “Hotel du Nord” – without any moralizing. In the same film, a homosexual is shown with great warmth, at time a time when many films made funs of homosexuals – they were shown as being ridiculous. People tended to laugh at them. “Hotel du Nord” was very much ahead of its time. Many great French films talked about fascinating characters, very often female characters. They talked about the country. Scorsese shows how Italian films describe the Italian mind. I tried to select films that talk about France. In a very different way. With hundreds of visions, but related to something that is very French. That is rooted in the soul of the country. That’s how films have a lasting effect. Like “Paisan”, or “Rome, Open City”, all those great Italian films. It made them so alive. Jacques Becker shows working class women in “Antoine and Antoinette.” These issues still move the audience. The French continue to support the fight of workers. They are moved by the same themes.

What do you think the project reveals about French cinema?

Obviously there are hundreds of characteristics to define French cinema. One is the long-standing relationship between French cinema and American cinema. Jacques Becker loved Ernst Lubitsch and Henry Hathaway. He grabbed what was interesting for him from American cinema. Questions of rhythm. But he rooted his films in the context of his country. He kept dialogue to a minimum. Instead of copying the American cinema, he made real French films. Melville also adored American cinema. But his films are very different from the American model. I don’t think he realized how different his works were from the films that he so admired.  For example in his film, “Army of Shadows,” he used sound and music in a very innovative manner. In my documentary, I show a scene, that any American director would have put to music. But Melville doesn’t. We see a long sequence, with a series of  two-to-three shots with Lino Ventura running. You hear the noise of his steps, nothing else.

Or in another scene when the character is burying some stolen jewels in a deserted place under a lamppost. He suddenly hears footsteps, of someone running. He stops, freezes, until they go past, and then he goes on digging. Any American director would have done a reverse shot. But Melville didn’t do this. He maybe wanted to make a film in the style of William Wyler but ended up doing it more like Bresson.

Do you think a project about film history can appeal to younger audiences?

When you make any film you have to ignore such fears. I know that a lot of people don’t want to watch black and white films. But if I was always worried about people’s reactions, I wouldn’t be making films, I would be running a TV channel.

I hope that this film will overcome some people’s prejudices towards classic films. Maybe their friends or parents will take them to watch such films, or introduce them to such works. In general, I’ve had a great reaction from young people, who’ve told me they now want to buy DVDs of classic titles. If I thought about the audience before making a film, I would never get any project off the ground. For example, nobody wanted to fund “Round Midnight” or “Life and Nothing But.” For example, when I was trying to get the funding for “Round Midnight” the guy who was above my producer, who was the head of the Hachette group, offered me a check NOT to make the film. But it turned out to be a huge success in France. Won loads of awards. But he had told me that there wouldn’t be a single spectator for the film.

Has making this documentary changed your own filmmaking style in any way?

No. When I direct a film, I’m not a film buff. I only think about the characters. I stop thinking about how Carné or any other director made their films. It’s very different with a director such as Tarantino who is always quoting from other films that inspire him. It’s not other films that inspire me. It’s life. It’s like for any writer. Any novelist who reads great novels. Inevitably it has an influence. It helps in some way. The great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk once gave a great answer to this question. “Of course I’ve been influenced by all the people who were good before me.”

What previously undiscovered films emerged over the last two years of producing the project?

There has been a whole episode about directors I never thought I would include in the film. For example, Jean Boyer who in the 1930s made wonderful musical comedies, including “Prends la route” and “Un mauvais garcon,” for which he wrote the songs, writing the lyrics himself while shooting on location. He had everyone sing, like in a Jacques Demy film. They were not based on stage plays. Unlike most musical comedies that were adapted from stage plays. They were written for the screen. He made at least two wonderful films without any pretension. Very simple, very funny, with marvellous songs. He was a target of critics during the 1950s because his films had lost their edge. But his films from the 1930s and 1940s were very funny. He wrote around 50 songs, He was one of the great lyricists. He’s been completely underrated. I also rediscovered the films on Anatole Litvak from the 1930s, including two masterpieces. I included many films that had been forgotten.

French cinema is often seen primarily in terms of the Nouvelle Vague, does this project help change that?

In America, people were only asking about the Nouvelle Vague. I said that if I’d only covered that period it would be like talking about American cinema and only talking about Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Altman, Pollack etc. and never mentioning Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra etc. That would be ridiculous. You cannot reduce a national cinema to an 8-year period.

I never talk about artistic movements or schools in my documentary. Mostly because I don’t know what that means. I greatly admire Godard, Chabrol, Varda,  etc. and I talk a lot about Godard in the film. So I can’t be criticized for this. I was asked why I never mention the fight between the journals, Cahiers du Cinema and Positif, and the fight between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. I’m much more interested in the fight that some directors had to wage in order to get their films done. The fight against censorship. The fight against the financiers. Renoir had to fight to make “Grand Illusion.” Becker had to fight for many of his films. I’m more interested in that. I loved being able to show a film by Bréville called “Menace,” that the Germans wanted to destroy. The negative had to be buried to save it. I’m more interested in that. The battles waged by some directors that have hurt their careers. Some films were never made because of these struggles. When critics wage a war there’s much less at stake, less at risk. The only risk is not to be invited to a dinner. I’m not examining the views of the critics. For me, it’s only the film that matters.

How has the project changed your view of French cinema?

This project also has the benefit of hindsight. With the passage of time we gain a broader perspective. It’s not just a question of immediate reactions. It’s very important to have that distance for this kind of project.

When I watch films I now see more connections. There are clear links between Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet. And a link with current directors such as Philippe Lioret, who is an heir of the tradition of Becker. And between Xavier Giannoli and his predecessors. I can really see how some present-day directors have been nourished by Renoir, Becker, Max Ophuls.

It has made me proud to be French. As much as I admire Italian, American or English cinema, working on this project has made me feel proud. When I saw the tremendous fight of some French writers against censorship to get the right to final cut. Claude Autant Lara sued his producers. He even organized a general strike. I really admired this. The way they fought against everything imposed on them – like exhibitors cutting their films. This all ended with a law in 1957 that you don’t have in the U.S. It considers that directors have the final cut. It’s because of those people – Duvivier, Clouzot, Renoir, Becker – that I and others of my generation owe a debt to.