Few cineastes exude a greater passion for French cinema than celebrated writer/director Bertrand Tavernier, who broke through in 1974 with his debut feature, “The Clockmaker of St. Paul.”
So it’s fitting that this year’s Retrospective section of the New York Film Festival will focus on Tavernier’s three-hour-plus documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema,” which details the filmmaker’s myriad cinematic influencers, from Jacques Becker to Jean Renoir.
The fest will also screen a selection of the classic French films that figure prominently in “My Journey Through French Cinema,” as well as movies from one of Tavernier’s favorite American directors, Henry Hathaway.
Tavernier’s love affair with Gallic cinema began when he was a child stricken with tuberculosis in post-World War II Lyon. It was the discovery of film that helped Tavernier mine his inner strength in order to make a full recovery.
“I think that cinema and the films that I watched is what really saved me,” says Tavernier of his sickly youth, portions of which were spent holed up in a recuperative hospital.
“Having difficulties breathing meant that for a long time I could not run, I could not walk fast. So having my imagination working, making these discoveries of film, was what was stimulating to me. Maybe all those difficulties attracted me to things that were normally impossible for me to do. For example, I loved watching westerns. I loved living in different periods. Cinema was part of my education, and it was also something which helped me to go on fighting. Cinema kept me alive.”
New York Film Festival director Kent Jones says Tavernier’s documentary, which will be released this year through Cohen Media Group, provides “a perspective on this history of French cinema that is a very different kind of experience for audiences.
“It’s a very personal film — that goes without saying,” he adds. “But I think most moviegoers are used to seeing things that look at the past through a sort of reverence, an on-bended-knee take on things.
Bertrand is one of the few people that really knows and understands film history from every single angle. And in this case, it’s a matter of Bertrand knowing the material so well and so intimately that he feels comfortable pointing out what he thinks are the limitations with each filmmaker. It’s the kind of criticism that comes from living with the work for years, and that’s what I love about this film.”
For Tavernier, some of the most satisfying feedback on “My Journey” has come from the new generation of cineastes, who are just now discovering the great treasure trove of pioneering French filmmakers.
“A young student recently came to me and said, ‘I was so moved by the film that it changed my life,’” Tavernier says.
Like Tavernier, Jones “would love for younger people to discover the work of early French film,” and he is hoping “My Journey” will inspire that.
“Right now in movie history, we have a little bit of a gap for a lot of younger people that wasn’t there when I was a kid,” Jones says. “When I was young, old Hollywood was constantly present on television. It was the fabric of life, and the same goes for French cinema.”
“People watch film differently today,” he says. “A film you have not seen in the first four weeks of its release is considered an old film. Same goes for books. Everything today is living under the dictatorship of the present. Nevertheless, there are some young people who seem to make some great discoveries, and we should continue to encourage this. … We should have no barriers; we should all keep open minds. It’s about keeping alive the spirit of curiosity.”