Acclaimed French helmer Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight”) will present his eight-part series on French cinema during the 9th Lumière Festival, covering the period between the 1930s and early 1970s.
The series, “My Journeys Through French Cinema,” is a follow-up project to his documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” which had its world premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, followed by screenings at Cannes Classics, Telluride, New York, San Sebastián and the Lumière Festival.
The project is inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Personal Journey through American Movies” (1995) and “My Voyage to Italian Cinema” (1999).
Tavernier was born in 1941 in France’s third largest city, Lyon, the home of the inventors of cinema, the Lumière brothers.
Tavernier and Thierry Frémaux are the president and director of the Institut Lumière, which organizes the Lumière Festival – one of the only big international festivals of classic cinema.
The eight-part series includes two episodes on Tavernier’s favorite directors, an episode on musicals by Julien Duvivier; two episodes on French cinema before, during and immediately after the German Occupation, two episodes on forgotten French directors, and one episode entitled “My 1960s”.
The series includes material that Tavernier was unable to put in the film, including sections about Tati, Bresson, Pagnol, Ditri, Clouzeau, foreigners working in the French cinema etc. and forgotten directors – such as Raymond Bernard, Maurice Turner, Anatole Litvak, and many women directors who are less well-known.
The original documentary has already been released on DVD and the combined film and series will be released on a new DVD by the end of 2017.
In this exclusive interview with Variety, Tavernier talks in-depth about the project and French cinema.
How does the series expand upon the original documentary?
This isn’t a longer version of “My Journey.” It’s completely new material that upholds the same personal, subjective approach of the main documentary. I had to give a kind of structure to each episode. The first two episodes are about my favorite directors, my friends and companions. People like Max Ophuls, Henri Decoin who is less well known, Sacha Guitry, Pagnol, Bresson and Tati
Other episodes are dedicated to themes such as French cinema during the occupation and after the occupation. Another episode is about songs in French cinema. Few people know that French cinema has the biggest number of songs whose lyrics who have been written by the films’ directors – such as Rene Clair, Duvivier and Jean Renoir who all wrote many songs.
There is another episode specially dedicated to Duvivier, one of my favorite directors who is one of the great forgotten French directors. There are also other directors who have been totally forgotten like Pierre Chenal. There’s a lot of new information and it covers a lot of new ground
For example, early French women directors, such as Jaqueline Audry, who produced several features between 1945 and 1960. A few of them are very good. The films are very frank about sexuality. They deal with things that nobody else covered, such as sexual fulfillment for women. And also comedy. They’re very surprising and very feminist films. I would have loved to have been able to make 10 episodes. I had to leave many things on the cutting room floor.
How has the reaction been to your documentary?
The main documentary got terrific reviews in the NY Times, LA Times and The New Yorker. There have also been great reaction from audiences in the festivals where it has played, such as Telluride. Martin Scorsese has been extremely supportive. I thanked him recently for his support. I sent him around 15 DVDs about French films he did not know. In New York we spent a wonderful afternoon together. Other people have also been highly supportive, such as Alexander Payne and William Friedkin. There has also been a very good reaction in France. Since it was so difficult to finance the project, it’s very good to get such a strong critical reaction. The DVDs or the documentary are selling very well. Gaumont and Pathé are very proud.
What are some of the highlights of the series?
I discovered a great deal of moving, exciting and very funny archive material. For example, I got some very good material about Sacha Guitry and Marcel Pagnol. Marcel Pagnol talks about making his 45-minute film, “Jofroi” in 1933. This was one of the first-ever Neo-realist films. He was inventing Neo-realism before the Italians. It’s based on a short story about a peasant farmer. Someone wants to cut down his olive tree and he tries to kill himself. It includes comedy and dark elements. It’s funny and moving. Quite original. Completely made with non-professional actors.
One of your main goals seems to be to highlight the eclecticism of French cinema
Absolutely. Especially in America, people identify French cinema only with the New Wave. If I told you that American cinema is just Coppola, Scorsese, Pollack, Altman, and forgot about Hitchcock, Lubitch, John Ford, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges you’d think I was mad. I admire New Wave directors such as Godard and Truffaut, but we also have to remember classic directors such as Clouzot and Autant Lara. For example, Autant Lara was the only director to make a film about abortion, “A Woman in White”, in 1965, when it was still a crime in France. This was a very brave film, essentially very feminist. He could have been prosecuted. There are also great directors who have been largely forgotten, such as Julien Duvivier. People are now rediscovering “Panique” and “La Fête à Henriette.” Stephen Sondheim is a big admirer of Duvivier. Overall, I think that people are seeing French cinema in a new light. I think there is greater openness to genre filmmaking and not just auteur cinema.
Do you think your project has increased interest in archive films?
Undoubtedly. It’s helped restore 30-40 films, some of which have been completely rediscovered. For example we show the first color French film, “La Terre qui Meurt,” (The Dying Land, 1936) directed by Jean Vallée, which was a discovery for everyone. It was shot on location in rural France, about a peasant farmer who is trapped because he can’t sell his land. Over the decades, French cinema has touched subjects that remain very topical. It’s impossible to put it into a box.