Whether you already consider yourself an expert on French cinema or are just beginning to explore all the country has to offer, director Bertrand Tavernier’s more-than-three-hour “My Journey Through French Cinema” provides an essential tour through the films that shaped him as a cinephile and storyteller. Clearly modeled after Martin Scorsese’s own made-for-TV journey through American Movies, this incredibly personal and occasionally idiosyncratic labor of love hails from one of the country’s leading experts on the medium, combining a wide-ranging survey with insights that only Tavernier could provide.
A celebrated helmer in his own right, Tavernier counts such masterworks as “A Sunday in the Country” and “Coup de torchon” among his credits. But the director’s contributions to the medium are hardly limited to his own filmography. Like so many French directors of his generation, Tavernier started out as a film critic, studying and championing the work of the era’s leading auteurs. His early essays gave him access to his idols, among them Jean Renoir and Jean-Pierre Melville, who offered Tavernier a job as his assistant.
The documentary’s Melville segment is by far its most essential half-hour, enriched by firsthand anecdotes of working with the famously surly director of “Le Doulos” (a film whose reputation Tavernier boosts by positioning it as Quentin Tarantino’s favorite — a dubious claim, but a deserving choice), as well as a stunning audio recording of an heated argument between Melville and star Jean-Pierre Belmondo from the set of “Magnet of Doom.”
“Melville made it clear I was a lousy assistant,” Tavernier recalls with a smile, adding, “He was right” — and though Melville ultimately fired Tavernier, he also helped him to land his next gig, as a press agent for the likes of Jean-Luc Godard. That job brought Tavernier closer still to the emerging talent of that time, preparing him for his own career as a director, while giving him practice in defending the work of his peers. At roughly the same time, Tavernier became a passionate advocate of film preservation, a cause that led him to create the Lumière classic film festival (with Cannes topper Thierry Frémaux, who appears late in the movie) — all of which makes him uniquely suited to undertake such a “Journey.”
Personally — and what better way to respond to this unapologetically autobiographical excursion? — I wish this “Journey” had existed three years earlier, as it would have made the perfect primer before I relocated to Paris in 2014 (my own French journey ended just as Tavernier’s doc was premiering at the Cannes film festival in 2016). At the time, one of the most intimidating aspects of leaving Los Angeles to live abroad was the sense of being air-dropped into a country with an entirely different set of cultural touchstones. Whereas Americans quote from the likes of “Star Wars” and “The Simpsons,” the French draw on everything from Serge Gainsbourg lyrics to such hit comedies as “Les Bronzés” (imported as “French Fried Vacation”) and “Le père Noël est une ordure” (AKA “Santa Claus Is a Stinker”) — none of which factor into Tavernier’s selective survey, mind you.
Sure, I’d studied the French New Wave in college, and had since gorged on movies by such masters as Maurice Pialat, Bertrand Blier, and Agnès Varda, but the fact remained that I hadn’t been raised in that environment, and as such, often failed to recognize some of the most basic references French people take for granted. But here’s the thing: Tavernier’s movie offers a unique kind of vicarious upbringing, inviting outsiders to share in an obsessive French cinéaste’s formative film experiences, from watching Jacques Becker’s “Dernier atout” (1942) as a tuberculosis-stricken child to feeling liberated by Claude Sautet’s “Max and the Junkmen” three decades later.
Although clearly intended for French audiences (specifically, those who’ve gorged on pop culture but might have missed key classics along the way), the documentary offers foreigners a valuable alternative history — one that skips over such of-the-moment Oscar-winning phenoms as “Sundays and Cybele” (1962) and Claude Lelouch’s “A Man and a Woman” (1966) in favor of test-of-time champs such as Marcel Carné and Julien Duvivier (who is only just being rediscovered, thanks in part to the efforts of the Lumière festival).
The doc unspools in a loosely chronological order, as Tavernier supplies deep-dive appreciations of various artists — not just directors, but also key stars (such as Arletty and Jean Gabin), screenwriters (Henri Jeanson) and, in a most welcome surprise, composers (Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma). As his 1986 film “’Round Midnight” made clear, Tavernier is a great lover of jazz and devotes considerable screen time to exploring the way French film music differs from the American tradition of the time, citing Miles Davis’ score for “Elevator to the Gallows” as an especially innovative example (though he might also have mentioned Thelonious Monk’s work on “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”).
Given his experience as a film director, Tavernier appreciates the way that those who came before either innovated the language (as in “Rififi’s” real-time heist) or perfected it (the way Melville improved upon the American crime cinema tradition), selecting extracts that most clearly and concisely demonstrate the points he wants to make. Such tangible observations give audiences something to watch for when they go back later to fill in the gaps, hunting down the films they’ve discovered along this remarkable “Journey.”
Still, it’s important to recognize that Tavernier’s well-curated excursion is by no means definitive, covering just three decades, and even then, with a relatively shallow focus. Though Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson did their best work between 1942 and 1971 (the period under examination), Tavernier barely acknowledges them, or countless others — such as Jacques Tati! Furthermore, he steers far clear of France’s proud claim to having invented moving pictures. Americans tend to give Thomas Edison credit, although any journey through French cinema ought to include the likes of the Lumière and Georges Méliès — and Tavernier is such an expert on mid-century American movies (he co-authored the definitive “50 ans de cinéma américain” catalog) that he could just as easily conduct another journey dedicated to his amis américains (or “American Friends,” the title of his 1,000-page collection of interviews with Hollywood legends).
Of course, there’s only so much one can squeeze into 313 minutes, and insiders insist that Tavernier has a still-longer version of this project up his sleeve. As it is, he samples from no fewer than 95 films, enriching the experience with clips from archival TV interviews, as well as memories of his own — which are by far the most precious elements on offer. His personal reflections on Melville, Chabrol, Godard and Sautet make the last hour of the film indispensable, while the rest may as well be governed by a lesson gleaned from Jean Renoir. Without ignoring Renoir’s own troubled history (few Americans know of the “Grand Illusion” director’s anti-Semitism, revealed through letters to a Vichy minister), Tavernier confides, “As Renoir told me one days, ‘You have to make a film thinking you’ll change the course of history. You need that arrogance. But you must also be humble enough to think, if you touch two people, you’ve done something extraordinary.’”