Veteran French helmer Bertrand Tavernier (“The French Minister”) is curating a 15-film retrospective of films by Henri Decoin (1890-1969), a larger-than-life character who before directing his first feature, at the age of 43, was an Olympic swimmer, WWI pilot, sports journalist and novelist.

Decoin is one of the three directors – alongside Jean Grémillon and Max Ophuls – featured in the first episode of Tavernier’s “My Journeys Through French Cinema,” a follow-up project to his documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema”.

Tavernier believes that Decoin left a decisive mark on Gallic cinema due to the fluidity of his directing style, inspired in part by his sojourn in Hollywood in 1938, his innovative exploration of genres such as crime, espionage thrillers, historical sagas and psychological dramas, his remarkable adaptations of novels by George Simenon and his notable collaboration with actors such as Jean Gabin, Louis Jouvet and his second wife, Danielle Darrieux.

The retrospective includes a restored print of Decoin’s 1940 classic, “Beating Heart” starring Darrieux, which followed her first American film, “The Rage of Paris” and was shot just before the Nazi occupation of France. The restored print previously screened in the 2018 Cannes Film Festival with the description: “The day Henri Decoin brought Hollywood to France.”

Tavernier will personally present each film and says that he is particularly looking forward to the retrospective since he has never seen several of the films on the big screen. 

The retrospective also includes the participation of Decoin’s son – writer and screenwriter Didier Decoin, and Françoise Arnoul, heroine of “The Cat”.  

In this exclusive interview with Variety, Tavernier talks in-depth about Decoin and also discusses his current projects including a major book on American cinema and a feature film project, “Snowbirds,” written by Russell Banks.

Why did you choose to curate this retrospective of Henri Decoin?

Decoin wasn’t just a very good craftsman, he originated films, often working on the screenplay even when he wasn’t credited. He was ahead of his time. He had strong female characters and addressed key issues related to feminism before anyone else was doing so. For example, in “The Truth of Our Marriage” starring his ex-wife, Darrieux, the film is darker and bolder than Simenon’s novel. They created something very audacious, quite remarkable. That was one of his first films that attracted me to him. The last 20 minutes are as good as some of the best film noirs by Otto Preminger or Henry Hathaway. It is quite different from other French films made at that time. There’s something about the framing, the fluidity. It’s all very sharp. He loved American films and brought an American influence into French cinema before Jacques Becker. Like Becker he understood the importance of fluidity, tempo and inventive direction, avoiding an attempt to underline things in the film. His best works were at the level of the finest comedies by Howard Hawks.

What was distinctive about his filmmaking style?

I interviewed Michel Deville who worked as his assistant on over a dozen films, who told me that unlike most French directors, such as Marcel Carné or Claude Autant Lara, he never prepared a shot list before the shoot. This wasn’t a question of improvisation. He never placed camera before seeing the actors in action. He knew how to occupy space. As soon as he saw the action he immediately said where to place the camera. He maintained a great fluidity of direction. Some French films are a bit stiff. You never see that in his best films. He sometimes did very long takes. He worked a lot with the same director of photography, Pierre Montazel. You can find some American directors who worked liked this. It’s a bit like the fluidity of Raoul Walsh or Gordon Douglas.

He loved to take chances, for example in his black and white films of the 1940s and 1950s. When he started to film in color he also maintained an expressive style with high contrast, unlike many French directors who tended to over-light the scenes and were very late in terms of controlling color compared to American and British directors.

For example in his 1955 color film “The Case of Poisons” in which Darrieux played the mistress of Louis XIV, many scenes take place in darkness. This was one of the rare daring color films shot at the time in France.

Decoin also played major attention to music 

Absolutely. In this respect, he reminds me of Gordon Douglas, whom I love. Decoin was the only French director who worked twice with the best French composer at that time, Henri Dutilleux, who composed very few soundtracks. The music is absolutely stunning. In interviews, Dutilleux said that he loved working with Decoin, who had a very intelligent approach to the use of music and gave him ideas. For example, he heard little children whistling a song in the film and asked him to use that in the soundtrack. Dutilleux also wrote his only jazz composition in his life, for “Clockface Cafe”, which was only heard when the characters open the door or the window of the cafe. That was in 1946. Nobody was doing that and no critic noted that. In 1962, he also worked with French concrete music pioneer Pierre Henry on “Maléfices” which has a really modern feel to it, a bit like a John Carpenter film.

Decoin was a target of the French New Wave?

Yes. After the attack by the New Wave he was lost, he felt alone. One of the reasons of the criticism was his inconsistent quality and it’s true that some of his later films were more flawed. But you have to remember that he came from a very poor family. He had to work from the age of seven, to give money to his family. That’s why he started swimming. As a child he used to swim across the River Seine at Christmas and New Year’s, asking people to pay to see him. It was freezing cold. Then he became a swimming champion. He broke all French records. He was a pilot in WWI and survived 11 crashes, and won several military distinctions. He had an incredible life, a bit like John Houston or Raoul Walsh, but he never talked about it. He was always frightened of being out of job and never started a film if he didn’t have another film lined up after it. That’s why he made some uneven films. It came from his childhood. Michel Deville told me that he sometimes accepted films that he knew weren’t the best because he needed to work. Perhaps his most autobiographical film was “Au grand balcon” about the Toulouse-Casablanca airline, but it’s very difficult to find an interview where he talked about it. People didn’t know that he had been an aviator.

How did he come to terms with working during the Nazi occupation?

There was major pressure from the unions on the leading directors to continue working because otherwise tens of thousands of technicians would be out of a job. He produced two films for the German-owned Continental Films. He always had final cut and worked on the condition that there were no German actors or technicians on the film. He worked with the Jewish screenwriter, Michel Duran, who wrote “Beating Heart”, before the occupation. He paid him himself and gave him half his salary. On the third film he used the pre-pre-production period to take Duran to Switzerland who later said that Decoin saved his life. In the 1942 film, ”Strangers in the House” based on Simenon’s novel, and starring Raimu, he insisted that the villain shouldn’t have a Jewish name. 

What are some of the other highlights of the retrospective?

“Not Guilty” (1947) is one of Decoin’s underrated great films. It’s the reverse of Duvivier’s “Panique” which also starred Michel Simon.

“Les Amants du pont Saint-Jean” (1947) is also very good. It has a very good screenplay by Jean Aurenche. It’s one of the first French neo-realist films, with a lot of scenes shot on location. It’s bittersweet. Tender. Sometimes dark. The ending is incredibly elliptical. One of the films I really want to see again is “The Cat” (1958) about a woman in the resistance. It’s very well shot. In a crisp American way. I have never seen his first film, the short “A bas les hommes” (1931) which I’m also really curious to see. 

What are your other personal projects beyond the retrospective? 

I hope by the end of the Lumière festival to finish the book “100 Years of American Cinema” that I’m co-writing with Jean Pierre Coursodon. This is an expansion on our early works on 50 years of American cinema. It includes the silent cinema and the years between 1995 and 2014. We cover many directors not covered in the previous work, such as Oliver Stone, Gus van Sant, David Fincher and Ang Lee and also a lot of pre-Hays Code films from the 1930s. I hope to publish in the second quarter of 2019. In terms of feature film projects, I’m waiting for the green light on a feature. Billy Wilder said the life of a film director is 95% waiting and 5% working. The project is called “Snowbirds,” written by Russell Banks, based on his short story. It’s a very good screenplay. I would also like to teach film in Los Angeles for a one-year period. Let’s see what happens!

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