Bertrand Tavernier – How To Be An Expert in French Film in just over Three Hours

French film maker, screenwriter and critic Bertrand Tavernier is a crucial link in the history of cinema. As if to prove it, the new documentary from the 76-year-old director behind hits such as ‘Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But and The Princess of Montpensier, is called My Journey Through French Cinema. 

Granted, it’s a very personal version of French film history, focusing on the movies and movie makers that have influenced him and whom he has known, but Tavernier’s passion, enthusiasm and peculiarly opinionated form of French scholarship combine to create an eye-opening whirl through the shadows and fog, the Occupation and the gangsters, the prostitutes and soldiers, the bars and the hideouts.

Tavernier doesn’t start with what might be the obvious jumping-in point: Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless and the young bucks of the 60s New Wave, although later in the over-three-hour memoir, he does come to talk about his work as a press agent for nouvelle vague producer Georges de Beauregard which takes in the films of Godard, Francois Truffaut, Agnes Varda and Claude Chabrol.

Bertrand Tavernier

Bertrand Tavernier

But it’s the exploration of the deeper past that proves perhaps most illuminating. Even for experts, cinephiles, Francophiles and archivists, there are gems that sparkle anew when Tavernier opens up the treasure trove of his memory.

He is, of course, indebted to the archives of Gaumont and Pathe, as well as the Lumiere Institute and Festival, which the director himself helped establish, along with Cannes boss Thierry Fremaux, in Tavernier’s home city of Lyons. With typical perversity, the documentary ends with Tavernier and Fremaux pondering what would have been the “first word ever uttered on the first movie ever shot” – which is, as Tavernier asserts without any doubt, the Lumiere brothers’ (Louis and August) 1895 footage of the workers streaming out of their factory in Lyons. The pair doubt that word was: “Action”.

Tavernier’s film kicks into action with a fondly remembered chase scene which he remembers loving as a child. Nostalgically, he recalls himself as being “a child of the Liberation” and the lights illuminating Lyons after the war were, for him, the same as the way the cinema screen lit up in the dark. Only years later did he realise the chase scene he adored as a kid, with its flashing lights and sirens, was from director Jacques Becker’s Dernier Atout. 

This proves the real start of his film, an in-depth look at the work of Becker, including his best-known films such as Casque d’Or, Le Trou and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. “You can hear the character’s heartbeats,” enthuses Tavernier. “His films have a rhythm in time with his character’s emotions.” 

Handily, Becker’s films have just been re-issued in a box-set here in the UK following a brief season at our own BFI Southbank because Tavernier’s film will certainly make any viewer want to discover more. I remember vividly the fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier heralding an exhibition of his own famous creations at the Barbican, by introducing a screening of Becker’s couture drama Falbalas and talking about how it influenced him and made him want to work in a major fashion house. Tavernier features a clip of Gaultier, too, and talks passionately about how Becker’s films empathised with workers – the seamstress, the peasants, the group work ethic. “No one is idle chez Becker,” he adds.  

Becker receives what feels like some long overdue hero worship as the lead in Tavernier’s love affair with French film. It’s obvious, from the constant compare and contrasts, he could do the same for le cinema Hollywoodien but swiftly, Tavernier is on to one of my all-time favourites: Jean Renoir.

Casque d’Or

While the great man’s masterworks surely form the pillars of any study of French cinema (La Grande Illusion, Partie de Campange, Boudu Saved From Drowning, La Regle du Jeu), Tavernier goes deeper, examining the techniques – dolly shots, group scenes, overlapping dialogue which  connects background and foreground – and picking out certain moments, eulogising that one group conversation in The Crime of Monsieur Lange is “one of the finest scenes in all French cinema”. I have immediately ordered a copy of this film, fired up to see it by Tavernier’s praise for it as “a masterpiece” and backed up by the perfectly illustrative clips. 

Remarkably, Tavernier is also minded to soil the Renoir legacy, pointing out his betrayal in becoming an American citizen, uttering an outraged: “The son of Pierre August Renoir does not become an American!” Renoir had gone to Hollywood to escape the German occupation and Tavernier skips over that period (and misses the wonderful film The River he shot in India in 1951) and comes back with the bright energy of Renoir’s French Cancan. He also unearths some letters from Renoir suggesting the man might have been an anti-Semite and a supporter of the Vichy regime. 

It’s a shocking moment, particularly in a film so generally positive and nurturing, and it’s left to the great actor and Renoir star Jean Gabin to say the unspeakable: “Renoir as director, a genius; as a man, ‘une pute’.”

Gabin himself gets a section, the only actor in a film about the great directors, or auteurs, as the French critics would later coin them. Gabin dominates Tavernier’s memory, “the first actor to embody the tragic quality of the working class hero and the spirit of the Popular Front.” This short-lived (1936-38) but influential political movement – which established workers’ rights – seems to have marked French cinema and Tavernier himself (born in 1941) very deeply, as does the Second World War. 

It is Gabin’s wonderfully charismatic performances in films such as La Bete Humaine (for Renoir) Quai des Brumes and Le Jour Se Leve that cement his reputation as the French everyman, his muscular rage, his rakish charm, his coiled power. Tavernier cites Gabin’s boat being bombed en route to Italy during the War as the moment things changed, when the actor’s “hair went white”. 

Skipping Gabin’s own sojourn in Hollywood during the War – where he had a turbulent affair with Marlene Dietrich  –  Tavernier asserts that after the War the general view of the actor was that he was “embourgeoisé”, softened and elevated to more middle-class roles. “France of the 1950s was about healing wounds and creating wealth,” concedes Tavernier. However, he still makes a persuasive case for the continuing power of a man he clearly admired greatly, citing his role as weary gangster Max Le Menteur in  1954’s Touchez Pas Au Grisbi as “one of the first anti-heroes in French cinema.” 

Gabin provides a bridge to an examination of Marcel Carné, for whom the actor appeared several times. “I can’t think of another film maker so derided by his colleagues as Carné,” is Tavernier’s surprise comment. I didn’t know Carné was disrespected. Quad des Brumes, Le Jour Se Leve have been classics for me since first I saw them as a student, living in Paris and studying Zola. Nothing sums up this golden period of French cinema better, surely?  While brushing on Les Enfants du Paradis, Tavernier hones in on, for me, a lesser-known film called Hotel du Nord, featuring Arletty and Louis Jouvet and a dialogue exchange that has apparently entered the French vernacular, in which Arletty’s defiant prostitute berates her lover: “Do I look like an atmosphere?”. 

Carné’s cinema stands as a monument, as much for his collaborations as anything else. “He couldn’t write a line of dialogue,” remembers someone – Tavernier is not against  introducing us to the flaws of his heroes. But the names who contributed to such works include the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prevert as well as the composers Joseph Kosma and Maurice Jaubert. The latter’s score for the gorgeous 1934 Jean Vigo film L’Atalante (starring Dita Parlo and Michel Simon) proves a key moment for Tavernier, who also reminisces on the harmonica in Grisbi and, ever the jazz lover, the Miles Davis trumpet in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud, from 1958.

Le Trou

There’s much more to relish and discover from Tavernier’s memory banks, every thought and idea always beautifully illustrated by a clip. The films of American-born actor Eddie Constantine feature, perhaps surprisingly. “I went to see every one of his films,” he says. “I adored this actor.” Constantine, who also worked closely with Edith Piaf, was famed for his portrayal of hard-boiled detective Lemmy Caution in a series of B-movies throughout the 1950s and endures for the way Godard later used both actor and character for iconoclastic purposes in his sci-fi oddity Alphaville (1965).

There’s particular praise for a director called Edward T Greville, of whom I’d never heard. Tavernier muses over this neglected auteur and how he and his band of cinephiles, disciples of the great programmer Henri Langlois (later of the Cinematheque, and whose dismissal helped spark the May 1968 unrest), rescued this director’s work from a pile of decaying nitrates. There’s particular praise for a terrific-looking 1938 film called Menaces starring Erich von Stroheim. “It was here I first discovered the need for film preservation and restoration,” remembers Tavernier, who has made these a vital part of his career, as has Martin Scorsese on whose previous docs, A Personal Journey through American Cinema and My Journey To Italy, this film is clearly modelled.

The final hour of Tavernier’s Journey is infused by the energy of the New Wave, including shots of Bardot naked in Le Mepris and Anna Karina and Jean Paul Belmondo on the run in Pierrot Le Fou, both for Godard. While Tavernier also rekindles his love for Agnes Varda’s freewheeling Cleo de 5 à 7  and for the impish humour of Claude Chabrol and the gentle depths of Claude Sautet, he reserves most of his affection for the film maker Melville, who gave him his first job.

He recalls seeing Jean Pierre Melville’s gangster film Bob Le Flambeur in a dingy cinema in Lyons that also had a strip-tease act in between showings. “I went back three times that week,” he admits, “and it wasn’t for the stripper.” Melville gets a big chunk of the late stages of the movie, his stylish, stripped back gangster films such as Le Doulos, which Tavernier swears Quentin Tarantino told him was his favourite film, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. He makes much of Melville’s maverick take on American movies, how he flipped the images and changed them, introducing French ideas as well as fashioning the new France in his own idea of Americana: “Police stations in France didn’t really look like they did in Melville’s movies – he based them all on what he saw in American films.”

A film called Leon Morin, Priest tells of the relationship between Jean-Paul Belmondo’s handsome young parish priest and Emmanuelle Riva’s anxious widow hiding her daughter during the Occupation. “It was the first film to look at the Occupation through female eyes,” says Tavernier.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi

A season of Melville films is currently playing at BFI Southbank and Tavernier’s documentary will make you want to dive right in. That’s the triumph of this 192 minutes of filmic reminiscence. Tavernier fires you up to match his passion but takes you on unexpected by-ways, with anecdotes and name-drops. The personal touch leads to one of the film’s great insights. Says Tavernier: As Renoir himself once told me: “You have to make a film thinking you’re going to change the world. You need that kind of arrogance. But you must at the same time remain humble enough to think that if I touch just two people, you will have done something extraordinary.” 

I’d say that with My Journey Through French Cinema, Tavernier has done just what Renoir would have wanted and created a living monument to some of the greatest images and artists of European cinema, a film that can’t fail to ignite something in every viewer, at least the desire to track down some old films new to you. Some you will know well, others will become some of your most cherished discoveries. And if not, you’ll be able to talk eruditely about French film at even the most pretentious dinner parties for many years to come.

My Journey Through French Cinema is showing at the Cine Lumiere in London and will be released on DVD in the UK in December.

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