Review: Those Movies, Himself — Bertrand Tavernier’s Tour of French Cinema


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The director Bertrand Tavernier in the documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema,” an immersive and wide-reaching exploration of French cinema by one of its own.

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Etienne George/Cohen Media Group

Bertrand Tavernier’s “My Journey Through French Cinema” delivers what it promises. Even so, its explanatory title doesn’t begin to convey just how exhilarating or inspiring a documentary this truly is, and how excellent a trip this well-respected French director takes you on. Deep, thoughtful, immersive, specific yet also wide-reaching, it is an exploration of French cinema by one of its own, a cinephile whose formative movie love evolved into a directing career that includes titles like “Coup de Torchon,” “Life and Nothing But” and “Captain Conan.”

It begins once upon a time in Lyon, France, where Mr. Tavernier was born in 1941. He was born again, in a sense, when he saw “Dernier Atout.” “That’s where a movie made its first real impact on me,” he says over gleaming black-and-white images from a chase scene with fedored gangsters, motorcycle cops and lots of atmosphere. Mr. Tavernier could visualize that chase for years but it wasn’t until a quarter-century later that — voilà! — he identified it as coming from a 1942 crime film directed by Jacques Becker. “At age 6,” Mr. Tavernier says with a smile, “I could’ve made a worse choice.”

Mr. Tavernier’s acknowledgment of his own precocity is amusingly self-aware and inviting; it quickly humanizes the documentary and suggests that, while Mr. Tavernier speaks with authority, this is also a highly personal enterprise. It is, after all, his journey, one that has its own routes, ports of call and charming idiosyncrasies. And while the movie more or less flows chronologically — he is born, he sees films, becomes a man, sees more movies, becomes a director — it isn’t slavishly linear. Mr. Tavernier also likes to circle back to earlier periods, including ones he’s passed over or through, returns that make for surprises and that reflect a profound, insistent sense of history.

In “My Journey Through French Cinema,” history is a thread that Mr. Tavernier uses to pull together different movies and makers, creating arguments — about art and life, time and space — that become autobiography. When Mr. Tavernier announces that Becker was “one of the French directors who best understood and mastered American filmmaking,” you hear admiration in his voice. And when he adds that Becker’s passion for American cinema is evident in all his movies and lingers on that director’s love of jazz, you may also flash on Mr. Tavernier’s own jazz movie, “’Round Midnight.” (Mr. Tavernier also helped write an encyclopedic book titled “50 Years of American Cinema.”)

Although he pops up onscreen, Mr. Tavernier mostly guides you with his voice, which tethers you to his essayistic discussions. The movie is divided into sections that are punctuated by a fade to black and are, largely if not exclusively, centered on directors. Some are fairly straightforward; at other times, Mr. Tavernier pleasurably meanders as when, after a mention of boarding school, he moves onto topics like François Truffaut and “Shoot the Piano Player” (“It’s the only film I saw booed on the Champs-Élysées”); Henri Langlois, a founder of the Cinémathèque Française; André Malraux’s “L’Espoir”; other critics (“we wanted to decide for ourselves”); and the director Edmond T. Gréville.

Mr. Tavernier’s descriptions oscillate between the precise and the sweeping, and every so often he floats on private currents of thought. Usually, you see what he says — words fit the images — but not always. I loved the sound of “the mise-en-scène flexes emotion like you flex your muscles,” for instance, but didn’t truly know what that was supposed to mean. He drops this line while discussing Becker’s “Casque d’Or” over a scene in which a man (Serge Reggiani) looks yearningly at a dancing woman (Simone Signoret). Still, if you keep watching and listening (always a good idea), you too see the emotions — perhaps not flexing, but rippling — as she whirls, eyes fixed on the man not in her arms.

Mr. Tavernier turned movie love into criticism but, like all good critics, he never fell out of love. It’s delightful to share in that passion and a pleasure too that he’s more interested in ideas and emotions than stories and plots. If you don’t know the films he talks about, you may not grasp what they’re about; it doesn’t matter. He also doesn’t identify everyone onscreen, mostly, I think, because he really wants you to watch and listen and, anyway, you can read their names in the credits. I suggest you sit through them with paper and pen so you can write down the title of every movie you’ve already seen (you’ll want to watch them again) and every title you’ve never heard of (because worlds await).

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