Most of the first half hour of Bertrand Tavernier's "My Journey Through French Cinema" is about Jacques Becker, the director of the first film which made an impression on Tavernier but who is little known here by general film fans. When he shows us a scene from Becker's "Casque D'Or" (1952), our eyes practically pop out of our sockets for fleeting glimpses of an arrestingly beautiful blonde woman. She seems to envelop the entire screen the way great movie stars so often do.
It is a young Simone Signoret, whom we Americans didn't start seeing with any regularity before Jack Clayton's "Room at the Top" was released seven years later in which she was the very image of a mature French temptress. In Becker's film, which Tavernier is discussing in a very French and directorly way, she is younger and slimmer and more radiant, as if she were a French counterpart to Marilyn Monroe. Your eyes refuse to move from her face.
Tavernier never bothers to mention that we're looking at a Simone Signoret the way the world seldom saw her after "Room at the Top." He identifies her later but in passing. However much the fellow loves actors, he isn't all that crazy about discoursing about them (unless they're Jean Gabin or Eddie Constantine). It's directors and producers he loves talking about. And Henri Langlois, whose Cinematheque was such a cause celebre in Paris that it caused a riot in 1968 when he was removed from the directorship. Tavernier was clobbered by cops during the ensuing demonstration.
How, we might ask, can anyone not love a country where people demonstrate in the streets over dedicated movie archivists? If you want an answer, see Tavernier's "My Journey Through French Cinema," which, for most American film audiences, will often be a journey through cheerful esoterica into near-total obscurity. The film is certainly educational but it's three hours and 15 minutes long. It was modeled on a couple of films by Martin Scorsese, especially his "Personal Journey Through American Movies." The great New Wave directors are mentioned with some prominence and wit at the end of the film--Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Agnes Varda (but Malle and Resnais almost not at all). But he is more interested in telling us about their great and embattled forebears of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, of whom most Americans know little.
Becker, the volatile and cruel Jean-Pierre Melville, for whom Tavernier worked, for instance. The latter separated film into two categories, "crap" and "masterpieces." The great Jean Renoir gets enormous attention but even there this long personal essay passes up all manner of opportunities to connect on a basic level with Americans. When Tavernier shows us a sterling scene from Renoir's masterwork "Grande Illusion" in which people in a nightclub sing "The Marseillaise," he doesn't bother mentioning the obvious fact that Renoir's scene clearly inspired Hungarian director Michael Curtiz to expand on it in one of the primal scenes in American movies in "Casablanca."
No matter how full of knowledge of French film one might imagine himself to be, Tavernier's film is so vehemently personal that he'll expose you to all manner of figures you've either never heard of or thought about.
French film composer Joseph Kosma, for instance, best known for the song we know as "Autumn Leaves." He's one of Tavernier's heroes. So is transplanted American star Eddie Constantine. Add to that list Claude Sautet and obscure director Edward T. Greville. He's happy to tell us what an SOB Melville could be. He's also happy to confide that that his friend Sautet, as assistant director, is the one who directed the finest scenes in Franju's 1960 "Eyes Without a Face." (Former film publicists--which Tavernier is--love to tattle on their former clients.)
His humor picks up as the marathon film draws to a close. He gets a malicious kick out of telling us that co-producer Carlo Ponti forced Jean-Luc Godard to include a Brigitte Bardot nude scene in "Contempt" but that the scene was clipped from the version shown in Italy. So the most famous naked backside in film history couldn't be seen in Ponti's own country, even though he insisted on its inclusion in Godard's movie.
I'm a huge admirer of Tavernier's films--"The Clockmaker," "Coup de Torchon," "Life and Nothing But," "Round Midnight." But his work, after the '90s, stopped being imported to America. This film is like suddenly re-introducing us Americans, 20 years later, to an almost- forgotten uncle who tells us stories, both good and bad, interesting and boring, about people he thinks we need to know but don't.
"My Journey Through French Cinema"
Two and a half out of four stars
The great French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier talks about his life in films and gives his thoughts about his cinematic countrymen. 195 minutes. No rating but PG equivalent for a flash of Brigitte Bardot nudity. In French with subtitles. Opens Friday in the North Park Theater.