Today's Hollywood appears to dominate world cinema by exporting American film (and culture) to every corner of the globe, but it's not surprising to learn that the true history of world cinema is rich, varied and complex, and that France has long played a central, influential role in the development of film as artistic expression. All of that is taken for granted in My Journey Through French Cinema, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier's sprawling yet deeply personal examination of French cinema from the 1930s to the 1970s.
Tavernier's (A Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight) documentary is anything but comprehensive in its approach to French film. True to its title, the 195-minute My Journey Through French Cinema focuses on films and filmmakers that inspired Tavernier and shaped his life and career. Those who know French cinema may be surprised to find scarcely a mention of major figures such as Jacques Tati (Playtime) and Max Ophuls (Lola Montes). But a nonacademic approach to the pleasures of French film is the documentary's primary strength.
In a brief but impassioned introduction, Tavernier connects his childhood experiences of the liberation of his hometown of Lyon at the end end of World War II with his discovery of film. The 76-year-old filmmaker proceeds to construct his cinematic journey primarily in 15- or 20-minute segments, each focusing on the work of a single filmmaker he holds dear.
Tavernier's early heroes include Jacques Becker (Casque d'Or), lauded for his simple stories and passion for American film; the great Jean Renoir (The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game), revered for the naturalism of his characters; and Marcel Carne (Children of Paradise), whom Tavernier seems not to admire as a director but who nevertheless gains tribute for creating true classics of world cinema.
The filmmaker-specific sections are broken up by forays into the innovative early use of music in French film and a lengthy examination of actor and great French anti-hero Jean Gabin. For the film's final hour, Tavernier switches focus to the auteurs he worked with early in his career, including Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Doulos, Quentin Tarantino's favorite film) and stalwarts of the French New Wave including Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) and Claude Chabrol (Les Bonnes Femmes).
Tavernier's film offers a great density of material to take in all at once. On top of the barrage of film excerpts are English subtitles translating Tavernier's insightful narration, often mixed with subtitles translating film dialogue, all presented alongside sometimes fast-shifting titles (in French) of the excerpted films at the bottom right of the screen.
But full attention reaps rewards. The magic of Tavernier's Journey comes from how many of these earth-shaking works are unfamiliar even to fans of foreign film. It's a special treat to see these often stunning clips in a theatrical setting. The cumulative effect is one of being initiated into a secret society you never knew existed but may never want to leave.
The documentary loses some steam before concluding, but that may be because we're ready to move on from excerpts to experiencing newly discovered, full-length masterworks. That is the gift of Tavernier's impassioned film.