Bertrand Tavernier: “French Cinema is not Limited to the Nouvelle Vague”

The great French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, author of a dictionary of American cinema (an expanded version of which is due to be published at the end of 2021), passed away on March 25 at the age of 79. France-Amérique had interviewed him in 2017, on the occasion of the U.S. release of his documentary My Voyage Through French Cinema.

Ranging from the 1930s up to the 1970s, the documentary A Journey Through French Cinema offers Bertrand Tavernier’s personal vision of French cinema, focusing on the movies, directors and actors who had an impact on his life. Audiences follow him on this journey, experiencing his first emotions upon discovering Becker and Renoir in local theaters, the beginning of his career behind the camera thanks to Claude Sautet, and the years he spent working as a press officer for Chabrol, Godard and Varda. As well as the illustrious names, Tavernier also introduces viewers to lesser-known actors, such as Jean Sacha and Edmond T. Gréville, in trademark, pioneering style. The archives and commentaries are fascinating, and the anecdotes are often hilarious. This film is lively, vibrant and personal, and Tavernier’s infectious enthusiasm is just one aspect that captures the audience’s full attention for the full three hours. After leaving the theater, the only thing that comes to mind is (re)watching all of the films (around 100 in total) featured in the documentary!

France-Amérique: You had A Journey Through French Cinema in mind long before you finally directed it. What led you to take the plunge?

Bertrand Tavernier: It’s true that I took years to get going. I had to find the right angle. I thought I didn’t know how to make a historical film, in the manner of a historian. After all, I’m a director! I didn’t want the film to give a theoretic lesson on cinema, but rather offer my vision as a filmmaker, defined by my experiences throughout my career that have changed my perception of the movies I love. I told myself that if I made something highly personal, I could draw on a wealth of memories and anecdotes that are found nowhere else in historical works about cinema. Most of their directors have never met or known the artists they discuss. But I knew them, I worked with them, and I can use everything I have experienced to my advantage.

You take audiences from one decade to another, from gangster movies to comedies, without ever losing their attention. What criteria guided the narration of the film?

You have to choose a path but also be able to stray from it. I used the same methodology as for my fictional works, allowing myself enormous freedom from start to finish, often cutting scenes that were in the initial screenplay. With this in mind, there are also certain directors who did not make the documentary, such as Henri-Georges Clouzot, despite the fact I like him a lot. But if I had introduced Clouzot I would also have had to discuss the Occupation, which turned out to be impossible given the way the film was constructed. The same thing can be said for filmmakers such as Pagnol and Guitry. I was unable to include them, the scenes wouldn’t fit together, and the narration had moved in another direction. As I made the film, the characters seemed to take on lives of their own, forming natural links between them. The documentary moves from Renoir to Gabin, from Gabin to Carné, from Carné to Maurice Jaubert, and so on. Everything is positioned and linked in an almost inevitable manner. The only parts that remained unchanged from the very beginning are on Jacques Becker. I saw his film, The Trump Card, at the age of six in the sanatorium where I was being treated after the war. It was my first real encounter with cinema.

The title of your documentary is a nod to Martin Scorsese and his A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. Has he seen your film?

Yes. He really enjoyed it, and offered his full support. Our two films are both based on an immersion in our respective cinematic heritage, but our approaches are different. While Scorsese only concentrates on filmmakers, I chose to focus on every aspect of cinema, also presenting the work of actors, production designers and musicians, which I believe is an indissociable part of any director’s project. Take musicians, for example: they are the first critics of any work, and their compositions transpose the emotions they feel while watching the film. This artistic harmony is obvious when listening to Jaubert’s film score in Vigo’s L’Atalante and that of Kosma at the end of The Grand Illusion. It really is magnificent – the piece contains every theme from Renoir’s film, from friendship and brotherhood to love and war.

You explain how the production designer for Daybreak came up with the idea of placing Gabin’s room on the top of the building, instead of on the first floor as initially planned.

Alexandre Trauner understood what Prévert wanted to convey in the screenplay, and had this brilliant idea. Marcel Carné immediately defended him against the producers, who obviously concluded that it would cost them far more. But the idea for the set design, that Carné went on to transcend through his directing, changed the entire film!

You also give a significant part of the film to Jean Renoir, whom you admire greatly, while revealing his questionable attitude during the war.

There are certainly two sides to Renoir. I show an extract in which Jean Gabin resumes this contradiction with one of his pithy, trademark phrases: “As a director, Renoir is a genius. As a man, he’s a whore.” Renoir’s complacent attitude towards Marshall Petain’s regime in 1940 before he fled to America is actually little-known in the United States, where he always receives the highest praise. But I also show that this doesn’t necessarily influence his work, neither before nor after the war. It’s more complicated than that.

Your film was a big success in France, and is still screening in theaters. What are your expectations for its distribution in the United States?

I hope it will interest American audiences, and especially counter the exasperating cliché that boils French cinema down to the Nouvelle Vague! It wasn’t the case before. American critics would laud filmmakers such as Clouzot, Bresson, Duvivier and Grémillon, and their films were widely distributed. Duvivier was hired by Hollywood thanks to his film Life Dances On. René Clair was highly popular in the United States. But today, people haven’t even heard of Becker! Either through laziness or ignorance, many are happy to give French cinema a label. It is as if American cinema stopped at Coppola, Altman, Scorsese and Lumet, without considering Lubitsch, Hawks, Wilder, Capra and Walsh. Assuming that a single decade could represent an entire cinematic heritage is a little arrogant, don’t you think?

A sequel has already been announced. How is the next part of the project coming along?

It will be presented in eight episodes broadcast on television, and will feature Lara, Tourneur, Clouzot, Guitry, Clément, Pagnol, and all the directors I didn’t discuss in the first film and who had an impact on my life. The idea is the same; I will alternate between movie extracts, anecdotes, autobiographical narratives, and interviews. The period of time will also remain unchanged, running from the advent of talking movies in the 1930s up to the 1970s when I myself became a filmmaker. That way I can avoid all conflicts of interest. I have just finished filming, and I’m exhausted but happy!

Article published in June 2017 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.