Bertrand Tavernier's odyssey

The director discusses My Journey Through French Cinema.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Bertrand Tavernier with Anne-Katrin Titze:
Bertrand Tavernier with Anne-Katrin Titze: "Josef von Sternberg's Macao. Dubbed in Vietnamese and I have never been able to watch the film again ..." Photo: Sophie Gluck

The day before the opening of the 54th New York Film Festival, I met with Bertrand Tavernier for an in-depth conversation on his documentary Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage À Travers Le Cinéma Français) that spanned fashion from Mila Parély wearing Coco Chanel's ocelot coat in Jean Renoir's La Règle Du Jeu, the daring of Mireille Balin's deep décolleté in Jean Delannoy's Macao, L'Enfer Du Jeu, to Jean Paul Gaultier's reaction to Jacques Becker's Falbalas.

Bertrand Tavernier:
Bertrand Tavernier: "Also, it's learning about myself. How I discovered those films."

Also, Robert Mitchum in Vietnamese, never having to see Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo again, Yves Montand and the birth of Autumn Leaves, Ernst Lubitsch interactions between Lino Ventura and Jean-Pierre Melville and so much more.

Here is the first installment, an amuse-bouche to whet your appetite for Tavernier's masterwork on French cinema which starts with an image from Jean Vigo's L'Atalante and ends with Romy Schneider directed by Claude Sautet.

The possessive pronoun in the original English title ( (My Journey Through French Cinema) is significant. This is not an encyclopedia entry, but a living, breathing adventure with a wonderfully personal guide in Bertrand Tavernier. He dedicates the journey to two grand directors, Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet, who bookend the documentary with their empathy and sense of community.

Dita Parlo with Jean Dasté in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, scored by Maurice Jaubert
Dita Parlo with Jean Dasté in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, scored by Maurice Jaubert

Bertrand recounts his stay in a sanatorium, where he was treated for tuberculosis as a six year old. It was the first time he was deeply impressed by a film - by Becker, it turns out. Tavernier in informative clips explains the mastery and allure of Becker's work - how in Casque d'Or, for example, Simone Signoret enters the dance hall differently than everybody else or how the structure of Touchez Pas au Grisbi can only be described as "organic and simple."

His second "big shock" was seeing La Grande Illusion, which leads into a segment about Jean Renoir, his professional genius and personal shortcomings, including the Vichy letters, as described by those who knew him well, such as Jean Gabin. A spotlight on the great actor - from the war experience that turned his hair white overnight to a mini-study of the manifold and versatile ways he could get angry on screen - is followed by the musical belly of the documentary.

Two composers, Maurice Jaubert, who gave the sublime lyrical quality to Jean Vigo's L'Atalante and worked with René Clair, Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carné, and Hungarian-born composer Joseph Kosma, who was introduced to Jean Renoir by Jacques Prévert are highlighted by Tavernier. When Yves Montand, almost indiscernibly, begins to sing in Les Portes De La Nuit, Les Feuilles Mortes made shivers run down my spine.

"I was seeing the films in cinemas and sometimes under conditions which were very bizarre."

A young Tavernier goes to the Cinémathèque in Paris where he not only watches Josef von Sternberg's Macao dubbed in Vietnamese, but also ends up rescuing together with his friends, two films by Edmond T. Gréville, his first glimpse into the importance of film preservation.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When I mentioned that we were going to meet today to talk about your film, many said how excited they were to see it and filmmakers sent their greetings, including Alexander Payne, Atom Egoyan, Dominik Graf and The Ride director Stéphanie Gillard. It is, on the one hand, a film with notable interest for filmmakers and, on the other, a film for everybody.

Bertrand Tavernier: I hope it's a film for everybody! I think it's a film for everybody who is curious, who wants to learn about French cinema. But learning about French cinema is learning about France. Also, it's learning about myself. How I discovered those films. Sometimes it's funny, the conditions. I was not seeing the films in private screening rooms, I was seeing the films in cinemas and sometimes under conditions which were very bizarre.

Henry Moore at Lincoln Center, home of the New York Film Festival
Henry Moore at Lincoln Center, home of the New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Like, for instance, sitting next to somebody who was eating a can of peas in front of me. Eating it, the can of peas, next seat inside the cinema! He was eating his peas while we were watching the film. You never forget a film seen in those conditions. I was seeing sometimes films in the Cinémathèque with very bizarre prints. Like hearing Robert Mitchum talk in Vietnamese.

AKT: You mention that in the film - it was Macao?

BT: Yes, Josef von Sternberg's Macao. Dubbed in Vietnamese and I have never been able to watch the film again because every time I start to watch it, I remember Mitchum talking Vietnamese in a very high pitched voice. That was so incredible, the result.

AKT: That's what is so wonderful about your film. Everyone who goes to the cinema knows those moments and the how we see it becomes so much connected to what we see. I remember seeing Top Hat in a cinema in Paris and suddenly some guy gets up and starts tap dancing.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Josef von Sternberg's Macao
Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Josef von Sternberg's Macao

BT: This was something that was unique in discovering a film. Sometimes the projection was not great but at least it was an adventure. There was something of an adventure. Now films are sometimes easy to see, you can get them on your cellphone. You are losing a little bit of the adventure. Sometimes we had to travel to see a film. We had to go to Belgium.

I had to go to England to see a film which was very rare. There was a spirit of adventure, like trying to find a hidden gem. Sometimes the effort was so great, we were overestimating some of the films. Because it had been so difficult to see them, we wanted them to be good!

AKT: Do you have an example of that?

BT: Oh, I don't remember. But there were films that we missed several times and when we finally got it we said - we have to love it! And when I saw it years later, I found the film very disappointing.

AKT: Because of the hunt. There was no hunt.

54th New York Film Festival poster on Broadway
54th New York Film Festival poster on Broadway Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

BT: The hunt becoming more important than the game!

AKT: Those are the rules of the game. The first image of your film is from L'Atalante and the last one is Romy Schneider from a Sautet film?

BT: Yes. Absolutely.

AKT: Why these two?

BT: I don't know. The last image on the film is Romy Schneider because I wanted to end it on her because I think she is so moving and Sautet had a way of filming women in his films which was unique. She was the heart of the film, she was the emotion of the film. And I love her, I did a film with her. So that was a way of paying a little tribute to her.

AKT: You have a spotlight on Jean Gabin, so I thought maybe, this was also looking at a continuation of the film with a spotlight on her - although she [Romy Schneider] was born Austrian, of course she is so important for French cinema.

BT: Yeah, that's true.

My Journey Through French Cinema: Saturday, October 1 at 3:00pm - Walter Reade Theater; Sunday, October 2 at 2:45pm - Francesca Beale Theater - Bertrand Tavernier will attend both screenings.

The 54th New York Film Festival will run from September 30 through October 16.

The full conversation with Bertrand Tavernier on My Journey Through French Cinema will be published upon the theatrical release of the film in the US by Cohen Media in 2017.

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