One of the things I most admire about French film culture is how fluidly people have moved among different roles in the industry. To take an obvious example, New Wave directors Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut were all critics who wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma, while Eric Rohmer served as that publication’s editor. More recently, noted director Bertrand Tavernier (A Sunday in the Country, Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But) displayed his vast knowledge of French film in the 201 minute documentary My Journey Through French Cinema (2016). As the title suggests, that film centered on films that were particularly important to Tavernier, and did not claim to be a comprehensive survey of French film. The scope of that initial effort was expanded into an 8-part series Journeys Through French Cinema, which over the course of its 459 minutes covers a variety of topics not included in the original film.
Each episode is organized around a subject, and is made up of a combination of film clips (some quite rare, and most long enough to give you a good sense of the director and film in question), exposition and narration by Tavernier (a genial and articulate presence on camera), and clips of interviews with other people. Tavernier is particularly keen on articulating why he values each director and each film, and he communicates his appreciation effectively. I’ll grant that I’m a sucker for the “film school in a box” type of compilation, but this one is especially good, communicating as it does the enthusiasms of an important director while also providing introductions to and analyses of a number of films, many of which aren’t that well-known in the United States.
The episodes are all intriguing, but because they are only identified on the discs by number “Episode One,” “Episode Two,” etc.), rather than by episode title or subject matter, it can be a challenge to find the one you’re looking for if you don’t watch them as a block. Also confusing: the (somewhat scanty) imdb.com entry for this series lists ten episodes, in a different order. In the interests of clarity, here is a list of which episodes are included in this release, along with a brief note about what each covers, in the order they appear on the discs.
- Mes cenéastes de chevet – Grémillon, Ophuls, Decoine (“My Bedside Filmmakers”) part one, which focuses on the works Jean Grémillon, Max Ophüls, and Henri Decoine.
- Mes cenéastes de chevet (“My Bedside Filmmakers”) part two, which focuses on the work of Sacha Guitry, Marcel Pagnol, Jacques Tati, and Robert Bresson.
- Les chansons (“The songs”), which focuses on the use of songs in the movies, and in particular the work of Julien Duvivier.
- Les cinéastes étrangers dans la France d’avant-guerre (“Foreign Filmmakers in France before World War II”), which focuses on the influence on French film of filmmakers and technicians from abroad, who often moved to France due to political oppression and unrest in their home countries.
- La nouvelle vague de l’oocupation (literally “the new wave of occupation,” but better translated as “From Occupation to New Wave”), which concentrates on the work of Claude Autant-Lara, Réne Clément, and Henri-Georges Clouzot.
- Les oubliés (“The Forgotten Ones”), which focuses on filmmakers who were initially successful, but now, Tavernier feels, have “fallen out of collective memory,” including Maurice Tourneur, Anatole Litvak, and Raymond Bernard.
- Les méconnus (“The Unknown Ones”), which focuses on filmmakers Tavernier thinks are underrated, including Jean Vallée, Pierre Chenal, and Henri Calef, plus a discussion of women directors in French film.
- Mes années 60 (“My Sixties”), which focuses on Tavernier’s work as a press attaché with Pierre Rissient, during which time he helped to bring American directors like Raoul Walsh, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Clint Eastwood to the attention of the French public, and also promoted the films of French directors like Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer.
Journeys Through French Cinema is a very personal series, which aims not to provide an academic overview, but to present one director’s insights concerning films that are particularly meaningful to him. Still, unless you’re a professor specializing in the French cinema, you’ll probably learn a lot from watching this series. You’ll probably also find Tavernier’s enthusiasm about the films he discusses to be contagious, which, in turn, will likely lead to your scouring reelgood.com, the catalogue of your local public library, and anywhere else you can think of to find out which are currently available for you to watch. | Sarah Boslaugh
Journeys through French Cinema is distributed as a two-disc Blu-ray set by Kino Lorber. The Image (both black and white and color) and sound quality are excellent, and English subtitles are provided (most of the dialogue is in French). The only extra is the film’s trailer.