Friday 15 September 2017

At the Cinémathèque: "Journey Through French Cinema"

Way back in the mists of time, back when cinema was celebrating its centenary and UK terrestrial channels actively bothered themselves with arts programming, Channel 4 commissioned a series of films in which noteworthy creatives were invited to hold forth on the history of their respective national film industries. The most prominent and enduring of these projects was Martin Scorsese's A Personal Journey Through American Movies, but there were equally entries on British cinema from Stephen Frears, and on Antipodean cinema from Sam Neill. The French entry was assigned to Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, who co-signed a not untypically inscrutable hour that played somewhat like a footnote to the former's expansive Histoire(s) du cinéma (and may well have required footnotes itself). It almost goes without saying that Bertrand Tavernier's new three-hour doc Journey Through French Cinema, which opens, as perhaps it must, with a Godard quote, is an altogether more accessible endeavour: here is the avuncular writer-director, talking us through extensive clips of the movies that have meant to most to him in life.

Born in 1941, Tavernier emerged into that golden age when French cinema was redefining itself as both a local and international force, and a young cinephile could sit for hours in grand picture palaces watching the same film on a loop, so as to memorise lines, gestures, faces; he is absolutely of that generation who fell into first criticism, then moviemaking, as if these were the most natural pursuits for anyone to devote themselves to. We should note that old auteurists die hard, trailing comfortingly familiar characteristics in their wake: Tavernier's history is primarily organised by director, starting with Jacques Becker (who made 1942's Dernier Atout, the first film our host remembers seeing), before moving through those stalwarts Renoir, Carné and Vigo to post-War touchstones like Edmond Gréville ("the prince of fringe directors") and Jean-Pierre Melville. There are, however, sidebars on such indispensable contributors as screenwriter Jacques Prévert (Le Jour se lève), composer Maurice Jaubert (L'Atalante) and New Wave godfather Georges de Beauregard. In passing, Tavernier does a fine job of explaining the appeal of Jean Gabin, claiming him as an auteur, too: a heavyweight star who used his bulk and savvy to organise his films around a vision of France French cinemagoers couldn't get enough of.

As with any history, there are ebbs and flows. I felt myself growing a shade restless during Tavernier's aside on the use of music in films he's already discussed, and starting to long for the Nouvelle Vague to sweep in. It's also very canon, offering nothing beyond the millennium: the elegant classicist Claude Sautet is as modern as Tavernier gets, although the end credits do promise a sequel. It is, however, a hell of a canon, and our curator isn't blind to the flaws of individual films or filmmakers - Renoir's apparent anti-Semitism, Melville's rote dialogue, stubbornness and onset bullying (documented in an entertainingly gossipy audioclip in which we hear Jean-Paul Belmondo pushing back) - which serves to throw Tavernier's evident affection for those works he cherishes in even sharper relief. Mostly, this Journey does exactly what you want a ready-made film studies module like this to do: it sends you running to track down those titles you haven't seen (if anybody wants to program a retrospective of Eddie Constantine's pre-Alphaville crime films, that'd be a help, ta) and to rewatch those you already have. One warning: I also suspect it's liable to set a certain percentage of its audience to craving a cigarette - a situation never explicitly addressed in these three hours, but alighted upon so often in the gathered extracts as to make one realise anew how the French have elevated even smoking to an artform.

Journey Through French Cinema opens in selected cinemas from today.

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