Film Review: My Journey Through French Cinema

Three hours and 20 minutes fly by here, because what you are watching are some of the most spellbinding clips from French cinema, superbly curated by the eloquent, movie-mad Bertrand Tavernier.
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The magnificent, tawny face and presence of Simone Signoret in Casque D’Or looms over this enthrallingly good survey of French cinema’s history, its gleaming emblem. Its director, the relatively uncelebrated Jacques Becker, is memorably extolled by the narrator, Bertrand Tavernier. This formerCahiers du Cinema critic turned director, like Truffaut and Chabrol, is a dream escort into this endlessly magical realm, so much better than Martin Scorsese, whose narration of My Voyage to Italy was tiresomely subjective and his readings of the films too literal.

Tavernier’s deep movie love adds its own special glow to each frame of the dozens of celluloid treasures included in My Journey Through French Cinema. The film’s structure is appealingly casual, almost a conversation—however one-sided—with Tavernier, each clip calling up a reminiscence of another film or director which Tavernier hastens to successively include. For devoted Francophiles, it’s also a trove of discoveries, not all of them welcome, like the wartime anti-Semitism of Jean Renoir, who is otherwise rightfully lauded for the masterful technique he brought to his storytelling.

Here, you can feast your eyes and ears on the forgotten Mireille Balin, who, from Pepe le Moko, was the very symbol of the ideal Parisian woman—glamorous, romantic and smart. Her co-star in that was Jean Gabin, the veritable rock of French cinema, whose films are here used as something of a lynchpin between the three basic topics Tavernier covers: directors he has worked with, the use of music, and directors he loved growing up. The deprivations of World War II made him a sickly child—like Scorsese with his asthma—who immersed himself in the movies and later found work in the business, first as an assistant to Jean-Pierre Melville, then publicist for the hot company Rome-Paris Films (which released Breathless) and then film critic before becoming a director.

Long as it is, the film could easily have been twice that, with no complaint from this quarter. Even familiar titles like Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, Panic and the molten yet evanescent work of Jean Vigo are brought to fresh life with Tavernier’s perceptive observations. It’s truly a master class, as we learn that Marcel Carne, no actor’s director, pioneered and mastered the use of reverse shots to limn his narrative, and was amazingly incapable of writing the simplest scene. Melville, who hired Tavernier after reading a vicious pan of hisBob le Flambeur penned by the young man, and who later suggested he become a publicist because he was a “terrible” assistant, was a horror to work for, unlike Truffaut, whose gentle humanity is reflected in his work. The depthless empathy and intelligence of that sorely missed director is shared by Tavernier, who has made one of the very best movies about movies ever.

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