sat 19/10/2019

DVD: A Journey Through French Cinema | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: A Journey Through French Cinema

DVD: A Journey Through French Cinema

A film-lover's hymn to French movies: Bertrand Tavernier’s 'Voyage à travers le cinéma français'

Beyond the acadermy: capturing the spirit of French film

Bertrand Tavernier’s trip through French cinema is shot through with the love of someone who has grown up with cinema and knows how to communicate his passion in a way that is totally engaging. The three hours-plus that he delivers make you want to plunge back into the classics, as well as start discovering many underrated or forgotten directors, actors, DoP’s or film score composers.

What makes the documentary so good is his 100% personal approach – although he is touchingly modest and includes contributions from many of his professional colleagues. It is not a completist’s bible or an attempt at cinema-historical balance. Rather like David Thomson’s unreservedly subjective and opinionated Biographical Dictionary of Film, this is a treasure trove of enthusiasms, presented with a keen knowledge of what underpins the language of great cinema. Tavernier celebrates well-known directors such as Jacques Becker, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Sautet, but he focuses as well on lesser-known directorial talents such as Edmond T Gréville who split his remarkable career between England and France, and many of whose masterpieces, such as Menaces or Brief Ecstasy aren’t available on DVD.

Le jour se leveThe recurrent figure in Tavernier’s pantheon is Jean Gabin, the French acting icon from the 1930s through to the early 1960s, much more subtle than Depardieu in his depiction of the ordinary Frenchman. As Tavernier demonstrates with many carefully chosen clips, enhanced by an always eye-opening and thought-provoking commentary, Gabin was as fine an actor as any, not just the personification of a nation’s better self.

There are delightful quirks, such as his celebration of the tough-guy actor Eddie Constantine, best-known to British audience for his ironic self-referential role in Godard’s Alphaville, but a regular fixture in a series of often very violent gangster films of the 1950s, which Tavernier greatly enjoyed. He rhapsodises as well about Maurice Jaubert, the film composer, not least the score he wrote for Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante. In describing the way in which Jaubert managed to add a dramatic dimension to key scenes of the films he worked on, rather than just fill gaps, Tavernier gives us a lesson in film technique, just as he does in describing the outstanding work of other craftsmen working in the medium.

The film is never didactic, although always surprisingly informative. Tavernier’s exploration of French cinema is made entertaining by a wealth of revealing anecdotes – not least, during the making of Le jour se lève, designer Alexandre Trauner’s insistence that Carné and his producers build an extra floor onto the house (pictured above) which plays such a crucial part in the drama. What stands out perhaps most of all is an extraordinary generosity of spirit – this is a man who can speak about others in his profession with great respect, rare in a milieu where ego rules a great deal of the time. That generosity is contagious: this is a film where the man’s love of the medium is fully shared with his audience. Highly recommended to anyone interested in le cinéma français.


Overleaf: watch the trailer for A Journey Through French Cinema


Absolutely agree with this review - but Greville's Brief Ecstasy is available on dvd, it's included in the Ealing Studios Rareties Collection Volume 2. And it's well worth seeking out.

Thank you very much for pointing this out. I had gone looking for it, but as it is in a box set, it doesn't appear on Amazon for instance.

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