Bertrand Tavernier’s massive, marvelous documentary about French film showed at the New York Film Festival on Sunday, and it’s a delight for francophile-cinéphile hybrids everywhere.
No, this is not a chronology of French film from the Lumière brothers to Luc Besson. It’s a meditation on films and filmmakers that have had a deeply personal influence on Tavernier, in both his conception of great cinema and his own creative works. Beginning with his childhood introduction to the films of Jacques Becker, Tavernier leads us through the styles of Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, Claude Sautet, Jean-Pierre Melville and more, up until the time he begins working on film sets and gets his start in the industry. His journey becomes our journey, and has inspired me to discover the dozens of films referenced throughout the doc.
Here are my top five takeaways from Bertrand’s journey:
1. French innovation in film predates the New Wave by a long shot
This maybe comes as no surprise to anyone who’s seen a Renoir, but Tavernier finds the American preoccupation with the New Wave to be disconcerting, largely because it’s so limiting. If we hold up the New Wave as the ultimate rupture with traditional filmmaking, we tend to disregard prior daring and inventiveness in content and style. Edmond Gréville’s 1935 Remous was groundbreaking because it was about sexual impotence, unthinkable at that time, while Renoir championed natural-style dialogue, with overlapping conversations and characters cutting each other off.
2. The greatest French movies incorporate the best aspects of American filmmaking and dispense with the worst of them
Tavernier praises Jacques Becker for having adopted the rapid pacing that made 1930s American films such a success (and for rejecting the “false poeticism” afflicting so many other French filmmakers at the time). However, he criticizes the American propensity to slap on a full orchestra soundtrack “arbitrarily,” while French filmmakers unlocked the full creative potential of the soundtrack. He notes Miles Davis’ trumpet score in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, for instance.
3. Jean Gabin could do anything
Tavernier rejects the idea that the favorite masculine hero of the 30s played himself in every movie. He cites the diversity of roles held by Gabin, from train conductors to Prime Ministers, and how he brought something new to each one. (During the Q&A, Tavernier handily rattled off three unique depictions of anger that Gabin had mastered).
4. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos is probably Quentin Tarantino’s greatest inspiration
Tavernier says Tarantino told him Le Doulos is his favorite movie, and the influence appears in everything from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds.
5. The genius in French film is the result of team effort
Despite the preponderance of auteurs in French film (whereas US directors are often relegated to technician status), the filmmaker’s vision was not the only force at play. The creative liberty directors gave to actors like Gabin and Belmondo brought out the best from both sides of the camera. Meanwhile, pioneering composers (Maurice Jaubert, Joseph Kosma), screenwriters (Henri Jeanson) and even producers (Georges de Bauregard) all came together to create the national cinema that is so beloved today.