Bertrand Tavernier, 76, has been one of France’s most accomplished directors, helming such acclaimed films as 1974’s The Clockmaker of St. Paul, 1981’s Coup de Torchon, 1986’s 'Round Midnight, and 2002’s Safe Conduct. But much like Martin Scorsese, whom he directed in ’Round Midnight, Tavernier is also a student of cinema who has written film criticism and is also involved in film preservation.
His latest film, My Journey Through French Cinema, is his three-hour valentine to film, exploring the work of such directors as Jacques Becker, Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Claude Sautet, as well as the writer-director team of Jacques Prevert and Marcel Carne. The documentary features clips from countless films including Becker’s Casque d’or; Renoir’s La Chienne, La Bete Humaine, Grande Illusion, and Rules of the Game; Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve, Port of Shadows, and Les Enfants du Paradis; Godard’s Pierre Le Fou; Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player; and many examples of French film noir including Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur and Le Doulos; Becker’s Touchez pas au Grisbi; and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows.
Interspersed with the clips are vintage interviews with the filmmakers, behind-the-scenes footage of various productions and even a rare interview with Jean Gabin from later in his career. He also discusses the early French film composers such as Maurice Jaubert, and other actors as well.
My Journey Through French Cinema is a heartfelt tribute to film, but also a lovely window into the heart of Tavernier.
Tavernier will appear in person Thursday, July 15, at the Aero Theatre to introduce the West Coast premiere of Journey Through French Cinema (the movie opens June 23 at the Nuart) and will also be on hand for the first four days of the Aero’s French film noir retrospective which features such classics as Casque d’Or and Elevator to the Gallows.
Why did you decide to make My Journey Through French Cinema at this time in your life?
BERTRAND TAVERNIER: Oh, there were so many reasons. I love my grandchildren and I wanted to tell them about those films and those directors. They should not look at them as old films because all the films are still very young. They are very energetic. They are great at getting the pulse of society at that time. And now, I mean, so many things are still topical in what a film says.
Can you give me an example?
BT: I mean you have hundreds of subjects - what is the place of women in society, the class relationships in some films... But the main reason I decided to do the film is that I wanted to say ‘Thank you” to all of those people who changed my life. I mean those directors, screenwriters, composers, actors and actresses. Some of those films gave me hope, gave me strength. You know there is a Chinese proverb which says that when you drink the water of the well, you must always thank the man who built it.
They gave me a kit of emotion. Tremendous emotion. Tears and love. Because of them, I think, I understood my country, I think I fell in love with France because of those films. Not because of politicians, but because of Renoir, because of Claude Sautet, because of Marcel Pagnol.
Jean Gabin is my favorite French actor, and you spend a lot of time exploring his films before World War II like Renoir’s La Bête Humaine and Marcel Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve. He had some difficulty after World War II ended, because his fans thought he had betrayed his working-class roots and become bourgeois.
BT: That was part of the French critique. It was totally untrue. As I saw, [there are lot of films] where he is still playing people from the working class. Contrary to that opinion, he did a lot of very good films. At the end of the 40’s and the beginning of the ‘50s, there are tremendous films.
You are presenting two of his films from the 1950s: 1955’s Razzia Sur La Chnouf and 1958’s The Night Affair, which are rare.
BT: They are very good, very dense, very nostalgic.
Beside filmmakers and actors, you also shine the spotlight on early French film composers including Maurice Jaubert, Joseph Kosma, and Georges Auric. I didn’t realize Jaubert died in 1940 in the war.
BT: Yes, he died at the beginning of the war. He could have been saved. He was wounded, but he waited for many hours before he was taken care of. It’s a great loss because he was only beginning. He was one of the rare composers who thought a lot about films. He wrote wonderful essays on film music - very articulate, very interesting in which he sometimes attacked the music in Hollywood films.
[Music] should reveal what is behind the surface in a film. It should not tell you what you are seeing. He was so lyrical, so intelligent, so bright.
When you were young you worked with Jean-Pierre Melville, and he and Claude Sautet were your mentors. But you were candid about their personalities.
BT: As I was so close to them, the things I say are not only anecdotes, it’s very revealing of the way those people were working.
Well, Melville had difficulties with his actors and even dressed down his crew in front of everybody.
BT: That was a nightmare for me. When I was coming to work, I was sick. I was young. It was demanding, as frightening as school. It’s only later on the set of other directors that I discovered the atmosphere was not like that. That doesn’t change anything about the talent of Melville, but he created an atmosphere which was really frightening - especially for a young kid like me.
Besides introducing My Journey into French Cinema, you are also hosting four days of French film noir including the Gabin films we mentioned earlier. Some of the films like Becker’s Casque d’or and Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows are well-known titles, but most of the films have been rarely seen stateside. In fact, Carne’s 1946 Boites du Nuit with Yves Montand is making its west coast premiere at the Aero.
BT: It was poorly received. It has some great moments. It is rather beautiful to look at, but it’s the film where Carne made the tremendous error of casting the film. In the documentary, [ I said] Carnes was not picking any actors or actresses for his films. They were always cast by Prevert. Because [they had done] five or six films, they decided Carne should choose. Carne made the tremendous mistake of refusing Simone Signoret and chose a very bad actress.
Screening with Casque D’or on Monday evening is Yves Allegret’s The Proud and the Beautiful with Gerard Philip and Michele Morgan.
BT: The Proud and the Beautiful is a film that Martin Scorsese loves. And there’s reason for it. The depiction of Mexico is wonderful. It’s not unlike many American films of the period. It looks very true.
I think Michele Morgan is very beautiful in it. She’s very good. A very underrated actress. She’s incredibly sexy when she is only in a slip. Maybe some of the sexiest scenes of the French cinema of the period. I had dinner with her and she said at one point she decided she would do a nude scene. I said I never saw that. She said, “Suddenly I was afraid because I was not beautiful enough. I said ‘My God, Michele, why did you do that?"
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.