In My Journey Through French Cinema, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier takes viewers through a lovingly rendered tour of the films that shaped him, both as a director and as a person. Tavernier’s passion is palpable—and contagious.
Inspired by two Martin Scorsese documentaries on the American and Italian films that influenced his youth, Tavernier plays the role of the memoirist recounting his initial infatuation with the cinema. A fascinating story about his childhood home and a member of the French Resistance hidden there transitions into his first cinematic love, the films of Jacques Becker.
Tavernier’s overview of French cinema is necessarily limited. He mostly focuses on directors, although special attention is paid to Jean Gabin, the iconic French actor attached who worked with many of the best filmmakers of the ‘30s through ‘50s. Directors well known to fans of classic films are included (Becker, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné), as are more obscure filmmakers (Julien Duvaivre). Early in his career, Tavernier worked for Jean-Pierre Melville and had the opportunity to speak to many of his heroes. The film excerpts gain special meaning through Tavernier’s conversations with their creators. Interestingly, the movies are only identified in the end credits—the film clips take on a hazy, dreamlike quality when edited together.
It’s important to specify that My Journey Through French Cinema is not a history of French films. Tavernier never attempts anything more than a tribute to the films he loved as a young man. The documentary goes as far as to briefly touch on the early films of the French New Wave, but ends as soon as he begins to make his own films.
Tavernier is a master of selection, and the portions of films he shows will make many viewers want to rush out of the theater to find as many of these movies as possible. But he also treats his influences as mortals, not gods. In the midst of a rapturous section on the films of Jean Renoir, Tavernier detours to recount a particularly shameful period when Renoir flirted with anti-Semitism and collaborationism at the start of the Second World War, before leaving it all behind for America.
At three hours, Tavernier’s film is certainly generous. Still, he has more to say on the subject—his next project is an eight hour TV series in the same vein, focusing on filmmakers left out of this movie. Considering the pleasures of My Journey Through French Cinema, it’s not clear that eight hours is even enough—but it’s a start.