Blu-ray Review: Journeys Through French Cinema

STUDIO: Cohen Media Group | DIRECTOR: Bertrand Tavernier
RELEASE DATE: 3/30/21 | PRICE: Blu-ray $34.99
SPECS: NR | 459 mins | Foreign language documentary | 16:9 | mono | French with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

The great filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de Torchon, ’Round Midnight) died on March 25 of this year, leaving this TV miniseries about French film history as his last work. Journey’s Through French Cinema is a fitting conclusion to his career, as it finds him discussing his favorite filmmakers at length, with much sincerity, emotion and knowledge. He clearly was a cinephile from cradle to grave and took quite seriously the defense of forgotten and underrated filmmakers.

It should be stressed, however, that Journeys is not a “101” on French cinema. This 2017 series follows on from Tavernier’s initial My Journey Through French Cinema (2016, also from Cohen Media), a three-hour-plus theatrical doc, which offered an idiosyncratic, chronological look at French film — not chronological in terms of the films’ release dates, but in the order that Tavernier discovered these filmmakers.

Thus, the feature covered some filmmakers whose works are available to Americans on Blu-ray/DVD/streaming platforms, many others whose best work (per BT) is not, and a number of Tavernier’s own side fascinations, including composers who worked on movie soundtracks, crime thrillers with Eddie Constantine and seemingly every film that starred Jean Gabin (Remorques, Les Miserables) .

Gabin was, of course, a seminal figure in the “golden age” of French cinema and his films are excerpted quite a lot in both the theatrical doc and the eight-hour series, to the extent that one gets the impression Tavernier’s love for certain directors was multiplied tenfold when they starred Gabin in one of their films.

Tavernier wasn’t adverse to revisiting (at least briefly) in the series the work of certain filmmakers he had already covered in the preceding feature. His primary concern in both projects, though, was clearly the defense of certain forgotten or (he felt) unfairly maligned directors. Although he did intend his segments on these filmmakers to provide an introduction to newcomers, he seems to have followed the example of Scorsese (in his 1999 My Voyage to Italy) and gotten carried away, thus taking “deep dives” into certain filmographies — in the process eliminating valuable historical context and entire other careers that were integral to French cinema.

Bertrand Tavernier takes viewers on Journeys Through French Cinema.

An additional difficulty is that his “mission” in both the feature and the series was to argue against the cruel reviews the films he loved had received from the Cahiers du Cinema critics of the Fifties (who became the majority of the “nouvelle vague”). Film students and historians will be aware of these writings, and the critics trashing the “tradition of quality” (a phrase Tavernier mentions here with much scorn). It’s no surprise, therefore, that the series ends with an appreciation of Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour), a New Wave filmmaker who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Cahiers.

The average viewer, however, will have no idea of this critical dispute and will presume Tavernier only really loved unfairly maligned French directors of the Thirties and Forties. Silent film is absent from both of Tavernier’s docs; the Fifties and Sixties exist in special corners of the “journeys” — his reclamation project was primarily concerned with filmmakers who did their finest work in the Thirties and Forties.

Tavernier gathered the directors into groups and thus provided a theme here for each episode: his “bedside filmmakers,” songs in films, foreign directors in France, post-Occupation masters, forgotten filmmakers, underrated directors, and Tavernier’s 1960s favorites.

His episode about his “bedside filmmakers” includes a segment on the brilliance of Max Ophuls (Lola Montes), whom he devotes 15 minutes to. His “songs” episode consists of 40 minutes devoted to Julien Duvivier (Panique), making a cogent case for his talent but also leading one to wonder about how indulgent the episodes after that are going to be.

Ultimately, one is charmed by Tavernier’s doggedly enthusiastic approach — he’s going to make you love his favorites, by hook or by crook. He includes wonderfully edited tributes to the three “C” filmmakers who fell out of fashion in the Fifties — Rene Clair (Le million), Rene Clement (Purple Noon), and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Quai des Orfèvres) — mostly celebrating their earlier work.

Often he will acknowledge the “missteps” made by certain of his heroes — terrible commercial projects that were the reason the Cahiers crew grew tired of these “quality” filmmakers. In a classically perverse move, Tavernier gives a rousing defense of Clouzot’s continued production during the Occupation and follows his work into the Fifties — and then intentionally skips over his greatest international hit, Diabolique.

One of the most curious comparisons he makes (in the second “bedside filmmakers” episode) is between two filmmakers whose work is readily available in the U.S., Robert Bresson (The Devil, ProbablyPickpocket) and Jacques Tati. On the level of their independence from the mainstream of French film and the strength of their unique visions of what filmmaking could be, they were indeed alike.

The tones of their work are wildly different, though, so offering a montage combining scenes from their films film is quite unusual (indeed bizarre). Tavernier’s deep love of film music completely upends that segment, though, as he suddenly moves on to composer Jean-Jacques Grunenwald (who scored Bresson’s first two features). Bresson and Tati are thus dumped from the discussion.

This idiosyncratic approach works best in the final episode, titled “My ’60s,” in which Tavernier rhapsodizes about the films he was a publicist for during that decade. He runs through a litany of directors he represented, showing scenes from their work and making one long to see their films in their entirety.

This last episode is certainly the most varied of the “journeys” that M. Tavernier took us on. Perhaps it’s because the filmmakers in question were around his age, or perhaps it’s because he set aside his arguments against the critiques and condemnations of the Cahiers writers.

One wishes there has been a third installment of this series of docs, one where Tavernier took us through his own films and those of his immediate contemporaries. It would most certainly have been a joy to hear him talk at length about his cinematic alter ego, Philippe Noiret (La Grande Bouffe), and the modern giants he worked alongside.

That chance is now lost, but his final speech in Journeys, in which he discusses this “exercise in admiration and gratitude” makes these trips worth taking. He thanks the directors, scripters, actors, and composers who “by taking me by the hand, enabled me to discover, appreciate, and love France. They gave me a taste for memory, an essential rampart against an era of tweets and the tyranny of the present.”

Buy or Rent Journeys Through French Cinema

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”