voyage-a-travers-le-cinema-francais

The title of Bertrand Tavernier’s rambling three hour documentary: Voyage à travers le cinéma français is one of only a few instances where the translated title, My Journey Through French Cinema, seems to indicate a better movie than the original French title. With the addition of a first person possessive, the film takes on a different purpose. The individual perspective at the center of the work—Tavernier’s—has a  heightened significance. But the French distributers were more attuned to the actual nature of the work—whereas Voyage à travers le cinéma français fulfills its promise of a bountiful appreciation of French cinema, My Journey Through French Cinema is disappointingly lacking in that personal element. A more accurate title might just as well have been French Cinéma.

Still the English variation helps pinpoint the most tiring issue with the film, tiring because of the disappointment in a missed opportunity and tiring because of its unproductively repetitive construction. Tavernier, being a filmmaker of some stature, must have more to say about his own experience with cinema than he does in this film. Through his life making movies we might be led to believe his life at the movies has been a journey of spiritual resonance. But he treats this experience of potentially strong first-person importance with mere third-person historicity. Here we have the most unforgivable problem with the film and the root of its pitfalls. In trying to pierce much too quickly and much too forcefully into the truth and beauty at the heart of cinema, Tavernier unfortunately overlooks the potential wider impact of his own encounters with movies. He attempts to reflect his understanding of film after a lifetime of watching before having resolved his own place in it.

Although My Journey Through French Cinema is not meant to be a comprehensive study of French cinema, it is in this realm that it finds its footing and becomes most informative. The film is comprised of a carefully curated collection of clips from French movies of the 1930s through ‘60s that would make anyone want to go see more French movies from that era. I left the film with a page full of names—of movies, directors, actors, writers, composers—to google when I got out. Even if I had already seen the film Tavernier was talking about on screen, something about seeing a specific moment he had handpicked made me want to go back to those movies for a few more viewings. I wrote in large letters towards the bottom of the page JEAN RENOIR, for instance. But I also jotted down the likes of some inconnus like Luc Moullet, Fernandels, Rendez-Vous de Juillet (1949), Gilles Gragnier, Jaubert, John Berry, Edmond T. Gréville, Sautet. It’s a long list of folks I undoubtedly could have found in any thorough survey of French cinema. But as Tavernier shows each clip with a giddy expertise and a keen eye for the most striking images of his nation’s most sacred art form, I was more interested in seeing the original than listening to Tavernier’s commentary.

Three hours is not enough time for Tavernier to get to the heart of the matter. (I am skeptical if he could even do it in another three, having in mind his planned second installment which is to focus on the directors he couldn’t get to in this outing.) Three hours is plenty of time for him to dance about something like a conclusion, but the film ends without even coming near anything close to the greater truth of his of experience of French cinema. We might wonder if this fault is due to Tavernier’s own love of movies. Does his adoration escape expression? This feeling manifests itself in the Voyage or Journey aspect of the film, the concept of its very structure. The film moves linearly, one topic at a time, spending perhaps 15 to 30 minutes on each film without building to the next. The journey seems circular, repetitive, perhaps something like returning again and again to the movies without quite knowing why. But again Tavernier leaves even that mere notion unexplored, there are other movies to get to, other directors to talk about. Cataloguing is more important than collecting. So we’re left rather exhausted by the end of our journey, not because of the journey itself, but because it has only led us back to where we began—wanting to see a movie.

The 54th New York Film Festival ran from September 30 to October 16 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.