All aboard a fantastic Journey Through French Cinema

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      A documentary by Bertrand Tavernier. In French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      Born a decade after new-wave godheads François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Bertrand Tavernier experienced the movies as a sickly child after the Second World War. Perhaps still best-known for his definitive jazz movie Round Midnight, the venerable writer-director is well-placed to guide modern viewers through the back roads and main highways of one of the world’s great moviemaking cultures.

      Addressing the camera, without the aid of identifying titles or subject headers, our white-haired auteur mixes colourful anecdotes with deeper analysis in this program, which demands, and rewards, close attention for its three-hour-plus running time. That’s actually condensed from the 10-part series that wrapped on French TV earlier this year. Without attempting to be comprehensive, the (relatively) more compact theatrical version is a surprisingly coherent overview, whether you’re a newcomer to the belle époque before the war or a lifelong fan of the nouvelle vague.

      Our host doesn’t stint on the basics, but does privilege less familiar material, such as the pulp movies of Eddie Constantine, and he rebuilds the reputations of filmmakers like Marcel Carné and Jacques Becker, ignored or even trashed by the new wavers. There’s special attention paid to the many phases of Jean Gabin—Bogart, Cagney, and John Wayne rolled into one durable brioche. (We learn that Gabin’s hair turned white after he joined the Allies to invade France in 1944.)

      Tavernier doesn’t shy away from the less wholesome actions of Jean Renoir at the start of the war. First, the revered filmmaker was with the progressive Popular Front, then the Communists, and finally, when the occupation began, his brother Pierre later recalled, “I was afraid he was going to march right into the arms of the Germans.”

      Renoir’s stature was inadvertently saved when he went to Hollywood for the duration. Screenwriter Jacques Prévert managed to work right through the occupation, providing cover for his Hungarian Jewish colleague Joseph Kosma, with whom he wrote “Autumn Leaves”. Tavernier spends much time on the composers who contributed mightily to the character of French film in all eras—in particular the tragic Maurice Jaubert, whose scores for early classics by Jean Vigo and René Clair might have been lost forever if Truffaut hadn’t paid to have them orchestrated and recorded in the 1970s.

      Tidbits like that illustrate why this Journey is so worth taking. It’s far from over, as well.

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