My Journey Through French Cinema
Directed by Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier: Film and Nothing But
Through June 29, 2017
Quad Cinema, 34 W 13th Street, New York, NY
|Bertrand Tavernier in My Journey Through French Cinema|
In his New York Times review of Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct at the 2002 New York Film Festival, Elvis Mitchell actually penned the following line: “Bertrand Tavernier is not often thought of as a man of passion.”
Anybody who could write such an obvious howler has no business reviewing films, for it is so patently untrue. If anything, Tavernier is overzealous in his passion about the films he makes, the characters who populate them and the stories they find their way through. Seeing even one of his films in the Quad Cinema’s current retrospective, Film and Nothing But—or his new, endlessly fascinating My Journey Through French Cinema, also showing at the Quad this week—will put the lie to Mitchell’s foolish statement.
Tavernier’s passionate film knowledge is evident in every second of My Journey Through French Cinema, which runs a staggering 190 minutes but flies by more quickly than anything playing in the local cineplex. The director’s personal chronicle of what has most moved him onscreen since he became besotted with movies in his youth is done so beautifully, so charmingly, so admirably, that you wish it would go on for several more hours. As always with Tavernier, there are marvelous anecdotes, superb insights, treasured observations: when discussing composer Maurice Jaubert among the greats of ‘30s and ‘40s cinema, Tavernier’s enthusiasm comes through so forcefully that you feel his warmth, his embrace, his marvelously attuned personality to all things cinematic.
As the retrospective Film and Nothing But demonstrates, Tavernier is impossible to pigeonhole, which may be why he’s not held in the high esteem he should be. His debut was a splendid adaptation of a novel by Georges Simenon, 1973’s The Clockmaker, but he’s also made historical epics, science-fiction films, war dramas, period pieces, intimate character studies, etc. What these films all have in common is the Tavernier Touch, which offer fractured narratives that rarely provide the sort of closure most audiences expect, along with an affection for his flawed, ordinary, and all too human characters.
The great actor Philippe Noiret was Tavernier’s alter ego for several of the director’s best films, from The Clockmaker to 1989’s devastating World War I epic Life and Nothing But (June 26). Tavernier’s masterly The Judge and the Assassin (1976; showing June 29) stars Noiret as a judge who must decide an insane murderer’s fate, and the cat-and-mouse between the men (Michel Galabru is also magnificent as the killer) is brilliantly observed.
Other must-sees this week are 1980’s A Week’s Vacation (June 29), a beautifully realized look at a young woman’s mini-breakdown that showcases Natalie Baye’s subtle performance; Captain Conan (June 26), a stunning 1996 drama of French soldiers fighting in the Balkans after World War I; ‘Round Midnight (June 29), Tavernier’s 1986 valentine to be-bop jazz, starring the inimitable Dexter Gordon in an Oscar-nominated performance; L. 627 (June 27), a dark and moody 1992 study of French cops trying to clean up the streets of drugs; 1995’s Fresh Bait (June 27), Tavernier’s superior riff on the Natural Born Killers theme; and his most recent features, 2010’s The Princess of Montpensier (June 27), a tough-minded but ultimately heartbreaking historical romance, and 2013’s The French Minister (June 28), an unabashed and witty satire of French—and, by extension, international—politics.
More than four decades into a first-rate career, Bertrand Tavernier continues to make highly personal, extremely sophisticated films that defy easy categorization. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.