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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » My Journey Through French Cinema (Blu-ray)
My Journey Through French Cinema (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // Unrated // November 21, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $22.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 23, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The question you might be asking yourself: How familiar with French movies do I need to be to enjoy Bertrand Tavernier's three-hour-plus My Journey Through French Cinema (Voyage à travers le cinéma français, 2016)? Well, in my case, I'd seen all the obvious ones (Grand Illusion, Children of the Paradise, Contempt, Army of Shadows, etc.) and lots of other, more obscure genre films, but there were still many unknown to me, and filmmakers I knew little to nothing about.

Tavernier's (Round Midnight, Daddy Nostalgia, Life and Nothing But, A Sunday in the Country) documentary is deeply personal. His choices are selective, focusing on some directors at length while others are briefly mentioned or not at all, the latter category including major names like Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Tati, Jacques Demy, Louis Malle, etc. François Truffaut is discussed briefly regarding The 400 Blows but the only other film of his that's excerpted is The Story of Adele H., and that only because Truffaut chose to re-record music written by pre-war music composer Maurice Jaubert. However, at the end of the documentary Tavernier promises a sequel, which he explains in a supplementary featurette will take the form of a multi-episode television series.

The focus instead are a) movies that shaped Tavernier's views on French cinema as a youth; and b) filmmakers Tavernier got to know as a young man, either through interviews he conducted, filmmakers he worked under, or through connections and friendships he made while working as a press agent for Rome-Paris Films.

Much of My Journey Through French Cinema links various directors, writers, actors, and composers with one another. He begins with Jacques Becker, an assistant to Jean Renoir who made a huge impression on Tavernier with movies like Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Le Trou (1959) but who died at the young age of 53 the following year. Soon after Tavernier explores Renoir himself, which in turn gives way to his great pre-war star, Jean Gabin. Tavernier's personal remarks during these segments are enlightening and fascinating, at one point discussing Renoir's controversial about-face from Popular Front hardliner to Vichy government collaborator, in a letter only alluded to by Tavernier, suggesting Renoir's political views changed with the wind, like Claude Rains in Casablanca. Tavernier recalls Gabin's views on Renoir, and as with many of the subjects, clips from later-life interviews with the long-deceased expand upon or underscore Tavernier's views.

In recent reviews of his two late-1950s Maigret features, I remarked how in his postwar films Gabin was rather like a stone monument, and that filmmakers adjusted to his screen persona rather than Gabin adjusting to the character. Tavernier makes a compelling argument that Gabin was, in fact, extremely versatile. Yes, he admits, he might always amble across a room with a measured slowness but, Tavernier argues, it was never the same measured slowness; he could walk slowly an infinite variety of ways.

The director of the two ‘50s Maigrets with Gabin, Jean Deannoy, a lesser name, is given almost equal weight by Tavernier, as are the 1950s crime films, slick B-movies, that starred Eddie Constantine as secret agent Lemmy Caution, the early ones predating the James Bond series by nearly a decade. (These films really cry out for a big Blu-ray boxed set.)

The long sections on Claude Sautet (Classe tous risques, Max et les ferrailleurs) and Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, Le Cercle rouge), who took in Tavernier as a kind of cinematic disciple, are especially colorful and enlightening. Regarding Classe tous risques, Tavernier tells an incredible story about how Jean-Paul Belmondo's iconic role was nearly played by, based on the clip shown, a broad, pudgy, third-rate French comic. Of Melville, Tavernier paints a portrait of a monomaniacal Francis Ford Coppola type, only pretentious and affected to the tenth power. And yet, like Coppola, Melville was a true visionary whose movies almost inexplicably turned out great.

Though almost certainly directly inspired by Martin Scorsese's similar Personal Journey Through American Cinema, Tavernier doesn't seem terribly concerned with the film's reception beyond its native France. Oftentimes he'll describe a throwaway scene from this film or that film as having an exceptionally French flavor, but for us foreigners he doesn't bother to explain exactly what that flavor might be. Though largely confined to the mid-1930s-through-early ‘70s, the documentary zips around pretty fast, and between the subtitles for his enthused narration and the audio of the movies excerpted, while also trying to catch his observations about the camera movements and editing, the viewer needs to really pat close attention.

Video & Audio

The Blu-ray of My Journey Through French Cinema is problematic. All the new footage with the director look fine, and nearly all the film clips source razor-sharp high-def masters. Yet, for some reason I can't explain, the film clips exhibit some strange mastering flaw obvious during motion, not unlike problematic PAL-to-NTSC conversions. It's an irritating, highly noticeable flaw, not ruinous but one can't wonder why this wasn't corrected. Better subtitles would also have helped, with varying font distinguishing the narration from the film clips, for instance. The 192-minute film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, adjusting for the OAR of the clips. Two audio options are offered, in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 5.1 Dolby Digital, though considering all the films excerpted are mono anyway this matters little.

Extra Features

Included is a good interview with Tavernier and Jean Olle-Luprune.

Parting Thoughts

My Journey Through French Cinema had this viewer taking notes on tantalizing movies I've not yet been able to see, and looking up filmmakers and actors I wanted to learn more about, so in that sense the picture accomplishes what it sets out to do. An at least minimal familiarity with French cinema helps, and the I wish the film clips didn't have that annoying transfer issue, but otherwise this Blu-ray comes Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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