London Film Festival 2016 – Voyage à Travers Le Cinéma Français (2016)
One of the myriad joys of a well curated film festival is not simply the non-fiction, documentary strands of programming, but also the chance to see some new, detailed and affectionate documentary on a potent aspect of cinema itself, usually focusing upon a specific section of its long and illustrious history. Such material can set the tone for the overall feast of the form, where some hungry participants gorge on two, maybe three or more screenings a day, staggering out of the various West End screening venues into the Autumn sunlight, bloated with a visual cacophony of different worlds, characters, incidents and adventures. If you think that’s a vaguely pretentious fashion to continue our coverage of this years London Film Festival then I would remind the honorable gentlemen and ladies that we are talking about French cinema, arguably the most important nation to have ever contributed to the Seventh Art, beginning with its embryonic inception with the Lumiere’s and Melies in the late 19th century. Arguably no other nation has moved through so many artistic movements and forms, from the Poetic Realism of the 1930’s personified in the cinematic titan Jean Renoir, through to the colorful, self-aware explosion of the radical New Wave of the 1950’s and 1960’s, generating the early pangs of formalist post-modernism which still casts its long tricolor shaded shadow over European and American independent cinema to this day. This is the path, with a variety of detours, that our host Bernard Tavernier follows in Voyage à Travers Le Cinéma Français, a lavish love letter & viscous valentine to the cinema of his birthland, through this affectionate and exhaustive three hour documentary.
The LFF always seem to pick the cream of the crop when it comes to select on film, last year’s Hitchcock/Truffaut was another vaguely academic but accessible piece on one of the key print media treatises on cinema. This piece occupies the same intellectual space, concentrating from a historical perspective on a structured appreciation of French cinema, interspersed with long, detailed extracts from the texts themselves which are illuminated with Tavernier’s academic analysis – editing strategies, camera compositions, content versus style – and how these all fit into the contemporaneous political and cultural temperatures of their period. An immediate touchstone is Scorsese’s 1990’s Personal Journey series where he explored both American and Italian cinema, functioning as teacher, lecturer and interpreter, a feat which Tavernier equals with his similarly affectionate and passionate overview across French figures and incidents both obscure and established. As well as grazing such seminal moments as the 1969 Sorbonne riots or the Second World War occupation for all you anti-auterists out there Tavenrier doesn’t just restrict his attention to the monocle sporting riding crop tyrants, he also lavishes time and attention on certain performers on either side of the camera, including the musical composers of the early sound days, and figures such as Jean Gabin, and his tragic rise to the crest of the form with La Grande Ilusion and subsequent, post-war slip into B-Movie obscurity.
As well as simply relaxing back into a long, luxurious celebration of the art form which is always a beguiling concept the main joy of the journey is discovering new names like Claude Sautet for example, whilst the name Jacques Becker has crossed my path I can’t say I could mention a single film of his, yet Tavernier makes a passionate case for his elevation to the great pantheon, primarily how he quietly blazed a tail for his comrades to come. At the other end of the scale the titans receive their supplicant offerings, perhaps most generously in the case of archetypical humanist Jean Renoir. He is arguably France’s most cherished film-maker who receives a detailed examination but no mere simple hagiography, with our narrator not shying away from his alleged acquiescence to the Vichy regime during the occupation. In other sections Tavernier favours those colleagues whose path he crossed earlier in his career, from publicity advisor to Godard around the release of Le Mepris, or early flirtations with production assistance with one of his great mentors Jean-Pierre Melville during the latter phases of his life. The personal enters the picture when Tavernier recants a youth beset by illness and periods of physical inactivity, leavened by visits to the cinema where his imagination could soar into the silver screen. Knowledgeable scholars may recall that similar reflections have been offered by Francis Coppola who suffered from a serious bout of polio as a child, or Scorsese and his breath-raking asthma, and as someone who was also something of a sickly child, suffering from similar ailments you can’t help but wonder on the psychological coincidence…..
Although the run-time is a generous three and a pinch hours with such a broad church to cover they couldn’t possibly have time to appreciate everything. Personally I could have weathered much material on both Bresson and Truffaut whom are name checked but hardly examined, as I’d argue their influence as being as instructive and influential as it ever was, from Boyhood to the entire career of Wes Anderson, and the whole sparse efficiency of recent world cinema’s decade long deference to austere, slow-cinema. Still, it was also fantastic to learn of the career of Eddie Constantine, perhaps his most famous role as the trench-coated in Godard’s SF hybrid Alphaville, as he has appeared in an entire, long run of French noir-influenced policier which look fantastic, and serve as an ideal companion piece to jean Pierre-Melville’s oeuvre which receives its rightful and respectful liberation in the final hour of the project. A postscript reveals this is the first of two pieces which should have the aggravated cinephiles whose French fancies haven’t received adoration, it closes roughly around the late 1960’s before the advent of Deneuve or Depardieu, Huppert, Adjani or the rising young starlets of the cinema du look, although given Tavernier’s penchant for more classical, immediate pre-and-post war instincts I very much doubt they will get anything more than some immediately short thrift – he’s clearly more connected to Carne than Carax, more Bresson than Besson. For the next segment we can expect more emphasis on Jacques Tati, Cocteau, Louis Malle and Henri-George Clouzot among I’m sure other figures I’m currently ignorant of, something for any cinephile to salivate for in Cannes, Venice or London ahead in 2018;