MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A beloved French director is taking a look back. Bertrand Tavernier, prolific film director and screenwriter, has made a documentary that's a kind of diary of the films that inspired him. It's a reflection on the passion of his peers and the art form that he says saved his life. It's called "My Journey Through French Cinema." Howie Movshovitz of member station KUNC has more.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: When Bertrand Tavernier decided to chronicle the history of French cinema, he may not have known what he was in for. The project took nearly five years. He wound up watching roughly a thousand movies working with a tiny staff.
BERTRAND TAVERNIER: We did the whole film with, I think, five people. Really, the making of it, we were five.
MOVSHOVITZ: Tavernier used clips from dozens of films, and many of those had to be restored before he could work with them.
TAVERNIER: I discover many films which I'd forgotten or I did not know and which I found surprisingly alive, surprisingly modern, exciting, talking to us now. I mean, those films talk about immigration, about the violence of the police, about the working class. And some of those directors gave great importance to woman. And it was difficult at the moment where it was not fashionable. It was just that they decided, Jacques Becker for instance, that the woman had to be the center of the story.
MOVSHOVITZ: Becker's 1952 "Casque d'Or" tells the story of a beautiful woman with a compromised background, played by Simone Signoret, who still stands up for herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CASQUE D'OR")
SIMONE SIGNORET: (As Marie, speaking French).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking French).
SIGNORET: (As Marie, speaking French).
MOVSHOVITZ: Tavernier set limits on his journey. It begins when French films began to talk and ends when he became a filmmaker in 1970 because, he says, he couldn't talk honestly about his peers and competitors.
MOVSHOVITZ: Paris-based film critic Joan Dumont says Tavernier's approach to the films he does talk about is not academic.
JOAN DUMONT: It's a very exciting documentary. He reacts. He's always reacting. And when he loves something the way he loves the films of Becker, he's there. He's in that film in a special way. He knows everything. And he knows the details of everything (laughter). It can be quite astounding. And he sees things that other people don't see. And he takes you to that beating heart that's behind the very complicated making of a film that moves people.
MOVSHOVITZ: That beating heart is just how Tavernier describes the work of Maurice Jaubert, a major composer in the 1930s. In his documentary, Tavernier says Jaubert was the first composer to understand how music could work with images.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MY JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA")
TAVERNIER: (Speaking French).
(SOUNDBITE OF NARCISO YEPES AND MAURICE JAUBERT'S "L'ARRIVE AU PORT")
MOVSHOVITZ: "My Journey Through French Cinema" is very much a love letter, and Tavernier's enthusiasm is infectious.
TAVERNIER: The more I was doing the film, the more I was feeling grateful to all those filmmakers, not only for the qualities, which is enormous - I mean, the passion that you can see in the film of Renoir, in the film of Becker, in the film of Melville - they were living for the cinema. But also, they were taking risks.
MOVSHOVITZ: Yet Tavernier's fearless about criticizing giants like Jean Renoir. While he reveres Renoir's films, Tavernier learned during his research that the older filmmaker's career and politics were often shaped by convenience instead of principle, says Joan Dumont.
DUMONT: I think that Tavernier was very disappointed in his politics. I think that he was disappointed in him as a man. And he shows in his film that he can take sides, that he can still be critical of Renoir even though he is, these days, a kind of household god. And that's Bertrand. He's very much an individual.
MOVSHOVITZ: But "My Journey Through French Cinema" is not about settling grudges either. Film set the course of his life. He began his journey when he was a boy laid low by tuberculosis, his joy for living awakened by the movies. He edited his latest film from a hospital bed as he recovered from surgery for cancer.
TAVERNIER: I wanted to say thank you to all those filmmakers, writers, composers for the way that they enlightened my life. They gave me dreams, gave me passion. And I think I survived - I survived because of the cinema. It gave me hope. The cinema gave me a reason to live.
MOVSHOVITZ: The movies, says Bertrand Tavernier, have now saved his life - twice. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO COULAIS AND LAURENT PETITGIRARD'S "VOYAGE A TRAVERS LE CINEMA FRANCAIS (SUITE)")
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