The paths for young cinephiles are, and have been, many: historian, filmmaker, publicist, critic, preservationist, or simply devoted attendee. Frenchman Bertrand Tavernier (“Round Midnight,” “Captain Conan”) has been all these things, and in his three-hour-plus documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema” he takes us on a rapture-filled, illuminating tour of the Gallic classics and unheralded gems that made a World War II-liberated boy from Lyon believe in the infinite possibility of movies. And specifically, the kind his country could produce.
Students of this form of narrated diary will surely link it to Martin Scorsese’s own richly immersive “Personal Journey” essay films about American and Italian cinema, and they indeed inspired Tavernier to do his own. The main difference, however, is that where Scorsese took a broad view, Tavernier’s slant is to deep-dive into a select group of lightning-rod artists that sparked his film education, from the famous (Jean Renoir, Jean Gabin, Jean-Pierre Melville) to the underappreciated (Eddie Constantine’s tough-guy vehicles, cult director Edmond T. Gréville).
The idea isn’t to treat his homeland’s cinema legacy as a greatest-hits tribute, so don’t expect a curated breakdown of France’s biggest aesthetic export, the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) on the 1960s. They were Tavernier’s contemporaries, with the same cinematic reference points, but not necessarily the same views and ideas about their worthiness in the canon.
Instead, in “My Journey,” Tavernier pays homage to the rich tradition of commercial yet personal, elegant but observant cinema that had already given French film a name before Godard and company drew up their canonical map, detonated their explosives and reassembled the pieces. In that respect, his subjects make sense, since Tavernier’s best work — whether dealing in time-honored French genres such as crime (“L.627”) or history (“Captain Conan”) — typically exhibits the kind of vigorously perceptive approach he champions in the movies that shaped him.
The die is cast early on by his long, loving examination of Jacques Becker (“Casque d’Or”), a Renoir disciple whose unfussy camerawork and attention to personal interactions opened Tavernier’s eyes to a deliberately-paced cinema where characters worked, fully-realized women were integral, and plot mattered less than closely catalogued human details and feelings.
It’s a natural segue to the section on Renoir (“The Rules of the Game,” “Grand Illusion”) and Gabin. Rather than rehash their well-documented strengths, Tavernier defends Renoir as a more acutely visual director than is typically assessed, and argues for the continued power of working-class hero Gabin — “my passport to understanding the spirit of the Popular Front,” Tavernier informs us — in the years after the actor’s ’30s heyday.
One of the movie’s loveliest passages is his ode to the exquisite musical soundtracks of Maurice Jaubert, who created the delicately romantic interplay of instruments for “L’Atalante” and Marcel Carné’s poetic realism stalwart “Le Jour Se Lève,” and Hungarian-born Joseph Kosma, who scored “Rules of the Game.” But Tavernier shows just as much admiration for the ’50s-era B movies of Eddie Constantine, and the ways directors Jean Sacha and blacklisted American transplant John Berry brought jazzy brutality and style to these hard-boiled movies. It’s as if Tavernier wanted to reclaim the genre craftsmanship of journeyman directors that would later get deconstructed in Godard’s more widely recognized Constantine vehicle “Alphaville.”
When Tavernier dissects Melville, it’s from a more personal standpoint: he worked as an assistant for the one-time French Resistance fighter behind such austere thrillers as “Le Samourai” and “Le Doulos.” Melville’s combative nature is parsed — chewing Tavernier out for a bad film recommendation, not speaking to Lino Ventura during the making of “Army of Shadows” — and, in a bit of gossipy plaisir, we’re privy to rare audiotape of Jean-Paul Belmondo screaming at Melville on the set. But the analysis is also trenchant, and catnip for fans of the auteur.
Tavernier also entertainingly relays his early days as a publicist for New Wave producer Georges de Beauregard, and ends with a passionate, persuasive case for the work of Claude Sautet, another of his mentors. (The film is dedicated to Sautet and Becker.) It says something that, after the list of tantalizingly excerpted movies is already dozens long, Tavernier can in the third hour get you just as pumped to re-watch Sautet’s gangster classic “Classe Tous Risques.” The prospect of a part two to this “Journey,” hinted at in the end credits, may even prompt you to bring a notepad for next time.
One of the biggest takeaways from “My Journey” and Tavernier’s enthusiasm for the confluence of image, performance, writing and sound is something hard to ignore the next time you see a contemporary film: the care of shot selection that previous generations deployed, and that barely exists in today’s sloppy, keep-filming-and-figure-it-out-later ethos. It becomes an enduringly rich thread: enjoying a long take of laborers’ hands in Becker’s “Le Trou,” the precision with which the camera worshipped Gabin, and most notably the surgical mindset Melville used to film the most un-modern of narrative tools, two people talking in shot/reverse-shot.
Volker Schlöndorff, a peer of Tavernier’s who also apprenticed under Melville, says watching him rigorously approach this “dumbest way to work out a scene” made him realize that even a cliché could become art. “My Journey Through French Cinema” is full of such expressed awakenings, its mix of passion, insight and gratitude as invigorating a gift as a movie lover could bestow on his fellow cineastes.