Whether you are an avid enthusiast or even only mildly interested in French cinema, chances are you would have come across director Bertrand Tavernier and his brilliantly eclectic body of work. From working with the legendary Jean Pierre Melville as a young man, to his friendships with other directors from across the globe, Tavernier has managed to make a name for himself as one of the most knowledgable people working in film right now. His encyclopedic knowledge of international cinema, coupled with his love for the cinema of his own country have made him into the best placed person to talk about his own experiences as a filmmaker and about the people he met throughout his working life.
Earlier this year, we had the great honour of meeting Tavernier for a quick chat about the release of his seminal film My Journey Through French Cinema in which he has managed to compile a huge list of some of best French films ever made. The result was an astounding 3 hours of very detailed and meticulously observed voyage into French cinema by the man who knows it best.
First of all, congratulation on such a fantastic film. You have included a lot of your own personal experiences in this work, do you think that’s what makes it so compelling to watch?
Yes, It was only when I took the decision to include my own experiences that I knew that I could make this film. I’m not a teacher or a historian of cinema. I don’t have any desire to give dates, or show how films are made, I don’t have the desire to talk about that side of things. I know that I met and worked with some wonderful people who were very passionate about film. I knew also that I could say some interesting things about the films and the people I knew….things that you can’t find in any books, because they were things that I either witnessed personally or were said to me privately by the people involved.
This is one of the most complete anthologies in French cinema ever made. Does it annoy you that outside of France people are sometimes still only interested in talking about the New Wave?
Yes, it happens in America more. I think they would also be offended if I was to say that for me American cinema starts with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola or Robert Altman and you’re forgetting Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann and all those great film noir director. I mean the American cinema is not represented by a decade, it’s the same thing for French cinema. I have the same problem in France sometimes, that’s why I decided to never mention any school of filmmaking, be it neorealist, New Wave or anything else. For me what counts are the films themselves, what they tell me about the filmmakers and about my country is far more important than what school the film belongs to.
How hard was it for you to gather so much footage and archives?
Very hard, it was three years of work, it was not easy….
Was there anything you were desperate to use, but just couldn’t get your hands on?
Yes there were a few….at the end when I knew it was difficult, I had to rewrite some things, and there was only one important scene that we missed out on. We were never able to get a clip from Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Pierre Melville because the lawyer of the actor who had the rights to the film was asking for so much money and he also wouldn’t give us the permission to show the film abroad, which made the deal impossible. Before that, I had to forget a few films either because they were not restored, or the rights were not available.
It’s no secret that you had huge difficulties getting financed for this film, how was that experience for you?
I mean the public television didn’t go with it. Even Avance Sur Recette [a body which is part of the National Center of Cinematography and the moving image in France] didn’t even allow me to be on the list of the films submitted. So the film was made only by Gaumont Pathé because they care very much about restoration, and Ciné Plus. Canal Plus [cable channel] turned it down and even Studio Canal turned it down. I went first with Studio Canal because they have the biggest catalogues, but I was never even able to meet the head of the Studio, I was never even considered interesting enough to be received. And when my producer went to see the TV department of Canal Plus, they said yeah, we are thinking about making a film about French Cinema, but were thinking of asking Martin Scorsese to do it. So I sent Marti an email and told him and he said, of course I won’t do it.
There are 97 films on your list I think…are you able to narrow down which films are the most important to you, or is that an impossible task?
It’s impossible. I think what I discovered is that there are tremendous numbers of films which are alive, funny, poignant and moving, and at least 50% of them are not seen, exploited, or bought by television. I would never even give my 10 best films, and that is why I wanted to do a new 8 hour show…
Yes, can you tell us more about this new show and what it’s about?
It’s a TV series for Ciné Plus and France 5, and it has nothing to do with the film. everything in it is brand new content, and I talk about directors such as Marel Pagnol, Sacha Guitry, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Claude Autant-Lara and I also talk about all the women directors like Agnes Varda, Jacqueline Audry, the forgotten directors like Maurice Tourneur, or the underrated directors like Pierre Chenal, Henri Calef and many many more…
Do you go up until the 1990s in this new show?
No, because I became a filmmaker at the beginning of the 70s, and it would be a conflict of interest to be talking about people who made films at the same time…
Would you ever consider making another anthology in say Italian or British cinema?
It would not be the same, and because I’ve worked and still work inside French cinema I have seen first hand what goes on. I mean working with Melville allowed me to witness things, to live things, even some unpleasant things….so I would not have the same insight, even though I knew some Italian and British directors very well. For example, Michael Powell was a great friend too…but still I wouldn’t have the same insight…
You speak with huge tenderness about Jean Pierre Melville, what was your memory of working with him all those years ago?
Working with him on set was not a good experience for me. For a young guy with no experience who was very shy, it was not very pleasant…but then when you had finished working with him, he had great charm and he could be very warm, but he was also a little bit dictatorial…he sometimes said, in France now there are only two directors, Clouzot and myself! I mean you didn’t have to always agree with him, but he knew he was good…
Finally, do you have any plans to go back to fiction in the future?
Yeah, definitely. My latest fiction Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister) was not that long ago, but I’m also writing a screenplay now. I had written a script about terrorism, but then there were several TV series being made on the subject, so I wonder now if the reality isn’t already ahead of us, maybe it will be real history in 10 years time, but now it’s either too soon or too late.
My Journey Through French Cinema is out on DVD from Monday 4th of December