Thursday 9 November 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare explores Bertrand Tavernier's mammoth documentary VOYAGE A TRAVERS LE CINEMA FRANCAIS

Le dernier tout (Jacques Becker)
Bertrand Tavernier begins his majestic survey of French Cinema, Voyage à travers le Cinema Français with a childhood memory of seeing his very first movie during the German Occupation at age 6. The movie was a crime thriller with night time car chases and excitable men and gorgeous dames and was the very first film indeed by Jacques Becker, Le dernier âtout. As it turns out Bertrand’s lifelong love affair with the movies thus began with a director who would become one of the very greatest in French cinematic patrimony. Becker becomes the first of Bertrand’s superbly crafted and lovingly detailed “réparations”, as one might call them, to restore so many missing faces to this immensely moving and gratifying work of love, passion and vast scholarship. 

Beginning with Becker, a director who died too young at 53 in 1960, but whose dozen plus movies can now be recognized and enjoyed as the work of a pantheon director, after decades of neglect 
Edouard et Caroline, (Jacques Becker)
Bertrand devotes the first 30 minutes of this 3 hour 13 minute documentary to Becker, working his way through Becker’s work in all their diversity of genre and subject matter. Indeed, there are no clips only from the period Technicolor farce Arsène Lupin, presumably due to copyright. As luck and more than a little fortune would have it, this particular directorial resurrection coincides with a substantial reissue on restored Blu-rays with English subtitling of two large swathes of Becker’s 1950s films, most of them in fact. They include the sublime Ealing-esque domestic comedy, Edouard et Caroline, a movie about a dress, a moderately unhappy quarrelling couple and a silly society party, made with indescribable grace, beauty and pacing worthy of Hawks; a reissue of the earlier 4K restoration of the already famous Casque d’Or, a film that out-Renoirs what everyone thought Renoir was going to become: and the knockout Gabin/Lino Ventura Noir, photographed by go to ultra-Luxe DP Pierre Montazel, Touchez-pas au Grisbi from 1954. It ends with Becker’s last film in 1960, Le Trou.
Casque d'Or (Jacques Becker)
Every one of these is a masterpiece in my opinion, and the titles from Studio Canal are complemented by several more technically first rate Blu-ray releases from Gaumont of Antoine et Antoinette, the 1949 Anxious Youth/Left Bank Jazz Rebellion picture Rendez-vous de Juillet, Becker’s amazing second feature a massively diverse yet intimate ensemble piece, Goupi Mains Rouge, the contemporary melodrama, Falbalas (Paris Frills) with Micheline Presle, a Fernandel comedy Ali Baba and a rebound project from an ailing Max Ophuls, Montparnasse 19. This is a hell of a body of work. 
Romy Schneider Max et les Ferrailleurs (Claude Sautet)
After celebrating Becker’s work, Bertrand moves the show into a series of long meditations and discussions, each 30 minutes or so, on Gabin, Renoir, Edmond T. Gréville, Truffaut and the new Wave and Melville, during which he makes a compelling argument for Léon Morin, Prêtre as one of the director's best pictures. And to end this Voyage for the time being, Claude Sautet, a director he clearly loves, a response I share. It amazes me that Sautet’s Max et les Ferrailleurs still does not have any English subtitled Home video release, some sort of indication of the extremely spotty availability of so much French material. 
Erich Von Stroheis, Mireille Balin, Macao, L'Enfer du jeu
In the course of this Homeric journey Bertrand pauses to segue and riff on subjects like actors, songs, writers, musicians and all the other bits and pieces of movies which actually comprise so much of our experiences in the cinema, outside of a lifetime of unashamed auteurist worship. He illustrates for example the frequent presence of von Stroheim before the occupation in a number of late 30s movies, including one as vastly entertaining as Delannoy’s dawn-of-war thriller-comedy-romance, Macao L’Enfer du Jeu from 1939. The picture stars the sublime Mireille Balin and opens with a travelling shot across a bombing zone somewhere in China during the Sino-Japanese conflict of the late 30s, past a tattered poster whimsically inviting passers-by to visit “scenic Japan”, until the camera comes to land on one of the cinema’s great leg art shots in the form of Balin sewing a major tear in her stocking while sitting on a cattle crate, wearing her trademark polka dot cravat while bombs fly and people run all around her.
The picture adds to this pure ultimate 1939 cast Roland Toutain as male love interest, and Erich von Stroheim who was taken out of the movie by the Vichy censors to be recut using Pierre Renoir for the part during the Occupation era screenings. Sessue Hayakawa, fresh from Ophuls’ 1938 Yoshiwara, also made in Paris, is here too, playing the shady arms trader who does “business” with Erich, a double agent who spends the rest of his spare time curating a fetishist’s wardrobe of women’s novelty clothes, shoes and boots, with which he seduces his willing or unwilling targets, including the now imperiled Mireille into BDSM submission with alternate rough stuff and soft millinery.
The film is literally as good as it sounds and Delannoy directed several other remarkable works, despite his relegation to the pits of the “Tradition de Qualité” as dictated by the New Wave Politique des Auteurs. L’Eternel Retour from Cocteau’s source material is another such Delannoy picture and aside from its considerable beauty as a fine Cocteau adaptation it’s a movie that pioneered the angora sweater for a generation of fashionable French teenagers. 
This diversion leads Bertrand to the one unavoidably grave subject of the Occupation, Renoir’s apparent complicity with it. At this point he produces two typed letters from Renoir to the head of Vichy operations dated March 1940. In the letters, Renoir openly and - sad to say – gleefully cosies up with the Vichy regime using some of the most disgusting anti-semitic language to come out of the era. After supporting the new regime’s intentions to “clean up” the industry he offers to assist in any way to help rid the business of these “vermin” and "undesirables” who still riddle the landscape.
The joy totally leaves Tavernier’s face while he talks about this, and he ends the section on a sobering note leaving us, each and every one, to arrive at whatever feelings we may now have about Renoir himself, and the whole dirty business in France for the duration. Clearly there’s no joy here, but it had to be done. 
Bertrand’s movie then picks up steam to encompass and link, discuss and analyze, reflect and illuminate in a breadth of scale with such intimate and razor sharp perception as one could ever hope to see, read or view. Bertrand’s whole life has been defined temporally and personally by French cinema, and his own contributions to it are also no small matter.
This titanic, 3 hours plus, documentary has already had screenings around the festival and revival house circuits and makes a debut on an English subbed Blu-ray from Cohen and Sony picture in the USA on November 21. My own viewings have been from the French Gaumont BD. At the end of the show is an “advance” title card suggesting the contents of a second series, and that very series is now re-screening as we speak on French Ciné Classic in Europe in the form of eight 54 minute episodes. 
I was able to obtain a Standard Def TV capture of these eight programs, with literally dozens of themes like Gremillon, Duvivier and the first pre-war expat influences in French movies, to the 30s wave including Pabst, Siodmak and Ophuls. Among what I’ve seen so far the Gremillon/Ophuls/Decoin episode is almost unbearably sublime.
Lila Kedrova, Razzia sur le schnouf (Henri Decoin)
Bertrand’s resurrection of Henri Decoin, from the graveyard of the Politique’s “Trad de Qualité”, is also a major and overdue exercise in cinema history reclamation. It starts with Decoin’s completely astonishing companion piece to Becker’s 1954 Grisbi, the absolutely amazing Razzia sur la Chnouf (1955) which shares Becker’s casting of Gabin, Lino Ventura and even the former trophy hunk, Michel Jourdan who was passed between the two rival gangsters in the Becker. All are recast here as different characters in another, blacker, and far more violent essay in the mechanics of drugs and gang warfare. Suffice to say that Razzia completely defies expectations of even French crime pictures of the era like Dassin’s good if overrated Rififi, with depictions of bluntly effective killing, torture and drug addiction. The title loosely translates to “Raid on the Smack”, which gives you some idea, and the whole totally seedy milieu is again photographed in the highest possible Luxe high contrast long lens depth by master DP Pierre Montazel, fresh from shooting Grisbi, right down to a jaw breaking sequence in a black dope fiend cafe where an all-male, all-black clientele descend on full gone heroin junkie “Lea” - a stunningly good Lila Kedrova - who succumbs to a circle gang rape on the nite-club floor after getting her fix from the bar manager. 

Jean Gabin "looks on impassively",
Razzia sur le schnouf (Henri Decoin)
Gabin looks on all of this impassively from the bar. The movie has to be seen to be believed. So does much more of Decoin. 
As does all of Tavernier’s great work.
I hope the first disc, with tranche one of the Journey, reaches the widest audience through disc and broadcast and even, theatrical screenings. The second tranche of which I have watched less than three hours so far has left me shell-shocked, to say nothing of testing the extremely weak limits of my French language "skills".
Release of the year?

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