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Movie Review

At the MFA, Bertrand Tavernier celebrates French film

Bertrand Tavernier’s “My Journey Through French Cinema” runs for 3 hours and 21 minutes.

Every July, the Museum of Fine Arts hosts its highly popular Boston French Film Festival. Think of Bertrand Tavernier’s “My Journey Through French Cinema” as a glorious late-summer pendant. The documentary opens Wednesday and runs on various dates through Sept. 22.

Tavernier, who’s been directing features for more than 40 years, is a filmmaking chameleon. It’s hard to pigeonhole someone equally capable of making dramas about a French colonial outpost in West Africa (“Coup de Torchon,” 1981), jazz (“ ’Round Midnight,” 1986), and 16th-century France (“The Princess of Montpensier,” 2010).

Such eclecticism helps make Tavernier an ideal guide for a tour of nearly half a century of French cinema. So does his broad professional experience. He was Jean-Pierre Melville’s assistant on “Léon Morin: Priest” and was variously employed as publicist, assistant director, screenwriter, and producer. He worked with everyone from Jean Renoir and Jean Gabin to Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard. Above all, there’s his absolute passion for movies. Perhaps no people love them as much as the French do, and few Frenchmen as much as Tavernier.

There’s quite a reason for that. One of Tavernier’s first memories is as a 3-year-old, seeing the sky over Lyon lit by flares to herald the city’s liberation by Allied troops. “I’ve never forgotten that light in the sky. And when I went to movies and suddenly light filled the screen and the curtains opened, I thought of the light in the sky.” As cinematic associations go, that one’s hard to beat.


“Journey” begins with the words “Imagine you’re at the movies,” followed by an array of films and faces: “L’Atalante” — Simone Signoret in “Casque d’Or — Arletty in “Le jour se leve” — Jeanne Moreau in “Elevator to the Gallows” — Michel Simon — “Rules of the Game” — Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina in “Alphaville” — Lino Ventura — “Le Trou” — Gabin in “Touchez Pas au Grisbi” — Michèle Morgan in “Quai des Brumes.”


There are two likely responses to that cascade: confusion or bliss. There are also two likely responses to the realization that “Journey” lasts 3 hours and 21 minutes: dismay or even greater bliss. Double-bliss responders should read on.

“Journey” offers many more clips, as well as occasional archival interview footage (although Gabin did not age well, he sure never lost his presence). Mostly, there’s Tavernier, a happy bear of a man. He’s insightful, endlessly enthusiastic, all but encyclopedic in knowledge. He’s also highly idiosyncratic. The first word in the title is “My,” after all.

So don’t expect to find any mention of Henri-Georges Clouzot or more than passing references to Robert Bresson or Jacques Demy. Discussion of François Truffaut is limited to Tavernier describing a visit (at Truffaut’s invitation) to the set of “The 400 Blows” and the music in “Shoot the Piano Player.” Film music fascinates Tavernier, and he devotes considerable attention to Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma (but no Michel Legrand).

Along with Renoir, Marcel Carné, Jacques Becker, and Melville (Tavernier adored both the man and his films), we also get the likes of Edmond T. Gréville and the blacklisted American expatriate John Berry (the clips from his two Eddie Constantine thrillers look really good); or curios like “Macao, L’enfer Du Jeu.” It stars Sessue Hayakawa (!) and Erich von Stroheim (!!). The movie was made in 1939. When reissued during the Occupation, the Nazis ordered that von Stroheim’s scenes be cut.


Except for a delightful coda during the closing credits, where Tavernier wonders whether the Lumière brothers “directed” the passersby in their first film, there’s nothing about silent cinema. And “Journey” ends in the mid-’70s, with Claude Sautet (Tavernier dedicates the documentary to his memory and Becker’s). That’s when Tavernier began his own directing career, so it’s a sensible place to stop. Except is there a sensible place to end a film that one wishes could go on and on? The most frequently seen end credit in French film is “Fin.” Thankfully, it does not appear here.

★ ★ ★ ½

Written and directed by Bertrand Tavernier. At Museum of Fine Arts Saturday and various dates through Sept. 22. 201 minutes. Unrated (a few flashes of vintage nudity and occasional French obscenities euphemized in the subtitles). In French, with subtitles. www.mfa.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.