An Eight-Part Series on the Producers Who Made The Classics of French Cinema Possible
EIGHT EPISODES DIRECTED BY FLORENCE STRAUSS/FRENCH/2019
DVD STREET DATE: JANUARY 18, 2022/DISTRIB FILMS
Godard. Clément. Buñuel. Resnais. Cinephiles the world over know their names, and know their films. But it’s far less likely that we know the names of the persevering producers who moved heaven, earth, and the almightily legal tender to see the auteur’s bold visions realized on screen. Georges de Beauregard. Robert Dorfmann. Robert & Raymond Hakim. Anatole Dauman. These, respectively, are the French film producers who enabled the artists listed above. Each has a different story to tell, different motivations to serve, and different workings to be uncovered. Now, more or less, their time in the spotlight has come…
Though timestamped 2019, Florence Strauss’ eight-hour eight-part series The Last Tycoons (Le temps des nababs) plays a lot like the deluge of similar long-form documentary examinations of film history of twenty and thirty years prior. Back then there was the multipart PBS American Cinema series, the two Scorsese Personal Journeys (into Hollywood and Italian film, respectively), the annual AFI top 100 specials, Xan Cassavettes’ wild Z Channel doc, Mark Cousins’ fantastic The Story of Film and its increasing spin-offs, the adaptation of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and the very similarly themed and similarly timed A Decade Under the Influence by the late Ted Demme.
The closest in subject matter to The Last Tycoons is probably TCM’s Moguls & Movie Stars series, from 2010. These are just the broader ones. The list could go on exponentially longer were we to include the many niche versions, delving into specific genres, studios, individuals, or other countries. All these projects are positively steeped in cinephilia, and unapologetically so. Clips, interviews, varying degrees of the “magic of movies” seeping through wherever possible. Nothing wrong with that.
Strauss- the daughter and granddaughter of movie producers in her native France- makes a point of interjecting herself into the proceedings. Per the faux-ethereal opening titles sequence, (played at the start of all eight episodes,) having spent her early teen years questioning the meaning of life, she took solace in the local cinema. She sat down a confused child; emerged a cinephile. But unlike most movie junkies’ obsessions with directors and actors, Strauss’ family ties directed her eye to the producer credits. What, though, does a producer do, exactly…? Even she, after all these years, saw fit to ask that.
She asks it again and again over the course of The Last Tycoons, as each producer profiled went about making their projects happen a bit differently. There was no set way to raise funds, court talent, oversee production, and secure distribution- particularly back then. “Back then” in this case being darn near every major era of French film history. When Strauss regularly plopped down in that uncomfortable red movie theatre seat she describes at the opening of every episode, she was apparently witness to everything from Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast to Resnais’ Night and Fog; from Buñuel’s Belle de Jour to Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle. The producers of all of them, and many more, are covered in equal twenty-minute segments.
While devotees of French cinema will likely find this behind-the-scenes road less traveled quite fascinating, it must be said that The Last Tycoons has a few things going against it. For one, there’s all the paperwork. Strauss, no doubt giving in to some genetic drive passed down by her producer forefathers, disappears into duller-than-dirt sequences of each profiled film’s contracts, budgets, and deal memos. Pages are flipped, lines are highlighted, and “interesting” bits are verbally pointed out as Strauss combs the records to glean the mundane realities of how some of the greatest films of France were contractually set up and agreed upon.
Also working against things is the film’s strange murky quality, as it all plays out on a visual register resembling that of twenty-year-old prosumer HD video cameras. The interviews with the surviving producers and/or their surviving loved ones aren’t ugly per se, though they are flat and nondescript. (In Strauss’ defense, the also-included vintage interview clips weren’t realized any better). The clips of the classic films in question are often quite unrestored and dingy. The series’ music is intrusively ghostly, which isn’t so bad until Strauss throws in her reoccurring dissolves over slow-motion ballerina footage. Seriously- why the ballerinas?
Even though eight hours of The Last Tycoons proved to be something of a slog (even for a cinephile), one must appreciate the dedication of Strauss in creating the series. Mostly, she seems to have gone about it alone, and quite likely, it took many, many years. But she has emerged with all the interviews necessary to piece together the untold stories behind the select well-known masterworks. Fanfan la Tulipe. Forbidden Games. Breathless. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Tess. So many more; some quirky picks…. And God Created Woman. The Sicilian Clan. That Man from Rio. Going Places. La Grande Bouffe. Here we have the stories and methods of the unsung organizers of these and other such unforgettable works.
If there’s a grand takeaway, it’s that these French producers were risk-takers who loved movies so much, they threw whatever business acumen they could muster behind these very risky and unproven ventures. And they did so again and again. As one interviewee says, if they wanted to get really rich and take fewer risks, they could’ve simply gotten into real estate instead.
The entirety of The Last Tycoons has been released to DVD by Icarus Films as part of the Distrib Films Collection as a two-disc set. There are no bonus features. For those who love classic French cinema, The Last Tycoons is strongly recommended viewing, with minor reservations.