With Sundance underway (the 2022 online edition), I feel guilty about not streaming five movies per day. FOMO, the “fear of missing out” phenomenon, reigns supreme. To stream or not to stream? There’s so much work to do, especially when trying to keep the wheels of production spinning at an indie film publication. The Last Tycoons — now streaming on OVID.tv — calms my mind in a time, in a culture, when content consumption and Letterboxd logging seems more important than contemplation and quality control. Directed by Florence Strauss, the eight-episode documentary examines the logistics of 20th century French cinema productions and the philosophies of the main players; the fusion of art and money. The Last Tycoons is a helpful guide for the multi-tasking cinephile who wants to better understand French cinematic movements, such as La Nouvelle Vague, and the industry as a whole.
Strauss, the granddaughter of the legendary producer Robert Hakim, runs a tight ship. She bookends each episode of The Last Tycoons with narration about filmmaking concepts, and spotlights three producers in between. Strauss doesn’t claim to be an authority on industry practices but rather learns on-the-go while speaking with the subjects’ friends and family members. Each episode typically includes an “A-ha!” moment as the filmmaker analyzes contracts and financial commitments; her thorough research allows for an informed assessment of the the French film industry between 1945 and 1980. Importantly, Strauss calls out various people, via narration, who either manipulate the facts or misremember key details. These moments, from my perspective, remind of moviegoers who proudly promote their movie consumption but don’t necessarily fully engage with the work itself. François Truffaut, a French cinephile-critic-filmmaker, famously consumed cinema like food in the 50s and then internalized the experiences while applying takeaways to his work. Now, some emerging “critics” astonishingly reject the past and can’t quite understand that some cinematic techniques have been recycled over and over. In The Last Tycoons, Strauss doesn’t just consume data and spit out the facts; she connects the dots and draws a through-line from classic Hollywood to the French New Wave to groundbreaking and/or beloved international co-productions from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Macha Méril earns the MVP award in The Last Tycoons. For every story about big swingin’ dick producers like Raoul Lévy and Jean-Pierre Rassam (both of whom died tragically in their forties), the prolific French actress provides a heartfelt tale about her industry experiences. In episode 1, she explains how producer Henry Deutschmeister inspired her name change from Marie-Madeleine Gagarine to the more pronounceable — at least for French moviegoers — Macha Méril. By episode 3, Méril discusses the French New Wave movement and how it was a revolution in production rather than a revolution in artistic creation. She later recalls working with Luis Buñuel for Belle de Jour (1967) and explains how she introduced producer Albina du Boisrouvray to her future husband, producer Georges Casati. Méril also acknowledges a “dalliance” with the aforementioned Rassam and describes the experience as the “weirdest and funniest” period of her career. From episode to episode, Méril radiates with life and adds a sense of motherly warmth to The Last Tycoons.
From a 2022 perspective, it’s easy to romanticize the methods of French New Wave figures, as if they were merely a pack of film critics who were knowledgeable and clever enough to produce their own movies without any help from the old guard. But the fact remains that influential producers — as detailed by Strauss in The Last Tycoons — played a significant role in the overall process. Breathless producer Georges de Beauregard is described as “a pirate disguised as a notary,” a man who punched Jean-Luc Godard during production and jogged to calm his nerves when the director delayed the process with dialogue sessions. The Last Tycoons also reveals, or rather acknowledges, that Pierre Braunberger — who produced French New Wave films like Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Vivre sa vie (1962) — learned about the business from none other than Irving “The Boy Wonder” Thalberg (the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon) at MGM in the 1920s, and later befriended the French filmmaker Jean Renoir; a favorite auteur of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd.
I wonder what The Last Tycoons’ collective subjects would think about Sundance or industry “FOMO.” Strauss’ docuseries implies that most wouldn’t care, as they were primarily focused on their personal work, for better or for worse. But The Last Tycoons also underlines crucial aspects of the producing process that involve an open mind: the ability to adapt, a willingness to let creatives do their thing; the importance of staying calm and finding solutions to problems; an understanding of logistical nuances. The next generation of movie tycoons will transcend above “FOMO” while manipulating social media narratives without having an active presence, and many of their passively progressive contemporaries will ironically become the new old guard — stubborn people stuck in their ways, scrolling through social media for bad news that will further justify a pessimistic outlook, and unwilling to look to the past for a cinematic education. The Last Tycoons may seem elusive if the “beforetimes” begins with your year of birth.
The Last Tycoons: The Producers Who Made the Classics of French Cinema is available to stream at OVID.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.