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The enigma of François Truffaut

22 November 2014

The film career of François Truffaut (1932-84) is an enigma. How could such a skillful, knowledgeable film-maker turn out so many dreary films? Geneva’s international film festival offered a pointer to the answer with a couple of interviews from the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps. As a result, I blame the baleful influence of Hitchcock.

But first a look back at his career…

After learning his trade with his first feature,Les Mistons, Truffaut produced what became for French schoolkids what The Cather in the Rye was for American teenagers in the early 1960s: all the seeds of 1968 were there in Les 400 Coups(=Raising Hell=)/The 400 Blows (1959).

Then, despite loudly proclaiming his detestation of “gangster films”, Truffaut gave us the hilarious and touching Tirez sur le pianiste/Shoot the Piano Player (1960), a comedy about gangsters combined with a love story. It proved to be his most experimental film in the New Wave tradition, using disjunctive editing and seemingly random voiceovers, in (wikipedia’s description). It did not do well at the box-office.

He then stunned audiences with the masterly Jules et Jim (1962), a story of two men happily in love with one woman (Jeanne Moreau) and vice versa. Though set 40 years in the past, the film trumpeted the new sensibiiities of the 1960s as much as Godard’s films of the time (from Breathless to Pierrot Le Fou).

The enigma started with his next film, a ‘true-crime’ adultery and murder story,La Peau Douce/Silken Skin(1964). Don’t ask me to explain the significance of the title. Where his previous films had been light and airy, this was tiny and domestic. He then went to Hollywood and made Fahrenheit 451(1966). It only  his inexperience with large productions.

But while Godard vanished into the dreary filmed lectures of the Dziga Vertov group (Vertov himself was all about entertainment and excitement), Truffaut sunk himself in ‘comedy thrillers’ or a startling banality (The Bride Wore Black or Missisippi Mermaid) or embarrassing dramatizations of rather dull stories (Fahrenheit 451, Two English Girls/cite>) or L’Enfant Sauvage/The Wild Child.

Truffaut’s craftsmanship is uncontested. Was he the most knowledgeable about films among the nouvelle vague), a Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorcese 20 years before they came on the scene?

So hardly any of his products is without technical interest, but the ‘Antoine Donal’ cycle (Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and Love on the Run) made me feel I had really wasted my time. And I haven’t been able to force myself to watch any of them again since their first appearance. The same goes for The Woman next door and The man who loved women

For me, Truffaut only recovered his form with the frothy confection known as La Nuit américaine/Day for Night (1973). You can see I am having trouble deciding whether to cite the English or French titles of his films. So many seem ‘French’ in a bad way (with little grasp of what might be entertaining for a general audience of non-cinephiles) and desperately ‘international’ through a flattening of the milieu in which the film was set.

The French titles give the films a grandeur that is painfully exposed when the English titles encourage us to compare his films with English-language counterparts.400 Blows, for instance, draws much of its strength from the awfulness of the Paris setting (quite the opposite of Godard’s) and makes the sullen performance of the 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud bearable.

Compare this with the décor of L’Enfant Sauvage, where the 13-year-old wild child exists in a distanced setting that never gives us his full agony as the dumb and probably deaf boy is subjected to a ‘civilization’ of punishment and control for the first time.

Yet Truffaut himself is so personable, a charm that only comes across in his feature films in Day for Night, and he is so clear about his aims, that we are bound to watch the double one-hour interviews he gave to French television for Cinéastes de notre temps/Filmmakers of our time, with the hope that he could explain his decline in a way that would make us go back to his films with more sympathetic eyes.

In the second interview, some years after the firsrt, Truffaut explains his great admirtion for two major film directors: Hitchcock and Renoir. Truffaut conducted a series of discussions with Hitchcock in 1962 (published in 1965) that has become the key reference for anyone studying the British-American director’s work. It created a new standard for researchers into commercial directors. It is hard to think of Peter Bogdanovich’s detailed interviews with Orson Welles or Wim Wenders’s Nick’s Story (about Nicholas Ray) without this pioneering work. The 1960s generation of British film critics were able to piggzyback on Truffaut’s approach for a series of publications (while others went the way of Cahiers du cinéma, another publication in which Truffaut collaborated, to apply critical theory to neglected film-amkers. See my article on Rohmer in this same television series

Truffaut talks expertly and insightfully about his techniques and his values in film-making. He notes, though it is hardly a surprise, that his Antoine Doinel character is a mixture of himself and Jean-Pierre Léaud. He rarely writes scripts that actors have to follow word for word, preferring to outline what should be taking place in the scene and leaving the actor to find their own natural expressions. No wonder actors love to work with him.

In 400 Blows, this led to a scene at the table with the father when Jean-Pierre Léaud has let a pen he stole and the father notices it. The father remarks that the pen is new. Where did the boy get it? Léaud says he got it in an exchange. “It seems to me you are doing a lot of exchanging these days,” remarks the father, without challenging the boy directly with regard to his thefts.

It is this kind of spontaneity that reminds us of Jean Renoir, the archetypal directo< of inspired moments. This is also the freshness we find in Tirez surn le pianiste and Jules et Jim, and was missing from the expertly crafted La Peau Douce, and much that followed.

Truffaut made a point of declaring his admiration for the late-period Hitchcock, i.e. from The Birds onwards. These movies are today largely dismissed as arid exercises in audience manipulation without the spirit that reached its apogee in .

The same drying-up of creativity, if not energy or expertise, seems to have afflicted Truffaut. Rather than drawing on the methods of Renoir, until La Nuit américaine

gave us a film world’s Les Règles du jeu, Truffaut busied himself with experiments of the kind that might have pleased Hitchcock but failed because they lacked Hitch’s sadistic streak. In the interview, as a result, Truffaut talks of trying to put on screen a Harold Pinteresque scene between the two men who are the first victims of the bride who wore black. We have to wait till Michel Lonsdale before we get a true scene of Hitchcockian cruelty, but Moreau’s indifference shows Truffaut’s lack of real understanding of Hitchcock’s effects.

Compare the scene in Torn Curtain, a rather minor Hitchcock work, where Paul Newman kills the East German secret service man who is following him to a rural farm. Newman has to enlist the help of fhe farmer’s wife who speaks no English to subdue the Stasi officer and slide him into a gas oven (!).

Newman ia a blunderer throughout, an amateur secret agent at its worst, quite the opposite of a John Buchan or Erakine Childers hero, and one of the pleasures is the suspense of seeing this amateur try to work out serious spycraft problems.

No, Truffaut is not Hitchcock, no matter how much he wanted to be. From outside France, he seems more like Woody Allen, arousing visceral reactions among some filmgoers and making films that can seem incomparable or simply banal.

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