"Tout Truffaut"

Rediscovering Fran


Charles Taylor
April 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The relationship that seemed to exist between Frangois Truffaut and his
audience may be hard to explain to anyone who came to his films on video,
or perhaps even to those who will see them for the first time during "Tout
Truffaut," the complete retrospective of the director's work that opens
Friday at New York's Film Forum and will tour 11 other cities. In
the '60s and early '70s (the period in which I became a serious moviegoer),
movie audiences greeted each new Truffaut film as a visit from a beloved friend.
Maybe it had something to do with the feeling that they had grown up
alongside Truffaut's alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Liaud
in the director's first feature, "The 400 Blows" (1959), and in four subsequent
features and one short. Perhaps they looked at the freedom and passion of
"Jules and Jim" (1961) and -- ruinous though the passion depicted in that
film is -- saw a vision of everything they wanted out of life. Or perhaps it
was just that, at his greatest, Truffaut seemed the most tender of all
filmmakers.

Whatever the reason, people went to a Truffaut film not in the way that
audiences today turn out for whatever new indie director -- good or bad --
happens to be hot at the moment, but with a mix of eagerness and
expectation and, there's no way of getting around it, love. "Truffaut's films
are easy to love," says director Olivier Assayas in the documentary "Frangois
Truffaut: Stolen Portraits," "because they seem to love the audience." It was
this popular image of Truffaut -- the filmmaker as compassionate man --
that Steven Spielberg had in his head when he cast Truffaut in "Close
Encounters of the Third Kind," the sort of man people look at and think,
"He'll understand." When Truffaut gently smiles at an addled old Mexican
man who has witnessed a fleet of brightly lit UFOs, the man's confusion
seems to clear away, and he confides his vision: "The sun came out last
night, and it sang to me."

Advertisement:

There are entire areas of Truffaut's work that that view doesn't encompass.
No one who wrote with the vitriol Truffaut did during his days as a film
critic ("rise up against French cinema"; "smash the seats when faced with
these revolting films"), who expressed the bitterness over his own
upbringing that still feels so raw in "The 400 Blows" or who understood --
and even sympathized with -- the depths of reckless passion that was the
subject of one of his greatest films, "The Story of Adhle H." (1975), could
have been entirely benevolent. But at their most lyrical -- and Truffaut was one
of the three or four most lyrical filmmakers the movies have given us --
Truffaut's films made you feel as if the sun were singing to you.
You sense that in the first shot of his first film, the 1957 short "Les Mistons,"
as the camera, placed in front of Bernadette Lafont, follows her bicycling
down a summer street. If the palpability of the sun on Lafont's skin, the
breeze rippling her dress, the fractured light falling through the
overhanging leaves didn't all feel so completely natural, you might suspect
that Truffaut had found a way to convince nature herself to put on a show
for him. At moments like this, lyricism seems to be Truffaut's natural
language, as it does in a (somewhat calculated) trifle like "Stolen Kisses"
(1968) when the camera glides over the Paris rooftops while Charles Trenet
sings on the soundtrack, or even in moments in a film as bad as
"Confidentially Yours" (1983), when he simply films Fanny Ardant walking
down the street in a trench coat.

For Truffaut and his compatriots in the nouvelle vague, the ambition to
capture a poeticized vision of life as it is lived was not so much a break with
tradition as a way to resume the tradition, interrupted by war, of French films
of the '30s. Seeing only stultification and decay in the glossy "quality" films
that dominated the French industry in the '50s, Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard,
Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette (first as critics at Cahiers du Cinema and then
as directors) celebrated the en plein air style of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and
Reni Clair. (In "The 400 Blows," young Antoine even cleans his dirty hands
on a window curtain, just as Michel Simon used one to wipe his muddy
shoes in Renoir's "Boudu Saved From Drowning.") Truffaut might have
been summing up the cri de coeur of the nouvelle vague when, introducing
a festival of Renoir films in 1967, he said, "His work unfolded as if he
devoted his most brilliant moments to fleeing from the masterpiece, to
escape any notion of the definite and the fixed, so as to create a
semi-improvisation, a deliberately unfinished 'open' work that each viewer
can complete for himself, comment on as it suits him, approach from any
side."

There may be no film masterpiece more suited to that description than
"Jules and Jim." And there may be no other film whose every frame sings
with freedom in the way this one does -- not just in the story of two best
friends (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) whose lives are brought to their
highest peaks of joy and bitterest depths by their love for the magnificent
and perhaps mad Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who will live only by her own
rules, but in the way the film moves from style to style, from mood to
mood, as if only the freedom to reinvent itself from moment to moment
could do justice to his characters' spirit. Truffaut uses jump cutting and
freeze frames, songs and newsreel footage, isolating sections of the frame the
way Griffith did; at one moment the camera takes flight and soars over the
countryside (the way it will later soar over the ocean in "The Story of Adhle
H.") as if the film's mounting sense of joy and its compulsive need for
movement had burst forth. "Jules and Jim" is one of the pinnacles of poetic
storytelling in the movies. Jean Renoir said the film made him "most
fondly jealous," and yet, as with Truffaut's description of Renoir's films, it's
a perfect film that agitates for life over perfection. Which is why people who
love the film have always tended to talk about it as if it were something they
have lived rather than watched. And why, each time you go back to it, part
of you expects it to be different than you remember it, as if it were so alive it
had rearranged itself to suit some new whim.

In her review of "Jules and Jim," Pauline Kael described the two men as
"the kind of artists who grow up into something else ... the dedication to art
of their youth becomes the civilizing influence in their lives."
Truffaut himself has often been described along those lines, but less kindly
("the once-wild child" is how the critic Paul Coates accurately and somewhat
meanly summed up the later Truffaut). The cliché of Truffaut's career is
that he became the sort of bourgeois entertainer he decried as a young film
critic. And, as with every cliché, there is some truth to that. Certainly the
later films seem more the work of a pro going through the (often clumsy)
motions than of a filmmaker seized by a personal compulsion. The amour
fou of "The Woman Next Door" (1981) belongs more to the machinations of
melodrama than to Truffaut's earlier explorations of where passion
becomes madness. It looks especially bad next to "The Soft Skin" (1964),
never particularly well regarded, and a film whose coldness makes it tough
to warm to, but which is ripe for rediscovery. Made after "Jules and Jim," it
is as ruthlessly constrained and airless as that film was exhilarating. This
portrait of a successful intellectual publisher (Jean Desailly) who begins an
affair with a young stewardess (Frangoise Dorlhac, the sister of
Catherine Deneuve, who was to die three years later in a car crash) burrows unsparingly
under the surface of bourgeois life, but with something more akin to self-loathing
than superiority. In their fine new biography "Truffaut," Antoine de Baecque and
Serge Toubiana suggest the director was dealing with his own infidelities
and perhaps the experience was too painful, too close to home.

The most entertaining of his later films, "The Last Metro" (1980), the story of
a theatrical troupe trying to carry on with its business in occupied France,
is also the most suspect. Though the central character is a Jewish director in
hiding, the film suggests an apologia for the French who carried on with life
as if nothing untoward were happening. And the pleasant, inconsequential
"Day for Night" (1973), in which Truffaut himself plays the director of a
soapy melodrama, is an apologia for cinematic mediocrity. "It is as
much trouble to make a bad film as a good one," Truffaut wrote in the 1975
essay "What Do Critics Dream About?" And perhaps Truffaut, who now
knew firsthand the difficulty of making movies, saw "Day for Night" as
penance for the hard line he had taken as a young critic. But that expression
of solidarity with anyone who steps behind a camera cannot disguise the
uncomfortable fact that the sort of movie deadwood Truffaut looks kindly
on in "Day for Night" is what makes life hell for filmmakers like him and
those he championed.

Besides, what was best about Truffaut as a critic was the hard line he
took. Truffaut the critic has things to answer for, namely the blinkered
hero-worshipping auteur theory, and the criticism collected in his essential
"The Films in My Life" often reveals very bad judgments. But just as he wrote,
"I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse," Truffaut was not
interested in writing reviews that did not pulse. Heedlessly partisan, alternating
between love letters and threats, Truffaut wrote with a passion for movies as a
vital, breathing thing that can make the most well-reasoned criticism look wan.
(One of the reasons that a smart critic like Anthony Lane never seems more than a
witty and entertaining stylist is that he appears embarrassed at declaring his
enthusiasms without employing the buffer of irony.)

Advertisement:

It can be painful to watch Truffaut try to replicate the American genres he
championed as a critic in films like his Hitchcock homage "The Bride Wore
Black" (1968) or the appallingly crude screwball outing "Such a Gorgeous
Kid Like Me" (1973); it calls to mind Kael's apt remark that he was a greater
director than he allowed himself to be. Truffaut really managed to invoke
an American genre successfully only once, in 1960's "Shoot the Piano
Player," one of his fastest, most joyous and heartbreaking films, and then (as
Godard did in "Breathless") only because he allowed himself to break free of film
noir's genre constraints. That's not to say that there isn't enormous charm
to be found in his entertainments, like the films that followed "The 400
Blows" in the Antoine Doinel cycle -- "Stolen Kisses," "Bed and Board"
(1970) and, to a lesser extent, "Love on the Run" (1979). The character
Jean-Pierre Liaud is playing in them is no longer the young Truffaut (the
Antoine of "The 400 Blows" deserves the title of the Jerry Lewis comedy
"The Delicate Delinquent," and the young man Antoine seemed destined to
become is the one Liaud played in Godard's 1966 "Masculine-Feminine")
but a bumbling comic everyman, and despite Truffaut's over-eagerness to
please his audience, you'd have to be awfully grouchy to resist entirely their
modest pleasures. His most successful comedy was the one that could have
been the most precious and sentimental, "Small Change" (1976), a film
whose ensemble cast is mostly schoolchildren. Its slip-ups -- occasional
speechifying and moments when the kids have been directed to cartoon
their responses -- don't diminish the glancing confidence of scenes like the
one where a small boy cracks himself up while regaling his buddies with
one of those nonsensical dirty jokes that kids revel in.

But it's "The Wild Child" (1970), one of the two masterpieces of the last half
of Truffaut's career, that is the deepest of all of his examinations of the
world of children. Based on the true story of an abandoned 11-year-old
boy found in 1798 living in the woods of France as a wild animal, the film
tells the story of the efforts of Dr. Jean Itard (beautifully played by Truffaut)
to civilize the boy, whom he has named Victor (played, with equal beauty,
by the young gypsy boy Jean-Pierre Cargol). There have been, over the years,
some modish attempts to see in Itard's attempts to educate Victor Truffaut's
defense of his own embourgoisement (in "Stolen Portraits" Truffaut's
daughter Laura talks of seeing a Berkeley teacher encourage some
high-school students to accept this interpretation). It's a dopey reading that
ignores both the realities of the world Victor lived in (his only other fate
would have been to be turned over to a home for "idiot" children) and
Truffaut's own acknowledgement of the pain Victor's education causes both
the boy and Itard. In this film, education equals love (the film's dedication to
Jean-Pierre Lhaud reinforces that), and though neither comes without
discipline, discipline does not preclude compassion. "The Wild Child" is not about accepting the
ready-made roles and edicts of society, but about insisting that society's only
moral authority comes from its ability to show justice. The film is shot in
luminous black-and-white by Nestor Almendros, and it's frequent iris shots
recall Griffith, as do the combination of its simplicity of means and depth of
emotion.

The spirit of silent films is also present in the last masterpiece of Truffaut's
career, "The Story of Adhle H." Another true story, this one of the youngest
daughter of Victor Hugo who literally went mad with love for an English
lieutenant she pursued to Montreal after he had romanced her, "The Story
of Adhle H." recalls, in Isabelle Adjani's incandescent performance, a
cunning version of the characters that Lillian Gish played in her films for
director Victor Sjvstrvm and the magnesium flare Falconetti showed in Dreyer's
"The Passion of Joan of Arc." (Falconetti, feeling as if she had given
everything she had, never acted again, and Adjani has never equalled this
performance.) Truffaut seems to be both outside of Adhle, studiously
regarding her (literally in one scene, where he appears on the street as an
officer she mistakes for her beloved) and inside her mad obsession. If we can
imagine the characters of films talking to each other, then we can see Adhle
as the perfect match for James Stewart's love-obsessed detective in
"Vertigo." They have both reached the point of no return, and all we can do
is watch them in fear and admiration. Without once denying Adhle's
capacity for cruelty and deviousness (she nearly ruins the life of the man she
is pursuing), Truffaut is on her side. To him, she's the representative muse of
passion without limits, a Catherine who has crossed the line and left
common sense behind. She is also perhaps the greatest example of
Truffaut's capacity for compassion and for rigorous understanding. The kick
of the movie, and its greatness, is that in Adhle's self-destruction lies her
triumph, the realization of a love so perfect that the rest of the world, even
the man who started her fire burning, is shut out. It is an image of triumph
the film ends on: not the mad Adhle wandering the streets of Barbados in
her black cape, a Bronte heroine transplanted to the tropics, but the young
Adhle standing at the edge of the sea and quoting from her journal: "That a
young girl shall walk over the sea, from the Old into the New World, to
join her lover -- this, I shall accomplish." I choose to hear that line as
Truffaut's parting words to us, the audience he had built all over the world,
who had long ago become his paramours, just as his films had become his
means of crossing the world's barriers.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Movies

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••






Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •