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Notebook Primer: François Truffaut

Few directors have so ardently worn their lives on their cinematic sleeve as Truffaut, projecting his passions on the screen for all to see.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
François Truffaut
It’s not always necessary to know a filmmaker’s biography in order to fully appreciate his or her work, but in the case of François Truffaut, it is not only beneficial, it may also be unavoidable. Few directors have so ardently worn their lives on their cinematic sleeve as Truffaut, persistently projecting his passions on the screen for all to see. Born February 6, 1932, he was a child of World War II, but only later in his career was that great tragedy the subject of conspicuous focus. Rather, his recurring concerns were of a more personal nature, ranging and reappearing throughout his work in the form of fleeting flirtations and complex affairs, the multifaceted unrest of childhood, and, of course, the cinema itself. 
As a wayward young man, Truffaut found refuge under the influence of seminal critic André Bazin, and stimulated by the films viewed around Paris, particularly at Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque Française, he entered into the heady days of French cinephilia with pen blazing, crafting numerous articles and reviews that vigorously dissected the state of his nation’s cinema (and that of any other nation he happened to encounter). Most prominently and polemically, his 1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” published in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, took aim at the so-called “tradition of quality” in French film and appealed for a new type of filmmaking, one that was more intimate, distinct, and progressive. In another article published three years later, Truffaut declared that the “film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary … The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.”
The 400 Blows (1959)
Not content to simply espouse the perceived deficiencies of French cinema, Truffaut joined the others who made up the French New Wave—the Nouvelle Vague—and opted to produce films of his own, putting into practice that which he had so far only put down on paper. Considering his erstwhile viewing of so many movies as his “apprenticeship,” Truffaut wrote his first script in 1950, for a picture titled “The Angel Skin Belt.” Described by biographers Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana as a “fantastical screenplay, with … sexual and blasphemous overtones,” this aborted project was followed by his first short, a silent and black and white effort, Une visite (1955), which was dismissed by Truffaut himself as a disappointing amateur exercise. Les mistons (1957), based on a Maurice Pons story, was more promising. This nimble short, with playful nods to the Lumière brothers and other preceding filmmakers, tells of a group of young boys whose misguided infatuation breeds puerile hostility. Starring Gerard Blain and Bernadette Lafont, with Jacques Rivette as cameraman, the eight-minute undertaking remains a sprightly reflection on memory and fervid fixation. 
Acting as an assistant on Les mistons was Robert Lachenay, a childhood friend of Truffaut’s and a frequent and vital collaborator integral to the development of Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows. Originally intended as one episode in a film on childhood, what started as “Antoine’s Flight” became an exemplary title in the New Wave’s emergence. Starring 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, who had first appeared in Georges Lampin’s King on Horseback the year before, Truffaut’s 1959 feature-length unveiling surveys the relatively minor rebellions of Léaud’s Antoine Doinel, a precocious child of obvious intelligence forced to deal with a home and social life that appear almost always on the cusp of catastrophe. Truffaut displays a natural affinity for classroom antics and the heart of errant youth—their inquisitiveness, anxieties, and defiant exploits—and the film’s seamless depictions of joy, misbehavior, and despair bear an affectionate authenticity. With assured staging and downy camera movements cast against a lovingly depicted Paris in the soft, cool tones of wintery black and white (courtesy of cinematographer Henri Decae), The 400 Blow’s melancholy tenor evokes the perils of formative deceit and concludes with one of cinema’s most poignant assertions of uncertainty. 
Bed and Board (1970)
Léaud applauded Truffaut’s ability to integrate the real-world details that brought “poetry to the film,” but The 400 Blows was not, according to Truffaut, purely autobiographical, though he did add, “all I can say is that nothing is invented. What didn’t happen to me personally happened to people I know, to boys my age and even to people I read about in the papers.” Whatever its genesis, The 400 Blows was the launchpad for a series of films featuring Léaud as Doinel, as the character aged through the succeeding years. Antoine et Colette, Truffaut’s segment in the 1962 omnibus film Love at Twenty, follows Antoine a short time after his introduction, embarking on a life of his own and reveling in, and recoiling from, his newfound independence and his fledgling adolescent love. This was followed by 1968’s Stolen Kisses, where Antoine is older but no less restless or reckless in his handling of whatever life throws his direction, from his hapless and mercifully short-lived military service (like Truffaut’s own) to the strategic engagement of Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) as his fiancée and later wife. The relaxed scenario of Stolen Kisses allowed for “improvisation,” according to Truffaut, “but with professional skill,” a productive mode of filmmaking for both Léaud and his director. 
Remaining instinctively enthusiastic and forever prone to the transitory delights of love and the obstructions of life, Bed and Board, a swiftly-paced 1970 installment in the Doinel cycle, finds its capricious lead amidst the everyday routines of a settled life with Christine. But among an animated assembly of peripheral characters and garnished by amusing, observational incidents à la Jacques Tati, the film suggests discordant domestic complications, and, even if presented and received as ebullient hiccups along the way, Bed and Board hints at the underlying tensions in Antoine’s journey through adulthood. Although Truffaut declared he was done with Doinel in 1970, he returned to his beloved creation and the continual source of artistic rejuvenation (especially after a commercial disappointment) with 1979’s Love on the Run. Here, Antoine is newly divorced and again faces an ambiguous path forward. His demeanor has changed little, though, and like Truffaut, he seems to delight in his footloose deportment and his romantic “quirks.” But also like Truffaut, Antoine must reckon with his past (illustrated by numerous flashbacks to the earlier Doinel films), including his troubled relationship with his now deceased mother, whom Antoine says taught him one decisive fact of life, a fact echoed throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre: “Love is all that matters.” 
Small Change (1976)
Beyond Antoine Doinel, children remained a habitual focus for Truffaut, who was himself, after his own unstable childhood, profoundly affected by the welfare of young people. The Wild Child (1970), the true story of a boy who in 1798 was found living in the woods around Aveyron, is the realization of ultimate innocence, as the feral youngster eventually named Victor, played astonishingly well by Jean-Pierre Cargol, a “gypsy boy” discovered on the street by Truffaut’s assistant, lacks any sort of customary life experience. His blank slate is marked by cruelty, kindness, and curiosity, and embodying the best of what was no doubt a genuine capacity for consideration and compassion, Truffaut made his credited acting debut as physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who takes the boy under his wing and attempts to educate and reform his complicated prodigy, a process defined by frustrations, methodical attentiveness, and a humanity that is both learned and innate. Small Change, from 1976, is an ensemble piece that moves away from one dominant child and instead chronicles the routine meanderings of a cluster of children in the rural town of Thiers. Teeming with moments of quiet effervescence and impishness, as well as distressing heartbreak, Small Change is a charmingly candid and causal portrayal of interconnected youth, each with their own individual traits, crises, and conversational inclinations. And the overriding sympathy of the picture, as with all of Truffaut’s features about children, testify to what Truffaut scholar and translator Annette Insdorf states is a “vision of childhood, unequalled in the history of the cinema for sensitivity, humor, poignancy, and respect for children themselves.” 
In what is a promising though ultimately tragic case of what-could-have-been, Truffaut’s last screenplay, The Little Thief, which he planned to direct, would align with this regular thematic concentration. It was to recount, according to Insdorf, “the tale of a female Antoine Doinel, an unwanted adolescent who finds her identity first in delinquent activity and finally in the art of photography.”
Jules and Jim (1962)
Following the sensational success of The 400 Blows, Truffaut attempted to ingratiate himself in both the formal experimentation of the New Wave and the tried-and-true qualities of American genre cinema. Although it wasn’t a hit at the time, his sophomore feature, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), based on a David Goodis novel, has since become a jazzy, jokey, and much-admired riff on traditional noir. Bursting at the seams with narrative digressions and dynamic, self-conscious accents, Truffaut’s riveting underworld is one where crime and romance are often entwined and equally approached with hesitation and vigor. With a spotlight on the conflicted responsibilities of pianist Charlie Koller, played by an impeccably detached and forlorn Charles Aznavour, Shoot the Piano Player’s sphere of violence is swift and semi-serious, its tone fluctuating with the greatest of ease and its formal dexterity enlivening the conflicts of professionalism and personal ardor. Poorly received upon its initial release, and subject to censorial objection, the film is nevertheless a nostalgic examination of thwarted ambition and regret, but in Truffaut’s congenial hands, it is also boundlessly buoyant and accepting of life’s impediments, exemplifying a song sung to great amusement in the picture: “That’s fate, tit for tat.” 
After completing the 1961 short A Story of Water, which he directed with Jean-Luc Godard, who was largely responsible for the film’s compact and packed construction, especially its non-stop voiceover and frenetic pace, Truffaut felt assured enough to adapt a novel by favored author Henri-Pierre Roché. The resulting film, Jules and Jim (1962), is among his finest. Essentially canvasing the decades-long friendship between its two male figureheads, played by Henri Serre and Oskar Werner, Jules and Jim is most emphatically a celluloid valentine to Jeanne Moreau, as the impulsive femme fatale Catherine. Following a breathless preliminary exposition—a dazzling, carnivalesque opening scored by Georges Delerue (“the most film-loving of musicians,” per Truffaut) and punctuated by pans and zooms and freeze frames—Jules and Jim are introduced to the enigmatic free spirit that is Catherine and are instantly, hopelessly, besotted by what Jim calls this “vision for all.” Like the trio’s impromptu race (in which Catherine cheats, of course), Jules and Jim moves full speed ahead, from gorgeously photographed sun-kissed outings in the countryside to post-war sequences that are laden with somber disquiet. Truffaut said of Moreau and her character, “the woman is passionate, the actress is passionately enthralling,” but the film’s moral ambiguities led some social critics to oppose its mature romantic entanglements. All the same, Jules and Jim is an undeniably spirited, expertly considered tale of interpersonal fragility, attraction, and transience. Truffaut’s succeeding film, 1964’s The Soft Skin, similarly deals with sophisticated desires and corollaries by following a celebrated academic (Jean Desailly) as he disregards his familial commitments and begins an anxious affair with an air hostess (Françoise Dorléac). With cinematography by the renowned Raoul Coutard and again featuring a score by Delerue, The Soft Skin is perfectly equalized by Truffaut, balancing a superior interpretation of emotional tenderness, the banality of betrayal, and the strains of polite desperation. 
Mississippi Mermaid (1969)
Truffaut had considered a film version of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 prior to The Soft Skin, but after a false start at the time, and after passing on the possibility of directing an American feature (Bonnie and Clyde, ultimately directed by Arthur Penn in 1967), he returned to the Bradbury story for his first color film (cinematography by Nicolas Roeg) and one of his more tumultuous undertakings. Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), an international coproduction shot in England, was marred by difficulties, including a language barrier, the input of multiple screenwriters, and the progressively deteriorating relationship between he and his leading man, Jules and Jim’s Werner, who was cast after such initial considerations as Paul Newman and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film is bleak and oppressive, which befits its narrative but does little to extricate it clear of a minimal, rigorous, and, compared to most Truffaut films, a less lively air of adversity. 
More enjoyable and clearly evincing more enthusiasm, Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968), adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel, is a stealthy thriller with Moreau as the vengeful and determined heroine who seeks out to kill, one-by-one, the men she believes responsible for her husband’s death. Supported by Bernard Herrmann’s score, the film’s further Hitchcockian inflections highlight its driven pace and clever style. But for Truffaut, perhaps more than a callback to one of his best-loved directors (Alfred Hitchcock being the subject of his phenomenal interview book, published in 1966), the film was a “tribute” to Moreau, coolly personifying this furtive, pitiless, and savvy murderess. Though a lower-budgeted film, The Bride Wore Black is far more vibrant than its immediate predecessor, even if a falling out over technical preferences made it Truffaut’s last collaboration with Coutard. Mississippi Mermaid (1969), based on another Woolrich text he had read 10 years before, is likewise an underrated gem in the Truffaut cannon, with Belmondo as a blindly smitten plantation owner and Catherine Deneuve as the object of his affection and the cause of his ruin. Dryly humorous and ripe with evocative surroundings, this feature is, “above all else,” Truffaut stated, “the tale of a degradation through love, of a passion.” 
A Gorgeous Bird Like Me (1971)
Reverberations of Jules and Jim are evident, if inverted, in Two English Girls, Truffaut’s 1971 adaptation of another Roché novel, an adaptation which he had to trim down considerably after an initial 552-page script was submitted by his steadfast co-writer Jean Gruault. This time, it is Léaud’s Claude Roc who is torn between sisters Ann and Muriel Brown (Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter), their overwrought courtship impeded by period manners and decorum and careful indiscretions. The film is a lush and leisurely romance, and its formally restrained presentation of sacrifice and longings spoiled by space and time make it radically dissimilar, in nearly every conceivable way, to A Gorgeous Bird Like Me (1971), Truffaut’s darkly comedic look at the life and chaotic times of invariable firebrand Camille. One of his most “liberated heroines, vulgar and vital,” per Insdorf, “a gambler with life and death,” Camille is played with startling unpredictability by Bernadette Lafont. As her sociological examination leads to a series of flashbacks from her frenzied and fierce life to that point, she is as blithe as she is crude, and Truffaut adopts a corresponding tone and visual technique that flaunts a modern, twisted tale of magnetism and mad humor. As one of his more neglected works, Truffaut also considered the film arguably his most “controlled, coherent, and complementary.” Despite its relative obscurity, A Gorgeous Bird Like Me also carries forth one of the key aspects of Truffaut’s entire filmography, namely its non-judgmental stance toward even his most problematic of characters, regardless of their flaws and misdeeds, something which he likely inherited from the great Jean Renoir. “For younger filmmakers like Truffaut,” Insdorf argues, “Renoir’s films provided an ongoing lesson in the primacy of the imperfect individual. It is difficult to find either ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’ in [Truffaut’s] work …” 
Another such individual, another tortured young woman (albeit one significantly more discreet, at least to start, than Lafont’s Camille), is Isabelle Adjani’s Adèle Hugo, the obsessively lovestruck daughter of Victor Hugo in The Story of Adèle H (1975). Judiciously described in the film as a “highly-strung young lady,” Adèle goes to the ends of the Earth—from Paris to Nova Scotia to Barbados—to follow and vainly allure her unrequited love, British officer Lieutenant Pinson (Bruce Robinson). In desolately sedate settings, Adèle’s all-consuming adoration is audacious and devastating, but always sincere and unwavering. Made in French and English, The Story of Adèle H was described by Truffaut as “an hour-and-a-half closeup on Isabelle Adjani,” and the actress is indeed patently front and center, sometimes painfully so, as Truffaut delicately unravels the psychological torment of a woman “devoured by a one-way passion.” Just as committed to his respective cause is Charles Denner’s Bertrand Morane in The Man Who Loved Women (1977), though his rapture is not singular, like Adèle’s, but seemingly campaigns for the entire female sex. Bertrand goes to tremendous lengths in his quest of amorous companionship, with a confident, one-track zest, and while he is a womanizing schemer when it comes to his painstaking pursuits, amusingly adding to his catalog of conquests, he is no heartless Don Juan, but rather a compulsive, if earnest, enthusiast of sensual fulfillment.
The Last Metro (1980)
Truffaut again went before his own camera for 1978’s The Green Room, a year after appearing before Steven Spielberg’s in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A decade after World War I, Truffaut’s Julien Davenne is a journalist consumed by grief and the memory of those who have passed away, particularly his wife. Complemented by Truffaut’s dignified and yet vividly inspired compositions, Julien’s deep, aching severance from the living reflects a world that has, for him, become cold and at times unnervingly passive. Although he didn’t consider himself an actor—“just an interpreter on occasion”—Truffaut quite successfully captures the trauma of Julien’s desolation and his struggles to move beyond the past. Based on the Henry James story collection “The Altar of the Dead,” The Green Room’s preoccupation with death reflected another of Truffaut’s recent concerns, especially in light of his increasingly failing health, which would unknowingly at the time result in just six years left to live.
Rarely involved in politics save for, most notably, his participation in the turbulent “Langlois Affair” of 1968, a time of generally widespread upheaval, Truffaut eventually tackled the redolent subject of World War II with The Last Metro (1980). Presented within an engaging theatrical milieu and set during the 1942 occupation of France, this acclaimed feature is a multipart interweaving of art, amour, and the precarious contexts of fear, hatred, and unrelenting apprehension. Monitoring the covert maneuverings of the film’s central troupe, led by Deneuve’s Marion Steiner, who secretly stows away her Jewish husband (Heinz Bennent), The Last Metro is poised and powerful, tightly moderated by Truffaut as he meticulously details the fundamental gravity of the era: the antisemitism, the push and pull of collaboration and resistance, and the tenuous scruples that threaten purpose, passion, and hope. 
Also appearing in The Last Metro is Gérard Depardieu, who initially resisted Truffaut due to what he regarded as the director’s bourgeois attitude and social stance. But the famous French star would again work with Truffaut, this time on his penultimate film, The Woman Next Door, starring alongside Fanny Ardent. A modestly milder affair compared to The Last Metro, this 1981 film relates the twists of fate that arise with the sudden reemergence of a former love, and the variable responses to this inevitable, ill-fated (re)connection. Truffaut fluidly transitions between suspicion and zealous rapture, between mania and guilt, arriving, in the end, at a fatal consummation. Ardent herself then reteamed with Truffaut for Confidentially Yours. Tautly paced with dashes of madcap comedy and intermittent intrigue, the film is based on a novel by Charles Williams and focuses on a resolute secretary (Ardent) as she seeks to assure the innocence of her abrasive, though nonetheless charming boss (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is suspected of murdering his wife and her lover. Once declaring, “I think color has done almost as much harm to the cinema as television,” Truffaut chose to shoot this 1983 film, his last, in stark black and white, enhancing the intensity of its subversive, visually striking murder mystery.
Day for Night (1973)
As noted, there was scarcely a film in which Truffaut didn’t integrate some aspect of his personality, but the most prominent example of this confessional tendency is Day for Night (1973), which fondly pulls the curtain back on his dedicated profession and medium of choice. Ostensibly charting the course of a fictional film’s production—its technical processes, miraculous accomplishments, and customary hindrances—Day for Night is moreover a canny and clearly knowing rendering of celebrity culture and romantic and artistic complication. The behind-the-scenes calamities afflict all involved, and the film’s stellar cast includes Jacqueline Bisset, Léaud, Valentina Cortese, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Truffaut himself, playing, reasonably enough, the film-within-the-film’s director. Exuding a comfortable confidence, Truffaut mounts an affable and indulgent homage to cinema, with symphonic montage sequences of the movie in the making and a healthy peppering of his assorted tastes in film. For all its qualities obviously specific to Truffaut, however, Day for Night simultaneously stresses the collective importance of filmmaking, something which he was no doubt appreciative of, having built a legendary and enduring career with the benefit of stalwart writers, assistants, and frequent stars and technicians. He was indebted to their contributions while striving for his passionately personal concept of cinema, and it in was in this manifold fulfilment of cooperation, support, and kinship that fellow New Waver Claude Chabrol found perhaps Truffaut’s greatest theme in his life and work: “the search for harmonious relationships.” That’s certainly one possible summation of what moved Truffaut most, but another emerges from what his Day for Night director Ferrand declares before one of the film’s many invigorating moments: “Cinema is King!”


François TruffautColumnsNotebook Primer
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