For its doodle marking what would have been François Truffaut's 80th birthday today, Google needed an iconic image. Not Catherine Deneuve or Gérard Depardieu in The Last Metro (1980) or Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H. (1975) or even Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim (1962), but rather, and most obviously, the young Antoine Doinel on the beach. [Update, 2/7: Actually... well, see the comments below.] The doodle's not exactly the famous final freeze frame but nevertheless very recognizably the young Jean-Pierre Léaud in what would be both the director's and the actor's debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959).
"It's fascinating to consider the similarities and the differences between François and Antoine," wrote Kent Jones in a 2003 essay for Criterion on Antoine and Colette (1962), the short film in which Antoine, all of 17, falls in love for the first time. Kent Jones notes that Truffaut has shifted the "cultural meeting ground" of the young lovers "from the cinematheque," where Truffaut, at 17, fell for a girl named Liliane Litvin…
to the concert hall, the first of many replacements Truffaut would find for his chosen art form: literature in many films, theater in The Last Metro, pedagogy in The Wild Child , the dead in The Green Room  — interesting that Day for Night , the one movie in which Truffaut takes the cinema itself as his subject, is one of his tamest.
More intriguing is Antoine himself. Léaud at all ages seems at once more manic and concentrated than Truffaut, enraptured by his own insights and deeply, almost stubbornly alone. This feeling of recessiveness in the actor and his character are quite far from the young Truffaut, a wildly ambitious figure who enjoyed a meteoric rise in the world of arts and letters. His compulsive drive didn't go into his characters, who tend to become lost in the thrall of their own obsessions. The drive went into the filmmaking, in an effort to render an image of that fleeting apparition known as human experience. Which he manages in this little film with amazing fluency and delicacy.
Antoine would eventually fall for Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) in Stolen Kisses (1968), marry her in Bed and Board (1970) and carry on without her in Love on the Run (1979). "The triumphant arrival of The 400 Blows at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and the release of Breathless a year later feel almost like a single event, one of those epochal moments that divide time into before and after," wrote AO Scott in 2010, reviewing Emmanuel Laurent's documentary Two in the Wave for the New York Times.
Which brings us, of course, to the unfair fact that mentions of Truffaut nearly always lead to mentions of Godard, whereas mentions of Godard can flourish on their own. Fate took Truffaut too young — he was 52 when he died in 1984 — and not only was that "triumphant arrival" not all that far behind him but it was also a double act. Fortunately — very fortunately — we were able to celebrate Godard's 80th in December 2010 and just a week ago we were able to report the latest on his next film.
In 2008, I quoted from Ronald Bergan's introduction to his collection, François Truffaut: Interviews, and today's a fine day to revisit that passage, leaving the final word for now to Truffaut himself: "[I]n stark contrast to the oeuvre of his erstwhile New Wave comrade, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut's films are not overtly political in any way. 'For right or wrong, I believe there is no art without paradox: now in the political film, there is no paradox, because already in the script, it is decided who is good and who is bad.' ... Truffaut's rejection of current topics or fashions is not a conservative one, but the need to retain a freedom and purity of expression uncluttered by the zeitgeist. For him, the eternal theme of Love 'is more important than social questions. It is the way to lead people to truth. There is more truth in sentimental relations than in social relations. There is more truth in the bedroom than in the office or the board room.'"
Ambrose Heron posts a big, big roundup.
Update, 2/7: "Godard was right to suggest that Truffaut found in the world of the cinema the kind of family that he had lacked in his youth," blogs the New Yorker's Richard Brody, "but he was wrong to suggest that Truffaut instrumentalized the cinema in order to create it and to shelter himself within it. Rather, Truffaut's experience of the cinema-family was essentially documentary: he found it in the process of his work and then reflected it back into his films."