Film October 10, 2017
François Truffaut, 1966
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First person cinema

JAMES CAMPBELL

The nouvelle vague in cinema washed up on screens sixty years ago, with the release in November 1957 of Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers), a twenty-six-minute film by the twenty-five-year-old François Truffaut. The theme of this well-turned tale is the happiness of a young woman in love, and the pleasure a quintet of small boys take from pestering her – sales mistons!, her boyfriend calls them, “dirty brats”.

The subject of Truffaut’s next, much better-known film, Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows), is unhappiness: caused by one boy’s mischief-making in a world controlled by discipline and distrust. The personality of Antoine Doinel, played with great amounts of charm and cheek by Jean-Pierre Léaud, is blended from those of Truffaut and his schoolfriend Robert Lachenay. Several incidents in The 400 Blows were drawn from life, including the section near the end in which Antoine steals a typewriter and is turned in to the police by his stepfather. (The title has a double meaning in French: 400 strikes, obviously; faire les quatre cents coups is also to have youthful adventures.) Truffaut himself stole a typewriter from his father’s place of work and was confined for three months in a centre d’observation des mineurs in Villejuif, Paris. He was sixteen at the time and already a cinephile.

“Our common experience belongs to that period in life one never forgets, adolescence and the formative years”, Truffaut wrote to Lachenay much later, but it took him over a decade to return to it. When he did so, it was to present someone even more unruly than Antoine. L’Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970) is the tale of a boy discovered living like an animal in the forest in the southern département of Aveyron in the late eighteenth century. Truffaut adapted the story from the papers of Dr Jean Itard, and took the role of the doctor himself, caring for the feral child much as the film director continued to care for his now star actor, the sometimes wild Jean-Pierre Léaud.

In reply to the first question posed in the fascinating assortment of interviews collected in Truffaut on Cinema, Truffaut says that there is still a film he would like to make about childhood, “one about a boy under the Occupation. . . . I have to say that the fact of having grown up during the Occupation gave me a terrible view of adults”. He did make an engrossing movie about Paris under the Nazis, Le Dernier Métro (The Last Métro, 1980), but there are no leading children in it. (I ask the reader’s indulgence in switching between French and English titles. Some of the former are familiar in the anglo­sphere, others less so. An occasional inconsistency may result.) His only other approach to childhood came in L’Argent de poche, released in 1976 as Small Change (US) and Pocket Money (UK), a gentler affair than The 400 Blows and The Wild Child. Although there is one unhappy boy in the story, he bears little resemblance to the juvenile Truffaut.

The autobiographical line was pursued only obliquely after 1959, the salient example being The Man Who Loved Women (1977), in which Charles Denner plays an unfulfilled though not unsuccessful skirt-chaser (like Truffaut himself, on whom he is partly based, he never chases anyone in jeans). It might be glib to call on Truffaut’s loveless relationship with his mother during “the formative years” to testify to his burgeoning love life later on, but there is probably something in the case. Married in 1956 to Madeleine Morgenstern, whose father found the money for his first two films, Truffaut moved out of the home he shared with her and their two daughters on Christmas Day, 1961, in order to be with the seventeen-year-old actress Marie-France Pisier (Antoine et Colette; Love on the Run). He was “head over heels” for Marie Dubois (Shoot the Pianist; Jules et Jim). A brief affair with the late Jeanne Moreau (The Bride Wore Black) matured into a lifelong friendship. The relationship with Catherine Deneuve after the filming of Mississippi Mermaid (1969) was more serious and she is said to have broken his heart, but the friendship endured and she starred in The Last Métro, his next-to-last film. Long before, he had proposed to the teenage Claude Jade (Stolen Kisses; Love on the Run) but withdrew with cold feet before the wedding day. Not forgetting Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac (The Soft Skin), Sophie Markham (Anne and Muriel), Julie Christie (Fahrenheit 451) and others. It was his affair with Jacqueline Bisset which led Jean-Luc Godard to criticize the film in which she and Truffaut star – Day for Night – and to accuse Truffaut of dishonesty: “One can’t help wondering why the director is the only one who isn’t screwing around . . . ”. Truffaut replied with the notorious “you’re nothing but a piece of shit on a pedestal” missive of May 1973. (See Truffaut, Letters, 1989.) The New Wave had grown tired of itself.

The group of enthusiasts who came together in Paris in the mid-1950s who are usually said to constitute its core membership – alpha­betically, Claude Chabrol, Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Truffaut – shared artistic aims in a loose fashion but were not linked by dogma. Truffaut and Godard were especially close in the late 1950s and early 60s, two young men of prodigious talent: Godard had made twenty films before he reached the age of forty; Truffaut, fourteen in the same span. In 1980, after the exchange of more blows, Godard tried to organize a reconciliation at his house in Rolle, near Geneva, where he had built a film studio and where he continues to live. Chabrol and Rivette could come, too. “Whatever our differences, I would be interested in finding out viva voce what’s become of our cinema”, he wrote to Truffaut, who took the opportunity to launch another assault: “So you don’t hold it against us that you called us crooks, dregs, and scum . . .”. The idea of a nouvelle vague reunion was dismissed. Truffaut suggested that Godard work instead “on your next autobiographical film, whose title I think I know: Once a Shit Always a Shit”.

What was new about the nouvelle vague? “There are no aesthetic party lines”, Truffaut said in the early days, “only similarities due to chance.” The 400 Blows has little in common with Godard’s gangster-derived debut, À Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) or Rivette’s political thriller, Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1961). The films being made at the same time by the “new wave” filmmakers in England, such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and John Schlesinger, have more to say to one another, conspiring as they do around the inexhaustible British theme of class, than those of their French counterparts.

Three things the nouvelle vague directors did share were youth, penury – always relative: Truffaut came from a modest Parisian background, Godard a wealthy French-Swiss one, though he cut himself off – and an embrace of cinema tantamount to religious worship. “I believe in Charlie Chaplin”, Truffaut says in Truffaut on Cinema, intending “believe” in the devotional sense. He had little use for politics and claimed never to have voted. Godard and Rivette were committed to the Left, whereas Rohmer, when he could be bothered, leaned to the Right. The main unifying trait was the desire to capture the atmosphere and texture of life outside the film studio.

Early New Wave films were shot on the streets and in cafés, employing passers-by as unwitting extras in a way that would scarcely be possible today: see, for example, the final scene of Breathless, in which the mortally wounded Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) staggers along the rue Campagne-première, while curious onlookers gawp. “People weren’t as aware as they are now, they didn’t know what you were up to”, said Godard’s regular cinematographer Raoul Coutard, one of the New Wave’s unsung heroes. “Before, if you wanted street scenes, you’d shoot them in a studio, and trot out extras as passers-by.” Local restaurants, the director’s apartment and familiar children were used: all figure in Truffaut’s underrated fourth full-length feature, The Soft Skin (La Peau douce, 1964), which plays on a theme more apt than childhood to recur in years to come: the love triangle. The Soft Skin was Truffaut’s farewell to his beloved black-and-white before a forced marriage with colour. In Jules et Jim (1962), the triangle was made of two men and a woman; here, women form two sides, with Pierre Lachenay, a celebrated Balzac scholar, as the ineffectual base.

Why Truffaut chose to give the name of his childhood pal Robert Lachenay to his weak fictitious character is not clear, but in-jokes and cameo appearances were common in the early days and fortified the group atmosphere. When Antoine Doinel and his parents go to the cinema in The 400 Blows, the film they see is Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, although it wouldn’t be released for another two years. When the grown-up Antoine makes a telephone call from a private detective’s office in Stolen Kisses (1968), he dials the real number of the director Claude Berri. Godard emerges as a sale type to conduct a sharp café chat-up routine in Paris Belongs to Us – one of the liveliest vignettes in that insipid drama – in which Chabrol also has a geekish cameo role. It was Truffaut who concocted the idea for Breathless, for which he and Chabrol secured financing.

The 1950s was a time of cascading new waves: the Beats and the Bellow–Mailer–Salinger generation of novelists in the US; the Angry Young Men and the Movement in Britain; Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art; the developing folk scene which wove itself into alternative politics. There are always new waves and the times are always a-changing, but the works produced by these movements shaped taste for the remainder of the century. Any artistically minded young person in the early 1970s was affected by them all. Cinema, however, presented a paradox: the most accessible of the arts, it was in some ways the hardest to find. In Glasgow, for example, there was only one art cinema – the Cosmo on Rose Street – and any Truffaut or Godard film rolling into town would be sure to do so discreetly, sneaking out again a few days later.

With a pile of DVDs and a copy of Truffaut on Cinema to hand, the gaps can now easily be filled. “I don’t know how many days you spend in an actual studio”, a journalist ventures in the film-by-film compendium. The year is 1964. He has already made The 400 Blows, Shoot the Pianist, Jules et Jim, The Soft Skin and the short, second chapter of what would be the four-part Doinel cycle, Antoine et Colette. “Zero”, Truffaut replies. “None. I have never shot anything in a studio.” The most important aesthetic criterion for the Young Turks, as they were called before nouvelle vague caught on, was that a film should be “first-person” and bear the fingerprints of its director.

A critic before he became a filmmaker, Truffaut had launched an attack on the establishment in the March 1954 issue of the journal Cahiers du Cinema, dismissing in aggressive terms the tradition de qualité in the French film industry. His main targets were the presiding directors and screenwriters, so inferior, in his account, to their American counterparts. In the work of Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford and, above all, Alfred Hitchcock, the personality of the “film-author” – the auteur – beamed through the screen. “I know that many Americans are surprised that European cinephiles – and the French in particular – regard Alfred Hitchcock as [an auteur], in the sense that the term is applied to . . . Jean-Luc Godard”, Truffaut writes in the introduction to Hitchcock, a heavily illustrated series of conversations recorded in 1962 (Truffaut’s French questions were relayed in English by his faithful assistant, Helen Scott). First published in France in 1983, it is issued in the UK for the first time in a “revised edition”. Thus the auteur came to prominence in France as a stray kid with a dubious background, rather like Truffaut’s own, who had drifted in from Hollywood. Truffaut would have been happy to make the kid communicate solely by mood, light and movement (“I believe in Charlie Chaplin”). Films, to his mind, originated in images rather than ideas. Since the kid had to speak, he spoke in French, but throughout his career Truffaut founded his films on goods imported from across the Atlantic, periodically indulging a desire to make them wholly or in part in English.

American politics and aspirations towards global dominance were widely deplored in post-war Parisian intellectual circles, but American culture, even where it could not be separated from the system that produced it, was admired. In the first article he ever wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma, aged twenty-one, Truffaut extolled David Miller’s suspense drama Sudden Fear, starring Joan Crawford and Gloria Grahame. “The craftsmanship of Hollywood motion pictures is perfect even in B movies . . . . The only things that count in France are an ambitious screenplay and the director’s reputed market value.” Faulkner and Dos Passos were heroes to Sartre; Hemingway was the stylistic father of L’Étranger. Boris Vian wrote an American crime novel of his own: J’irai cracher sur vos tombes by “Vernon Sullivan”, a spit in the eye, if not on the grave, of the tradition de qualité in literature.

“The literary aspect of the nouvelle vague is heavily criticized”, Truffaut says in an interview here, though unfortunately he does not say by whom. Immersed in the history of cinema – the preoccupation with hommage is perhaps the most tiresome aspect of the nouvelle vague – Truffaut is nevertheless among the most literary of filmmakers. Until the end (he died in 1984, aged fifty-two), he was inclined to reach for a book in order to construct a film. “I like the word ‘story’”, he says. “I am 100 per cent in favour of the novelistic approach to films.” The 400 Blows was based on his own story, but thereafter he turned regularly to novels, short stories and memoirs (he was the author of all his films’ screenplays, usually in collaboration with others). He had a particular liking for Série noire fiction – dime novels by American writers, translated into French. “Each time I have approached a writer in the Série noire, I have been struck by his modesty, his professionalism, and also his sadness.” The writers of crime novels, “concealed behind several corpses and some revolvers”, evoked a parallel in his mind with “Hollywood B series filmmakers”.

These remarks were made in 1983 in relation to his last film, Vivement Dimanche! (Finally, Sunday!), adapted from the thriller Confidentially Yours by Charles Williams, “a magnificent writer”. The new cinematic storytellers came to prominence at a time when the voices of the old-wave storytellers in France were being drowned out by theories insisting that the day of the linear novel, based on character and plot, was done. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s manifesto Pour un Nouveau Roman appeared in 1963, a year after Jules et Jim, one of two films Truffaut made from the fiction of Henri-Pierre Roché and his most accomplished feat of storytelling.

For all his love of American literature, the films it inspired are not among his best. The Green Room (1978), based on three stories by Henry James, in which Truffaut cast himself in the principal role, is grim in narrative, lighting and style. Truffaut said he wanted it to have a “ghostly quality”, and it does. Too few film-goers wanted to sit through ninety minutes of morbid manoeuvrings in a candlelit shrine; it was one of his costliest failures. The Série noire films fail to achieve a consistent tone: tragedy or farce? The question was asked of both his second full-length film, Shoot the Pianist (based on Down There by David Goodis), and his last, Finally, Sunday!, a reversion to black-and-white. Not even Belmondo and Deneuve can save Mississippi Mermaid (from Waltz into Darkness by William Irish). The Bride Wore Black, adapted from another policier by Irish, benefits from having Jeanne Moreau in the title role, determined to hunt down and kill five men involved in the murder of her husband on their wedding day; but it’s all a bit of a jape. Truffaut disliked it, too: it was his seventh film but only his second in colour. “With colour, ugliness has come to disfigure the majority of films.”

The exception to the pattern of American books inspiring inferior films is Fahrenheit 451. In 1964 Truffaut could say, “I have never shot anything in a studio”, but that changed almost immediately, as preparations took place to adapt Ray Bradbury’s mildly futuristic tale of a society in which books are banned. Both Bradbury and Truffaut were adamant that the story is not science fiction. When discovered in one of the raids on private homes, the books are made into a pile and burned in public using a flame-thrower. Truffaut wrote the original adaptation in French, but the finished film is entirely in English, a language the director never managed to learn, despite repeated attempts. How he judged the tone and dynamics of the dialogue – some of it by the English playwright David Rudkin – is a mystery. Both lead female roles are played by Julie Christie, who had agreed to the plan while deep in the snows of Dr Zhivago. The shooting took place largely at Pinewood Studios, outside London. It was the first Truffaut film to have a major Hollywood distributor, Universal Pictures.

The story of a near-future nightmare was a personal cauchemar for Truffaut. As well as being unable to communicate with most of his team, he fell out with the leading man, Oskar Werner, so genial and gentle as Jules in Jules et Jim, but truculent and inebriated (according to Jeanne Moreau) at Pinewood. Werner did exasperating things, such as getting his hair cut in a different style between shootings. He refused to perform book-burning scenes, for fear of being burnt himself. As for the director, a France-Soir journalist who spent time on the set described him looking “like a stranger” in the English studio.

It is nevertheless one of Truffaut’s best films, unlike any other he made, mostly on account of the technical expertise at his disposal. In their exemplary biography, Truffaut (reviewed in the TLS of January 17, 1997; translated into English in 1999), Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana offer a picture of the situation that dis­oriented the director of small-scale films who couldn’t speak the language and had never worked anywhere like Pinewood before:

These large studios, forty-five minutes away from the centre of London, constituted a regulated world, Truffaut discovered, with very strict standards and numerous highly competent technicians. Nicolas Roeg, Fahrenheit’s director of photography, had a team of nearly fifty people working for him. For the first time, Truffaut had two makeup girls and four wardrobe girls . . . . “At an hour’s notice, I can ask for one or two additional cameras, and they will come with camera operators and focus pullers recruited on the spot.”

The tone of the film is consistent – a danger zone for Truffaut – and the story proceeds towards a remarkable conclusion, in which Montag the former book-burner is introduced to a community of people who have turned themselves into books by memorizing them, evading the taint of incriminating evidence (similar strategies were employed by Nadezhda Mandelstam and others in Soviet Russia under Stalin). Now over fifty years old, it feels up to date: Montag’s wife passes her time engaging interactively with reality shows on a large screen which dominates the living room. “You spend your whole life with that family on the wall”, Montag chides her. His chief at the fire patrol (Cyril Cusack), catching hints of a rebellious streak, asks: “Do you like gymnastic, Montag?” He does. “And what about hockey?” “Yes I do, sir.” “Golf, football, billiards, basketball?” “Wonderful, sir. All very fine sports, sir.” “Then increase the dosage”, the chief concludes. “More sports for everyone.”

The final version of the film was destined to lose a pun which Truffaut cherished in his French original: homme livre / homme libre. In an interview given at the time of Fahrenheit 451, he spoke of “the book” as an object to be desired: “even the binding, the cover, the smell of the pages acquire great sentimental value. The film is attempting to appeal to those – of whom I am one – for whom books have a great sentimental value”.

The argument between Truffaut and Godard derived in part from the former’s incorrigible “novelistic approach” to filmmaking. “I don’t think François knows how to make good films at all”, Godard told the journal Télérama in 1978. “He made one film that truly expressed him, Les 400 Coups, and that was it. Afterwards, he merely told stories.” Concepts such as “La Fin . . . du cinéma” – the motto that neon-flashes onscreen at the close of Godard’s Weekend (1967) – did little to excite Truffaut, who disliked ideas in general and political ideas in particular. The plot to bring society to its knees by cinematic means did not appeal to him. “I am not gripped by big ideas. Godard, yes, he’s the kind of man interested in the big problems of our time, but as for me I can only make a film out of ideas that are personal to me.” It is Godard’s audacious experimentalism of the 1960s, charging into the auditorium with strident modernity, that appears dated now, though each of his early films offers something startling, occasionally delightful, such as the “Madison” dance sequence in Bande à part (1964). The films of Truffaut and Rohmer, less hot-blooded, seldom radical, devoted to nothing more world-improving than projecting a satisfying illusion, have better withstood changes in fashion.

Truffaut on Cinema, which was published in France as Le Cinéma selon François Truffaut in 1988 and contains new material in the smooth translation by Alistair Fox, can be read with pleasure on its own, or invited as a companion to a viewing of the films. As well as discussion of each in turn, there are general interview sections under headings such as “Childhood” and “Auteur Theory” (Truffaut dismisses the very notion of its existence). He proves to be an intelligent and self-deprecating interlocutor, with no compunction about running down his own work. Mississippi Mermaid: “it was a huge flop. I like the love story, but the thriller side of it is completely botched”. Contradicting what he says elsewhere, he argues that it is “absurd to take these American stories and import them into France”. The book’s main deficiency is the baffling failure to list the films under their original French titles in the chapter headings or elsewhere. This leads to confusion, as several go under different names: Les Deux Anglaises et le continent is known as both Anne and Muriel and Two English Girls; L’Argent de poche is Small Change but also Pocket Money; you might go to see Vivement Dimanche! as Finally, Sunday!, only to discover you’ve already seen it, as Confidentially Yours.

Late in his career, Truffaut asserted that a director has only three to six films to make, and that thereafter, “one is experimenting with new combinations”. Out of twenty-two full-length feature films in a too-short career, it is easy to find six originals. Here are mine: The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim, Fahrenheit 451, Small Change, The Last Métro and his next to last film, The Woman Next Door, a domestic drama with Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant, who was to be the companion of François Truffaut’s final years.

  • On October 27, this piece was amended to correct the spelling of “faire les quatre cents coups” and to change the name of the town from “Roche” to “Rolle”