Almost 30 years after his death, François Truffaut remains a vital presence in the cinema. Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson are among maverick directors who have acknowledged their debt to him, while Noah Baumbach’s recent Frances Ha is in part an hommage à Truffaut in a way the French director would have appreciated: for example, the quick succession of scenes establishing the friendship of Frances and Sophie is borrowed from Jules et Jim (1962), Jean Constantin’s music from Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) appears on the soundtrack, and a poster for L’Argent de poche (1976) is glimpsed on a wall just in the way significant posters and pictures appear in the backgrounds of Truffaut’s own films.
In the world of film studies, however, Truffaut has been paid less attention than many of his contemporaries. As the editors put it in A Companion to François Truffaut:
Where Godard, while deliberately withholding satisfaction, challenges the viewer to understand him, even to deconstruct him, Truffaut’s films are specifically designed to be, in the first instance at least, undergone but not understood.
For Truffaut film was always an immersive experience. When he first went to the cinema he liked to sit as close to the screen as possible, and in the last year of his life he said: ‘I want my audience to be constantly captivated, bewitched, so that it leaves the theatre dazed, stunned to be back on the pavement.’ He may have started out as a critic, but he was always sceptical about film theory, writing in 1954:
There are no theories about [the director] Jacques Becker, no scientific analysis, no thesis. His work, like his personality, discourages it. Which is all to the good.
One therefore suspects that the acknowledgement of younger directors (just as in his own films he acknowledged Vigo, Renoir, Rossellini and Hitchcock) would mean a great deal more to Truffaut than scholarly books that analysed and interpreted his work. Although he was an avid reader, it was film that mattered most to him. Once asked by an interviewer whether he had any other interests or loves in his life other than the cinema, he replied:
No, I really don’t think so. If I have some free time, I leave Paris with some books about the cinema. If I’m not filming, I’m watching films.
This lifelong obsession began during his childhood in Paris, when he would bunk off school or sneak out of the house on evenings his parents weren’t at home to slip into cinemas through the emergency exit or lavatory window. He sometimes saw three films a day and in 1947, aged just 15, he founded his own short-lived cinema club, the aptly named Cercle Cinémane.
Truffaut was an unwanted illegitimate child, brought up until he was ten by his maternal grandmother, and cinema would provide him with the family he never had. After spending time in a reformatory, he was more or less adopted by the film critic André Bazin, just as he would himself take charge of the similarly delinquent child actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, the star of Les Quatre Cents Coups who would go on to play so brilliantly Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in five key films over a period of 20 years.
There was also a wider cinematic family, consisting of the god-parental great directors of the past, the brotherly young film-makers who formed La Nouvelle Vague, and the close-knit band of colleagues at Truffaut’s production company, Films du Carosse. One of the reasons La Nuit américaine (1973) is so moving is that it is about the sort of ‘family’ — as affectionate and dysfunctional as any other — that is assembled to make a movie. The director and crew’s obsession with the cinema is both a running joke and the true heart of the film. According to Truffaut La Nuit américaine asked the question, ‘Is film more important than life? — a question to which he said there was no answer. Annette Insdorf probably had it right when she wrote in her 1978 study that for Truffaut film was ‘less a substitute for life than a frame for a more intense and moving picture of it’. Indeed, the use of frames — doors, windows, mirrors — is a frequent visual device in Truffaut’s films.
He compared those films to ivory eggs, beautiful objects ‘that one can see and touch, but not break into’, but this doesn’t put off Anne Gillain, whose François Truffaut: The Lost Secret attempts a Freudian deconstruction of the work. Although Truffaut never knew his biological father and had very a complicated relationship with his mother, to ‘read’ his films through so narrow a psychoanalytical lens all too easily becomes reductive.
Gillain’s preface is succinct, lucid and illuminating, but thereafter she is too inclined to impose ideas upon Truffaut’s films rather than draw ideas out of them, often abandoning commonsense in the process. For example, she writes that when in Les Quatre Cent Coups the candles Antoine has lit before a photograph of Balzac set fire to a curtain, this ‘provokes great rage in his father, because he briefly senses the boy’s disloyalty’. Most viewers might conclude that the father’s rage is caused less by his being psychologically displaced by Balzac than by having a blazing fire started in his apartment. Gillain writes:
With Freud, the castrating father demonstrates his power over his sons by reserving for himself the exclusive use of the women of the horde. In Farenheit 451, the father [i.e. the captain of the fire brigade] bars access not to women, but to culture.
Which is something so altogether different as to render this Freudian ‘reading’ wholly void.
Far more rewarding is the hefty Companion Gillain has edited with Dudley Andrew. Although it includes several examples of academic guff, some of the pieces are very good indeed — not least Andrew’s own fascinating contribution on the relationship between L’Enfant sauvage (1970) and Truffaut’s association with educationalists. The book’s five sections deal with different aspects of Truffaut’s life and work, including his early development, his cinematic style and sensibility and his place in history. The results are inevitably varied: Alain Bergala’s investigation of lyricism in Truffaut’s work, for example, which looks at the use he makes of music and fluid
camerawork to achieve these moments, is certainly more rewarding than Phil Powrie’s dogged analysis (complete with charts) of Truffaut’s use of ‘the upward pan and the upward crane’.
Françoise Zamour writes particularly well about La Chambre verte (1978), as does Marc Vernet about La Nuit américaine and Le Dernier Métro (1980). Perhaps the best — and most ‘Truffaldian’ — essay is by Martin Lefebvre, which looks at repeated images and motifs in the films. These ‘doubles’ not only bind the work into a genuine oeuvre but nod to the sort of cinema Truffaut so admired, in which the story is told or augmented — even if only glancingly — by the purely visual.
Lefebvre’s analysis of the paintings by Picasso glimpsed in the backgrounds of Jules et Jim is revelatory.
The Taschen volume is an enjoyable and very well illustrated brief introduction to Truffaut’s life and work, containing a useful chronology and filmography. While one may not agree with some of the critical judgments — L’Enfant sauvage is inexplicably dismissed as ‘not one of Truffaut’s better films’ — the stills, posters and photographs of Truffaut on and off the set are even better in this new edition, expanded in both size and content from the original 2008 one.
Almost any book on Truffaut is welcome, but none of these is as essential as, say, Carole Le Berre’s François Truffaut at Work (2005), Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana’s 1999 biography, or the selection of Truffaut’s correspondence, beautifully translated by the late and much lamented Gilbert Adair in 1989 — or indeed Anne Gillain’s compilation of interviews with Truffaut, Le Cinéma selon François Truffaut (1988), which still awaits an English translator.