A Chronological Subjective Journey Through His Oeuvre,
Punctuated with Excerpts from Truffaut by Truffaut*
- Antoine et Colette (Antoine and Colette, 1962)
- La Peau Douce (The Soft Skin, 1964)
- Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
- La Mariée Etait en Noir (The Bride Wore Black, 1967)
Truffaut returned to his cinematic alter ego, Antoine Doinel, with Antoine and Colette, the first segment of the anthology film L’Amour à Vingt Ans (Love at Twenty), also containing episodes directed by Italy’s Renzo Rossellini (son of Roberto, whose assistant Truffaut had once been), Japan’s Shintarō Ishihara, Germany’s Marcel Ophüls, and Poland’s Andrzej Wajda. In 1971, he told Radio-Canada’s Aline Desjardins, “there was a private thing happened, a sentimental episode that ended badly, that I filmed later in Love at Twenty….[Y]ou see Antoine Doinel falling in love with a young girl he meets at the Jeunesses Musicales [young people’s concerts], trying to push his way into her life by force…We can say that that story was really lived; it wasn’t the Jeunesses Musicales but, obviously, the Cinémathèque, and the whole thing finally led me to go off into the army” (which we will see Antoine leaving at the start of Stolen Kisses).
Narration tells us that following his escape in The 400 Blows, Antoine “was caught and placed in another center under stricter surveillance [where] a young psychologist…took an interest in his case, and he was finally released on probation”; now 17—the film’s title notwithstanding—and working for a record company, he has “finally realized his adolescent dream: to live on his own, earn his own keep, and depend only on himself.” Then, into this “solitary, independent life” comes Colette (Marie-France Pisier, eulogized here when she drowned in her swimming pool at 66 in 2011), with whom he is understandably smitten when he first sees her while attending a concert with his friend René (Patrick Auffay, recreating a role seen in flashback). Despite taking a room directly across from her and being “adopted” by her mother (Rosy Varte) and stepfather (François Darbon), Antoine glumly watches as Colette dates Albert Tazzi (Jean-François Adam).
“I don’t like my films, except for the sketch in Love at Twenty,” which was heavily improvised, as Truffaut later told Cinéma 67. He had initially been reluctant to revisit Antoine, for fear of seeming to take advantage of the success of The 400 Blows, but “since then I’ve learned that you should never give up an idea for such exterior and secondary reasons as reasons of outward appearances. You have to do exactly and intensely whatever you really want to do….I did it in a carefree moment: Jules and Jim had just come out and had been very well received, which was why I went to work on Love at Twenty in a really cheerful mood.” Yet “when [it] was finished, we realized that it was a melancholy film, sometimes even desperate,” he wrote in the press book, noting that the producer, Pierre Roustang, “not only gave me a free hand but also proposed that I make the choice, with him, of the young foreign directors who would do the other stories.”
The credits of The Soft Skin, a news-inspired original screenplay about the tragic affair between Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) and Nicole (Françoise Dorléac), contain the names of two key collaborators: Georges Delerue, a prolific Oscar-winner for A Little Romance (1979) who scored about half of his work, from Shoot the Piano Player on, and Jean-Louis Richard. The latter had had an uncredited role as a café customer in Jules and Jim, and would appear in several other Truffaut films but, more important, served as his co-writer on not only all three features covered here but also the Jeanne Moreau vehicle Mata-Hari (aka Mata Hari, Agent H21, 1964), which Richard directed and Truffaut co-produced. In fact, they had already been working together on adapting the late Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), with many delays accounting for a two-year gap between Jules and Jim and The Soft Skin, as Truffaut related to Guy Allombert in 1963.
“I had bought the rights during the euphoria of The 400 Blows success. I did not manage to make that film in France: I had to have color, as the subject called for. On the other hand, I couldn’t have a female star: I had two women’s roles and I didn’t want one to be more important than the other. Nor, in a science fiction film, could I have a foreign accent. I didn’t want a known actress and, with only one name actor—I had thought of Charles Aznavour and of [Jean-Paul] Belmondo—and a subject that was a little baffling, I wasn’t able to make the film, the first European science fiction film. I then had some good luck in my misery (the rights cost me really a lot, and we had done three scripts…), I found an American producer who bought everything, script, rights to the novel, and who signed a contract with me to make the film the next year in New York. So before making [that one] I wanted to do a film in France, whence The Soft Skin.”
An iconoclast to the end, I am as puzzled by the failure of The Soft Skin—which Truffaut called “a flop”—as I am by the popularity of Jules and Jim, and it’s interesting that a director notorious for bedding most of his leading ladies (his marriage to Madeleine Morgenstern, who bore him two daughters, lasted only from 1957 to ’65) made two successive features in which affairs lead to death. He accurately and succinctly described The Soft Skin as “the story, highly detailed, of an adultery,” set in motion when publisher Pierre sees Nicole, an air hostess, en route to a lecture in Lisbon. “From that moment on, everything he does is the worst. He goes off on a trip [to Rheims], he takes her with him, he puts her up in that second-class hotel, he makes gaffes all the way…That character pleased me, as an emotional person and as a man who, every time he encounters a difficulty, chooses the worst solution. He’s a blunderer,” Truffaut told Cinéma 67.
Pierre’s portrayal was doubtless made no more sympathetic by a reportedly rocky relationship with Desailly, and they never worked together again, but Truffaut was delighted with Dorléac (the older sister of his future leading lady, Catherine Deneuve), who died in a car crash at 25 in 1967. “What interests me most,” Truffaut said in another 1963 interview, “is the character of the betrayed woman [Franca (Nelly Benedetti)]: she is always made the unattractive character, but here she will be considered in the most anticonventional way possible…” Having depicted the affair in clinical detail, he creates Hitchcockian suspense by cross-cutting between the Lachenays as events draw toward their conclusion; Pierre tells Nicole of his separation, learns that she wants to end the affair, and—at the behest of Franca’s friend Odile (Paule Emanuele)—calls to suggest a reconciliation, barely missing Franca as she heads for the restaurant with a rifle and shoots him.
As it turned out, the divisive Fahrenheit—one of my favorite Truffaut films, despite being loathed by many a fellow Bradbury fan—was made not in America but in England, where usual suspects Delerue and Raoul Coutard, a veteran of Breathless who shot all of his other films from Piano Player through The Bride Wore Black, were replaced by Bernard Herrmann and Nicolas Roeg, respectively. The former, whose credits included Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), The Twilight Zone, and four of the late Ray Harryhausen’s films, is best known for his work with Hitchcock, one of the all-time great director/composer collaborations. Roeg had photographed Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), while his wildly eclectic directorial career encompassed Walkabout (1971), which ranks very high in my personal pantheon, and Don’t Look Now (1973).
This was also Truffaut’s first film in English and in color, as well as his only foray into the genre where Godard had recently dabbled with Alphaville, and the disparate takes (which, surprisingly, Madame BOF loves) these pioneers of the French New Wave had on SF are fascinating indeed. For his leading man, Truffaut ultimately turned to the known quantity of Oskar Werner from Jules and Jim, whom I first got to like in this film and Martin Ritt’s great John le Carré adaptation, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965); he also solved the problem of balancing the two women’s roles by casting Julie Christie, the lovely future star of Don’t Look Now, in both of them. Werner is Guy Montag, whose job as an ironically named Fireman is to burn books in an unspecified future where they are banned—the title refers to the temperature at which book paper burns—with Christie as his spoiled, vacuous wife, Linda, and the young woman who introduces him to those forbidden literary joys, Clarisse.
When I interviewed Bradbury for Outré, he called this “a terrible mistake. There’s supposed to be a 16-year-old girl…who lives on the same street with Montag…You’ve got Julie Christie playing her character, which is all wrong, because she’s too old. You want to have a naive, sappy girl who teaches Montag more about books than he can teach himself. The irony and the beauty of it is that this…lovely little dumb-smart girl…becomes his teacher, and he begins to wake up to what he’s been doing.” Deeply shaken when a woman (Bee Duffell, so memorable in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975) immolates herself rather than be separated from her books, Montag reads a passage from a novel to Linda and her “zombie” friends, upsetting them, and sees Clarisse—now a fugitive—share the Book Woman’s fate in a vivid dream sequence that is an obvious visual and musical homage to the 1958 Hitchcock/Herrmann masterpiece, Vertigo.
Montag helps Clarisse find and destroy a list of like-minded people, and before she leaves to join a group that memorizes volumes for posterity, he relates his plan to plant books in the homes of his fellow Firemen and denounce them, destroying the system from within. Linda denounces Montag, whose next call turns out to be his own house, and after incinerating the Captain (Cyril Cusack), he joins the Book People, watching on television as an anonymous man is hunted down and killed in his place. Said Bradbury, “the special effects…were really bad, the men flying through the air [as they seek Montag like black bees]—completely unbelievable. The best part of the film is the last reel…It’s magical, it’s beautiful, it’s moving. I cry every time I see it, because it’s a combination of cinematography, atmosphere, music—[a] terrific score—and acting, and everything in that last reel is perfection. So the film ends with incredible beauty…”
Truffaut wrote that “my first aim was to bring out the qualities of visual invention in [the] novel. My second aim was to attempt this dosage: to film fantastic things as if they were everyday, everyday things as if they were fantastic, and to mingle one with the other.” Roeg’s ravishing palette, naturally heavy on reds and oranges, combines with the art direction of Syd Cain—a key contributor to the James Bond series—to create a look that eschews rapidly dating futurism for a kind of “retro-futurism,” anticipating Michael Radford’s 1984 (1984). The one overtly futuristic setting was an exterior of a French monorail shot near Orléans, but Truffaut uses devices such as slow- and reverse-motion to increase the film’s otherworldly feeling; in one delightfully bizarre shot, while Montag and Clarisse visit the school from which she has been ominously dismissed, his colleague Fabian (Anton Diffring)—who constantly spies on him—observes, unseen, in drag.
Truffaut and Werner (who, ironically, died two days after him in 1984) became bitterly divided over the interpretation of Montag; Werner replaced Terence Stamp when the latter dropped out at the eleventh hour, concerned that Christie’s dual role would overshadow his own, and unlike Diffring—seen in my favorite film, Where Eagles Dare (1968)—he was not dubbed, despite his heavily accented English. Truffaut was back on literal and metaphorical home turf with his next project, shooting in France and adapting another noir novel with familiar faces behind (Richard, Coutard) and in front of (Moreau, Brialy) the camera. The fact that Rear Window (1954) was also based on the work of noir legend Cornell Woolrich, who published The Bride Wore Black under his pen name of William Irish, is one aspect that makes this perhaps his most Hitchcockian work, as is carrying over Herrmann from Fahrenheit 451 in their second and final collaboration.
The film is basically a quintet of set pieces in each of which the title character, Julie Kohler, kills a man, making sure he knows her identity, e.g., she pushes Bliss (Claude Rich) from his balcony during a party when he tries to retrieve her windblown scarf; lures Coral (Michel Bouquet) to a rendezvous where she poisons him; and leaves Rene Morane (Michel Lonsdale) to suffocate in a sealed closet while his son, Cookie (Christophe Bruno), slumbers upstairs. Flashbacks gradually reveal that she is avenging the death of her childhood sweetheart, David (Serge Rousseau), shot dead on the church steps after their wedding as the five fooled around with a loaded rifle across the street. The film addresses neither how Julie tracks down the men—strangers drawn together on a single occasion, sharing only a predilection for guns and women (the latter ultimately their undoing), who fled, never to meet again—nor whether David’s accidental killing justifies theirs.
Julie clearly has her own idea of justice, leading her to call the police and clear Cookie’s teacher, Miss Becker (the striking Alexandra Stewart), as whom she posed, by providing details only the killer could know. I don’t know how, or even if, the novel tackles any of these questions, yet in a sense, it doesn’t matter; we don’t turn to Cornell Woolrich for rigorous logic but for his fever-dream imagination and style, and Truffaut himself, obviously interested more in the effect than in explanations, begins to play with our expectations as Julie’s next target, Delvaux (Daniel Boulanger), is suddenly arrested for unrelated crimes, so she turns to the last on her list, artist Fergus (Charles Denner). When she begins posing for him as the bow-wielding huntress (how apt!) Diana, we suspect how he will meet his end, yet for the first time, she seems hesitant after Fergus, anticipating Denner’s role as Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women, avows his amour.
I’ve now forgotten the exact sequence of events, but it is around this point that Truffaut uses maximum cinematic sleight of hand, misdirecting us with a subplot about how Fergus’s friend Corey (Brialy) remembers seeing Julie at Bliss’s party and tries to identify her. Having watched in step-by-step detail as she dispatched each of her previous victims, we are genuinely surprised when Truffaut abruptly cuts back to Fergus lying dead with an arrow protruding from his body, and even more so when the seemingly relentless avenger leaves an incriminating mural of herself on the wall, which along with her attending the artist’s funeral leads to her arrest and confession, albeit without explanation. But—as first-time viewer Madame BOF quickly deduced—it is all a means to an end, and as Julie, with knife concealed, delivers meals to inmates of the same prison where Delvaux is confined, we await the inevitable off-screen shriek as she finishes her mission.
Asked by Le Monde in 1968 if Hitchcock had influenced the film, Truffaut said, “Certainly for the construction of the story because, unlike the novel, we give the solution of the enigma well before the end [as in Hitch’s Vertigo]….Contrariwise, the desire to make the characters speak of everything else but the intrigue itself is decidedly not very Hitchcockian and more characteristic of a European turn of mind.” In 1978, he called it “the only one I regret having made…I wanted to offer…Moreau something like none of her other films, but it was badly thought out. That was a film to which color did an enormous lot of harm. [A permanent rift with Coutard reportedly left Moreau sometimes directing the actors.] The theme is lacking in interest: to make excuses for an idealistic vengeance, that really shocks me….One should not avenge oneself, vengeance is not noble. One betrays something in oneself when one glorifies that,” as he opined to L’Express.
To be continued.
Back to Part I.
*Text and documents compiled by Dominique Rabourdin; translated from the French by Robert Erich Wolf (New York: Abrams, 1987).