A Chronological Subjective Journey Through His Oeuvre,
Punctuated with Excerpts from Truffaut by Truffaut
- Une Histoire d’Eau (A Story of Water, 1958)
- Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)
- Tirez sur la Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960)
- Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1962)
Die-hard cinéastes will immediately recognize my title as an homage to writer-director François Truffaut’s seminal book-length interview with one of his idols (and, perhaps not surprisingly, my favorite director), Alfred Hitchcock, which is usually known simply as Hitchcock/Truffaut. Not having had the luxury of interviewing Truffaut during his all-too-brief lifetime (1932-1984), I am using the next best thing: my treasured copy of Truffaut by Truffaut (1985), the gorgeous coffee-table volume released in the U.S. by Abrams in ’87, and compiled by film journalist Dominique Rabourdin from a wide variety of Truffaut’s own writings about his life and work, published and previously unpublished. In fact, it is the enforced brevity of Truffaut’s career—four short films and twenty-one features—that helped me decide to undertake this daunting project, although the precipitating event itself was the TCM Friday Night Spotlight series on Truffaut throughout July.
After Martin Scorsese mentioned in his column for the TCM monthly programming guide, Now Playing, that they were showing all but two of his features, I quickly determined that those two were among the handful of Truffaut films I already had, as part of either the permanent Bradley Video Library (BVL) or my usual tape-and-erase activity. That meant that if I could successfully tape the remainder, I would actually have access to virtually his entire body of work all at once, an opportunity I have never had with any other filmmaker. I knew I didn’t have it in me to write a separate post for every film, but quickly noticed that if I lumped in the two shorts they showed as well, those twenty-one features would divide neatly into seven posts; as soon as I reviewed the three-feature groupings, I knew I had made the right decision, because each, quite coincidentally, represents an almost perfect cross-section of the many moods, settings, and subjects of his work.
I am forced to skip over Une Visite (A Visit, 1954), which I’ve never seen, and Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers, 1957), which I caught at Film Forum in 1999 paired with Antoine and Colette, and have largely forgotten, but I can begin with his third short, A Story of Water, which I saw for the first time. The fact that it is credited to both Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—whose work I usually despise, except for Alphaville: Une Étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, 1965), which even staunch Francophobe Madame BOF adores—is clearly cause for concern. But, characteristically giving credit where it’s due, I must acknowledge that no matter how much I hated it myself, Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) is not only regarded, along with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, as the start of French cinema’s Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), but also based on a treatment by none other than Truffaut himself.
Truffaut told Cinéma 67 that the short “was made in an unforeseen way, like an experiment in improvisation.” Wanting to take advantage of some flooding in the Paris region as a setting, he secured the backing of producer Pierre Braunberger, borrowed Claude Chabrol’s car, and headed for “the heart of the floods” with actors Caroline Dim and Jean-Claude Brialy, planning to film a romance about a young man with a boat who tries to help a girl get to class in Paris. “We simply took off one weekend, and I must say that when we got there, there wasn’t much water to be seen already. And the little water there was didn’t inspire us, because we saw people looking for boats to get their belongings out. In the middle of all that, to rent a boat and carry on like crazy struck us all of a sudden as pretty indecent. Well, I had brought along 600 meters of film and I brought back 600 meters of exposed film but it didn’t impress anyone but us and not even us.
“I said to Braunberger: ‘You’ve lost 600 meters of film. Keep it around.’ Jean-Luc Godard wanted to see those 600 meters and said: ‘I can have fun making a montage.’ He made a montage of the film in his fashion, a commentary. It was obvious, once the film was finished, that it wasn’t his or mine and that it would be logical for both to sign and to make a present of it to the producer who never made a fortune out of it.” Godard reportedly removed much of the plot, foreshadowing my biggest objection to most of his subsequent films I’ve seen. As it stands, the short depicts Brialy picking up the hitchhiking Dim in his car, intercut seemingly at random with aerial footage of the flooding (accompanied by a jarring percussion score), and narrated—including the spoken credits, anticipating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451—with a silly, stream-of-consciousness voiceover that invokes everyone from Raymond Chandler to Arthur Gordon Pym.
A Story of Water seems so little indicative of Truffaut’s later work (if not necessarily Godard’s), and apparently had so little effect on his career, that I will move without further ado to his debut feature, The 400 Blows, which began a semiautobiographical five-film cycle that follows his alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), over twenty years. “Our intention, from the start, was to draw the portrait of a child who would not be an unhappy child nor a spoiled child but simply an adolescent,” he noted. “If there was a thesis behind our film, it would be this: adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who can’t remember. When you’re in that difficult age, the thirteenth year is your bad luck time…” Throughout his career, from The Mischief Makers to The Wild Child and Small Change, Truffaut displayed an affinity for children, and even though Antoine is obviously the focus, The 400 Blows features sharply etched portraits of his classmates.
Although it depicts and evokes a variety of moods, the film is not sentimental, and particularly as a parent, I cringe inwardly watching Antoine misbehave at school, cut class, run briefly away from home, and impetuously tell the whopping lie that his mother, Gilberte (Claire Maurier), has died in order to explain his truancy. Yet I also sympathize as he endures the benign neglect of his often squabbling parents in their impossibly cramped flat, and accidentally starts a fire after his youthful enthusiasm leads him unwisely to place a lighted candle inside a makeshift shrine to Balzac. We particularly feel for Antoine as he witnesses Gilberte kissing another man when the two of them see, but do not acknowledge, each other while he is playing hooky; we later see him wrestling with the question of whether or not to tell Julien (Albert Rémy)—the generally good-natured man who, we discover, is really Antoine’s stepfather—and evidently deciding against it.
Truffaut wrote, “It was Jean Renoir himself who taught me that the actor playing a character is more important than that character, or, if you prefer, that you always have to sacrifice the abstract for the concrete. No wonder then that Antoine Doinel, from the first day of shooting of The 400 Blows, moved away from me to become more like Jean-Pierre [who was then 14]….In the [sequels], I readjusted my sights and took into account the extraordinary phenomenon of the sympathy that Jean-Pierre Léaud always elicits from the public…” The film contains a splendid sequence showing Antoine on one of those carnival rides where centrifugal force pins you to the wall as you rotate inside a giant drum, with alternating shots of the boy and from his perspective that capture the exuberance of the New Wave; in another, the hungry Antoine looks practically feral as he steals and guzzles a bottle of milk during his nighttime odyssey on the streets of Paris.
Truffaut has a Hitchcockian cameo at the carnival, and for luck, his future star, Jeanne Moreau, improvised a bit in which Brialy (from A Story of Water) brusquely supplants Antoine in helping her catch a dog. In 1965, he said, “In the classroom scene, when the father turns up to slap his son [because of the lie], I had problems in crosscutting. I knew I couldn’t get out of it without cutting back and forth a lot—because it was a rapid action—whereas in the film as a whole it was simply recording how things stood. And there I knew I was obliged to ‘make cinema,’ and I thought of Hitchcock…” Certainly one recalls the Master—who attributed his lifelong fear of the police to being briefly locked in a cell at his father’s behest—when Antoine is caught trying to return a stolen typewriter he was unable to fence, and eventually sent to an observation center for delinquent youth, from which he escapes to the nearby seashore in the celebrated final fadeout.
The 400 Blows “is not an autobiographical film completely,” Truffaut said. Like Antoine, he was raised by, and given the surname of, a man who was not his biological father, and regularly cut school to attend the cinema; he later recalled, “When I was fourteen the theft of a typewriter got me into the hands of the cops.” Yet he also noted that, “if I had wanted only to put my adolescence into images, I would not have asked Marcel Moussy to come and collaborate on the screenplay and to write the dialogue. If the young Antoine Doinel sometimes resembles the turbulent adolescent I was, his parents are absolutely unlike mine, who were excellent, but, on the contrary, are more like the families who confronted each other on the TV program Si C’Etait Vous, which…Moussy was writing for Marcel Bluwal. It was not only the television writer I admired in [him] but also the novelist of Sang chaud, which is the story of a little Algerian boy.”
Like Les Mistons, based on a short story from Maurice Pons’s Virginales, Truffaut’s next efforts, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, were both literary adaptations, as are about half of his features. In 1962, he told Cahiers du Cinéma, “when I’ve finished a screenplay, I think I know, if not the defects, at least the dangers from the point of view of clichés and conventions. That guides me, gives me a kind of bias against those dangers during the filming….In Piano Player, where the danger lay in having a character who would be too moving, I did so much to bring out the egotistical side of the artist, his wish to cut himself off from the world, his cowardice, that I rendered him not very attractive, very hard, almost antipathetic. That’s even, no doubt, one of the reasons why the film failed. The same thing almost happened with Jules and Jim. I didn’t want people to love Jeanne Moreau’s character [just] on principle, so I made it a little too harsh.”
About half of Truffaut’s adaptations fall into the genre his countrymen have labeled noir; he and Moussy based Piano Player on the novel Down There by David Goodis, whose work served as the source for films ranging from the Bogart/Bacall vehicle Dark Passage (1947) to those of fellow Frenchmen Henri Verneuil (The Burglars, 1971) and Jean-Jacques Beineix (The Moon in the Gutter, 1983). The cinema confers a unique, occasionally dubious honor on novels such as Down There that are later reissued under, and sometimes known almost exclusively by, the titles of their screen incarnations. I wish I had a copy of this one (or, for that matter, Dark Passage) so that I could kill two birds with one stone by doing a page-to-screen comparison, but that might make this post unwieldy or unbalanced, so perhaps it is best to focus solely on Truffaut’s second and last collaboration with Moussy, who contributed to the underrated Is Paris Burning? (1966).
Musician Charles Aznavour, whom I first saw as the ill-fated entertainer and inaugural victim in the 1974 version of Ten Little Indians, is again appropriately cast (although he does not sing here) as the titular pianist, Charlie Kohler, who plays in a seedy bar owned by Plyne (Serge Davri). The credits are superimposed over a shot of the mechanism of Charlie’s upright piano as he plays a catchy yet somehow mournful ditty that always reminds me of the one on the pianola in Touch of Evil (1958), and since Truffaut is known to have admired Orson Welles—hey, who doesn’t?—this is perhaps no coincidence. Charlie is raising the youngest of his three brothers, Fido (“Le jeune Richard Kanayan”), with the help of Clarisse, a neighbor and good-hearted prostitute who sometimes shares his bed, played by shapely Michèle Mercier, known to genre fans for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963) and Antonio Margheriti’s Web of the Spider (1971).
Fresh from the role of Julien Doinel, Albert Rémy was in the ensemble cast of Is Paris Burning? and worked with John Frankenheimer in The Train (1964) and Grand Prix (1966); he and Jean-Jacques Aslanian are Charlie’s other brothers, Chico and Richard, who have absconded with the loot after a falling-out with their partners in a heist. The story is set in motion when Chico takes refuge from Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) in the bar and Charlie helps him escape by delaying the hoods, who later kidnap Charlie and Léna (Marie Dubois), the barmaid for whom he has an unspoken attraction, in an effort to learn the location of the family farm, where they assume Chico and Richard are hiding out. Léna’s quick thinking attracts the attention of the police to the car, enabling her and Charlie to get away, and when they go back to her place, Charlie learns that she already knows about his past, at which Chico had hinted earlier.
An extended flashback reveals that “Charlie” is really concert pianist Edouard Saroyan, whose deteriorating marriage to Thérèse (Nicole Berger) came to a head when she admitted having an affair with impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann) to further his career. Moments after angrily walking out, Edouard reconsidered his love for her and the sacrifice she made, yet his stubbornness resulted in tragedy, and he returned to find that she had jumped from a window to her death. Léna persuades Charlie to resume his career, but when they confront Pyne, who had sold their addresses to the hoods, the jealous publican attacks Charlie and is stabbed in the struggle; although witnesses clear Charlie by confirming that he killed Pyne in self-defense, Momo and Ernest have abducted Fido in the meantime, leading to a snowy climactic confrontation at the farm that leaves Léna shot dead and Charlie once again an emotionless shell.
This serious subject matter is punctuated by moments such as one hood swearing that his mother should die if he is not telling the truth, followed by a quick silent-movie-style shot of a woman keeling over. “At the time of The 400 Blows and the euphoria of Cannes [where it won the Best Director award], I said to Braunberger there’s a book I want very much to do…I very much liked Aznavour also, so if we can put those two things together, let’s do it….We worked out for ourselves the ending in the snow,” Truffaut told Cinéma 67. “Rémy,…Boulanger, and I sat around a table asking one another who was going to shoot whom. On top of it, the cold got some of us and we decided to film with those who weren’t sick. Finally we liquidated earlier those who had to get back to Paris. All the ending was done just like that, with the slight reservation that, in spite of Braunberger’s amicable insistence, I had had it in mind to make…Dubois die…”
Truffaut alternated among various types of films, rarely if ever making two of the same kind in a row, and although Jules and Jim is also an adaptation, it could scarcely be more different from Piano Player, whose offbeat improvisational style apparently hurt its commercial prospects. It is the story of the friendship between the two title characters, an Austrian and a Frenchman played respectively by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, and how that friendship—which survives fighting on opposite sides in World War I—is affected by their love for free-spirited Catherine (Moreau). She marries, moves to the Black Forest, and bears a child, Sabine (Sabine Haudepin), with Jules but, perpetually restless, carries on various affairs, including an on-again, off-again one with Jim, who lives with them at various points; the relationship overshadowed by their inability to have a child, Catherine finally drives off a broken bridge, killing herself and Jim to leave Jules all alone.
As I often say, “What a happy story,” and despite the delight it takes in depicting their more carefree days, I find I enjoyed it no more on a second viewing than on the first, remaining baffled by its enduring popularity. In his foreword to the press book, Truffaut wrote, “I wanted to get back to the ‘tone’ of The 400 Blows: a story recounted in half-tints, sad in its line but droll in its details. If this film is successful [it earned Truffaut several international awards], it must resemble the book…and thus constitute a hymn to love, perhaps even a hymn to life”; he also recalled in 1979 that “thanks to Jeanne Moreau, [the filming] remains a luminous memory, the most luminous.” Much as I admire Moreau and Werner, who both worked with Truffaut in other films, it doesn’t help that through no fault of theirs, I am at best indifferent and at worst averse to, in no particular order, the period setting, the Bohemian lifestyle, adultery, love triangles, and doomed romances.
Ironically, despite all of that, Jules and Jim is, in its basic concept if not its tone, very similar to a film that I dearly love, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933). As a 21-year-old film critic, Truffaut had read the semi-autobiographical first novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, then 74, shortly after its publication in 1953, and quickly determined to adapt it someday; they exchanged ideas about his doing so in a lengthy correspondence that began when Roché saw a review of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Naked Dawn (1955) in which Truffaut called Jules and Jim “one of the finest modern French novels…in which a woman loves two men equally during almost an entire lifetime, thanks to an aesthetic and new morality incessantly reconsidered.” Urged by Truffaut during the making of The 400 Blows to read the book, Moreau immediately accepted the role of Catherine, a casting coup of which Roché expressed approval just days before his death in 1959.
As Truffaut noted in the press book, “I felt that [it] would be a difficult and ambitious film, and I didn’t as yet feel sure enough of myself to venture on it. So I made two films before this one….At the start of ’61 I thought that the time had come to concretize this old dream.” The script, co-written with Jean Gruault, makes extensive use of an omniscient narrator, Michel Subor. Truffaut told Le Monde, “I kept an off-screen commentary throughout the film every time the text seemed to me impossible to transform into dialogue or too beautiful to be amputated. I prefer, over the classical adaptation, which willy-nilly transforms a book into a theater piece, an intermediate form which alternates dialogue with reading aloud, which corresponds in a way to a filmed novel. I think in any case that [this] is more a cinematic book than the pretext for a literary film….[I left] myself the option of improvising while shooting…”
To be continued.