A Chronological Subjective Journey Through His Oeuvre,
Punctuated with Excerpts from Truffaut by Truffaut*
- Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968)
- La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969)
- L’Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970)
Once again, we begin with the latest installment of Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical cycle about Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), to which it must have been a relief to return after reportedly clashing with his leading man or (now former) cinematographer on his last three features; Raoul Coutard’s replacement, Denys Clerval, would shoot his next film as well. Truffaut collaborated on the script with Claude de Givray, who was an assistant director on Les Mistons and his co-writer on several projects he did not direct, and Bernard Revon, both of whom would re-up with Doinel for Bed and Board. By the way, I must sheepishly admit to only recently realizing that the woman Antoine encounters in the street with her husband, Albert Tazzi (Jean-François Adam), is Colette, who is uncredited, unidentified by name in the film, and played by the returning Marie-France Pisier at a far younger age than I would know her from Chanel Solitaire.
The fact that this is my longtime favorite among Truffaut’s work, an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, makes it difficult for me to write about with any kind of objectivity. I believe it was the second one I ever saw—courtesy of a college course—after a library screening of Fahrenheit 451 back in the pre-VCR era, as my love for science fiction far predated my interest in the French New Wave (or, more precisely, in Truffaut, since Godard et al. have never had a similar effect on me). Typical of the cycle, it is not plot-heavy, but has three predominant narrative threads: Antoine’s hilariously inept search for gainful employment, most notably with the Blady detective agency; his wooing of Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) and, as with Colette, warm relationship with her father, Lucien (Daniel Ceccaldi from The Soft Skin), and mother (Claire Duhamel); and his obsession with Mme. Fabienne Tabard (Delphine Seyrig).
Perhaps inevitably, the film’s original soundtrack—Antoine Duhamel’s first of four consecutive scores for Truffaut—is overshadowed by its signature tune, “Que reste-t-il de nos amours? [What remains of our love?],” which you just know I’m firing up repeatedly on YouTube as I write this, although misting up makes it a little hard to see the keyboard. Legendary singer-songwriter Charles Trenet’s 1942 hit, from whose lyrics Truffaut took his highly appropriate title, was popularized Stateside in 1957 by Keely Smith, retitled “I Wish You Love” with new lyrics, while I know at least one reader will perk up significantly when he learns, as I just did, that according to Wikipedia, “His romantic ballad ‘La Mer’ was reworked by Bobby Darin into the million-selling smash ‘Beyond the Sea.’” I’m a man of many nicknames, but the Pavlovian opening of my tear ducts in response to this film and song epitomizes my Maudlin Man moniker.
They are not exactly tears of joy, because I now know that Antoine and Christine’s marriage is a rocky one that will ultimately end in divorce thanks to Antoine’s infidelity, and while he can be quite charming, I would never hold him up as an admirable character; Madame BOF finds him completely insufferable and, having dutifully sat through and hated this film, vowed never to watch another Doinel. They are not exactly tears of sorrow, because this is easily Truffaut’s most lighthearted film to date, one that I mistakenly thought for years was more representative of his oeuvre, with the quirky, humorous touches that characterize his work. I cry over the simple, girl-next-door beauty of Jade—who for me represents a quintessential Frenchwoman in the best possible way, with whom I fall hopelessly in love every time I watch this picture—and over little touches like her taking his hand in a nightclub, or his silent proposal with a bottle-opener “ring.”
Dishonorably discharged from the army for being chronically AWOL, Antoine fulfills a vow that he will avail himself of a prostitute at a certain hour, then takes and loses a job as a hotel night clerk after being used as an unwitting pawn in a divorce scam by a representative of the Blady Agency, which soon hires him. After various misadventures, he is assigned to be a “periscope,” working undercover as a stock boy when shoe-store owner Georges Tabard (Mich[a]el Lonsdale) hires the firm to find out why his staff detests him. It says something about my love for this film that it transcends a reflexive aversion to Lonsdale, who set a new low for Bond villains as Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979)—although I grew to respect him in films like Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998)—and to Seyrig, the star of the late Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) but, for me, a grim reminder of her bisexual vampire in the nasty Daughters of Darkness (1971), and a far distant second to Jade.
Antoine’s personal and professional fortunes are constantly intertwined. It is through his work at the store that he meets and becomes fixated on Fabienne, and when asked while checking in to describe her, he rhapsodizes to such a degree that he is curtly told, “What we want is a report, not a declaration of love!” His conflicted feelings about the women in his life manifest themselves in a strange scene—which I won’t even attempt to explain—where Antoine stares into the mirror while repeating their names and his over and over. After he sends her a love letter, Fabienne appears at his apartment for a never-to-be-repeated tryst to get it out of both their systems, but because of the surveillance, Antoine must admit the meeting and is fired again. Finally, when he becomes a TV repairman, Christine (who had resisted when he “stole a kiss” from her in her parents’ cellar) disables their set as a pretext to summon him, and the two are next seen sleeping in bed together.
Truffaut shot the movie while embroiled in the controversy over the firing of the Cinémathèque Française’s Henri Langlois (to whom it is dedicated). “When my films are finished, I realize that they are always sadder than I would have liked. This one…I wanted to be funny. I don’t know if it is, but in any case we ourselves had fun making it. When I began to make films…I thought at first that there were funny things and sad things. Then I tried to pass abruptly from a sad thing to a funny thing. Today what strikes me as most interesting is to work in such a way that the same thing can be funny and sad all at once. That is one of the reasons why I asked Charles Trenet’s authorization to use [his lyric] as the title…I think Trenet is the one who has found the truest poetical equilibrium, who has best managed to mingle gravity and frivolity in his songs. Stolen Kisses is quite simply a film that hopes to resemble a song,” as he wrote in the press book.
I hadn’t realized that Truffaut’s two Cornell Woolrich adaptations were made with only one film in between, and although the fatalistic nature of the second (whose title seems more appropriate in French, La Sirène du Mississippi, given the sinister connotations of “siren”) makes it not too surprising that—according to New York Magazine critic David Edelstein’s TCM introduction—it was his biggest financial failure, I think it deserved better. The first of his features on which Truffaut had sole screenwriting credit, it updates Woolrich’s 1880 New Orleans setting to the contemporary French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, to which the ship Mississippi brings a woman (Catherine Deneuve) claiming to be Julie Roussel, the mail-order bride of Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom I have loathed since seeing Breathless). She doesn’t match the photo that Julie had sent him, but Louis clearly falls for her at first sight and marries her anyway.
She says she sent a photo of a neighbor to ensure that Louis did not marry her for her looks, while he wrote that he was the foreman and not the owner of a cigarette factory, because he did not want to be married for his money. After “Julie” cleans out his bank accounts and disappears, Berthe Roussel (Nelly Borgeaud) arrives, and we learn that her sister was murdered aboard the ship by Richard (Roland Thénot), who later abandoned accomplice Marion Vergano, so they hire private detective Comolli (Michel Bouquet, like Lonsdale an alumnus of The Bride Wore Black) to find the impostor. In France, Louis spots Marion in some news footage—precisely paralleling the source novel for Vertigo—locates and confronts her, but is unable to kill her; Louis shoots Comolli when he gets too close and refuses to take a bribe, and the couple’s peripatetic future as fugitives seems bleak, despite Louis forgiving Marion for trying to poison him and her declaration of love.
I’d only seen this once before, and that almost certainly in the 1999 “Tout Truffaut” retrospective at the recently redeemed Film Forum, yet it seemed surprisingly familiar. It’s true that at various times I have also read the 1947 source novel, Waltz into Darkness (I was honored to be asked to weigh in on whether Viking Penguin, where I was then employed, should reissue it, which they did), and seen the 2001 remake, Michael Cristofer’s Original Sin, notorious for its steamy scenes between Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie—talk about something for everyone—but I think there’s more to it than that, perhaps something distinctively Woolrichian. His future biographer, Francis M. Nevins, Jr., wrote in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers that “love dies while the lovers go on living, and [he] excels at showing the corrosion of a relationship between two people,” plus the theme of imposture recurs in his oft-filmed I Married a Dead Man (1948).
“I read [the novel] when I was doing the adaptation of The Bride Wore Black,” Truffaut told Le Monde in 1969. “At that time, I actually read everything [he] wrote in order to steep myself in his work and to keep as close as possible to the novel, despite the unfaithfulness necessary in films. I like to know thoroughly any writer whose book I transpose to the screen [as he had with Goodis and Bradbury]….My final screenplay was less an adaptation in the traditional sense than a choice of scenes. With this film, I was finally able to realize every director’s dream: to shoot in chronological order a chronological story that represents an itinerary….[The] shooting began on Réunion Island, continued in Nice, Antibes, Aix-en-Provence, Lyons, to finish in the snow near Grenoble. The fact of respecting the chronology permitted me to ‘build’ the couple with precision….The Mermaid is above all else the tale of a degradation through love, of a passion.”
The Wild Child marked Truffaut’s first return to black and white since The Soft Skin, and the start of a long collaboration with Nestor Almendros, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), who would shoot the majority of his remaining films. It is rare among his work in being based directly on fact—specifically, Dr. Jean Itard’s memoir Victor de l’Aveyron—rather than adapted from a literary source or, as in the case of The Soft Skin, merely inspired by actual events. After reading a 1966 Le Monde review of a thesis by Lucien Malson, Truffaut considered Victor “the clearest and most instructive example” of a child growing up in isolation without any human contact, “studied at length and minutely by…Itard, who became interested in the boy immediately after his capture by hunters in the middle of a forest in the summer of 1798,” he wrote in an article on the making of the film for L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma.
Truffaut noted that in crafting the screenplay with Jean Gruault (a veteran of Jules and Jim who has a small role as “Visitor at Institute”), “the main difficulty was in transposing a text actually consisting of two reports [by] Itard. The first, dated 1801, was probably intended for the Académie de Médecine; the second, written in 1806, was designed to convince the Ministry of the Interior to renew the pension of Madame Guérin,” the housekeeper in whose care, as the film does not tell us, “Victor lived to the age of forty…doing little jobs and living in peace.” To solve the problem, “we imagined that Dr. Itard, instead of writing these reports, had kept a daily diary. This gives the story the allure of a personal chronicle and preserves the author’s style, which is simultaneously scientific, philosophical, moralistic, humanistic, in turns lyrical and familiar.” He steeped himself in the reports, which is hardly surprising in light of his decision to play Itard.
Unlike Orson Welles, whom he greatly admired, Truffaut only occasionally starred in his own work, and rarely acted outside it—Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) being the notable exception—although he was a talented actor; he cast himself out of practicality rather than vanity. “It seemed to me that the essential job in this film was not to manage the action but to concern oneself with the child. I therefore wanted to…deal with him myself and thus avoid going through an intermediary….I would have been saying all day to some gentleman: ‘Now take the child, make him do that, lead him there,’ and that was what I wanted to do on my own….From the day I decided to play Itard the film took on for me a truly complete and definitive raison d’être. From this experience I don’t retain the impression of having played a role, but simply of having directed the film ‘in front of’ the camera and not ‘behind,’ as usual.”
Truffaut abandoned the idea of finding someone like a young Nureyev to play Victor, “because the little dancers I saw were really just too sweet. [So] I went to the opposite idea, which was to go back a little to The Mischief Makers…where I directed five boys from Nîmes, of whom one or two really had something savage about them….I should have liked to find a little boy along those lines. I sent my assistant to watch when school let out, at Arles, Nîmes, Marseilles, etc. It was in a street in Montpellier that she noticed, questioned, and photographed among others a little gypsy boy, Jean-Pierre Cargol.” His performance is so extraordinary that it’s a shame his only other credit was Geoffrey Reeve’s now-obscure Alistair MacLean adaptation Caravan to Vaccares (1974). As Truffaut told Radio-Canada in 1971, “for the first time, I identified with the adult, the father, so much so that when the editing was finished I dedicated [it] to Jean-Pierre Léaud…”
The simple but absorbing narrative follows Victor—believed to have been left for dead in the forest seven or eight years earlier, at the age of three or four—as he is transferred to the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, where he is exhibited like a freak, and then fortunately comes to the attention of Itard (1774-1838), who is researching deafness and takes charge of the boy in his own house near Paris. Although Victor was never able to speak, Itard demonstrated that he was neither deaf nor retarded, and the film effectively depicts both his education and the bond of affection that grows among him, Itard, and the good-hearted Madame Guérin (Françoise Seigner). Eschewing an original score, Truffaut had Duhamel arrange and conduct the Vivaldi Concerto in C Major for Mandolin and Strings that was later popularized in Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which coincidentally garnered Almendros another Oscar nomination.
Addendum: I see Film Forum will begin repeating its “Tout Truffaut” festival on March 28. Coincidence?
To be continued.
Back to Part II.
*Text and documents compiled by Dominique Rabourdin; translated from the French by Robert Erich Wolf (New York: Abrams, 1987).