News and Commentary – Bookshelf: Truffaut on Cinema

Truffaut on Cinema is nothing short of a treasure for movie-lovers. François Truffaut sat for about 300 interviews between 1959 and 1984, and every last one of them is collected in this book—and presented with a rather ingenious twist. The interviews were compiled and reorganized by Anne Gillain, and as reassembled the book proceeds thematically, film by film (rather than interview by interview) along with a number of topical chapters that pick up content that strayed too far from the discussion of particular Truffaut films. Originally published in French in 1988, Truffaut on Cinema has just been released in an English translation (by Alistair Fox).  

It is a thrilling read. “Cinema is my country,” Truffaut declares; “cinema is my religion.” His was a childhood so devoted to the movies that, not yet in his teens, he attended twenty screenings of Henri Georges Clouzot’s then-underappreciated masterpiece Le Corbeau. Truffaut’s love of film defined his life, and his richly informed enthusiasm sparkles on the page: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Truffaut explains, “was the first psychological film in which the notion of good and bad characters had been entirely eliminated.” Years later he would offer similar praise for Orson Welles, noting that (Mid Century Cinema favorite) Touch of Evil does not judge its characters; rather, Welles “allows them to reveal themselves in the full complexity of their personalities.” As for making movies, Truffaut easily convinces that nighttime settings are “more enigmatic” and thus preferable for storytelling, whereas “color is an enemy.” Pages turn freely to keep up with irresistible stories, and along the way the contributions of cinematographers Henri Decae and Nestor Almendros and longtime assistant and collaborator Susan Schiffman are generously accounted.

As the famous story goes, a youthful Truffaut would come to haunt the legendary Cinémathèque Française, where he met fellow obsessives Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. Influenced by the programing (and nurturing hospitality) of Cinémathèque director Henri Langlois (“the Cinémathèque was really a haven for us then, a refuge, our home, everything,” Truffaut would later write), as well as the critic Andre Bazin (who co-founded the journal Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951), these five friends, with many others, would come to forge the French New Wave—first as uncompromising, often censorious critics in the pages of Cahiers, and then with their astonishing early films. Truffaut’s debut effort, The 400 Blows, (dedicated to the late Bazin), won the best director prize at Cannes in 1959. And by the early 1960s Truffaut and Godard in particular were revered cultural icons—though it is our view that, as the decades pass, one starts out in awe of Truffaut and Godard but slowly comes around to championing Chabrol and Rohmer.

Truffaut’s tenure at Cahiers is best remembered for his vituperative essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” – the first draft of which was written when he was twenty – which offered a scathing critique of the rule-bound French film industry and its emphasis on prestigious literary adaptations; the essay also set forth an initial articulation of the auteur theory, which emphasized the role of the director as the ultimate author of a film. (Truffaut on Film includes an especially concise version of his argument: that a bad film by a great director will “hold more interest” than a good film by a bad director.)  And practicing what they preached, the New Wavers would make films that were dedicated expressions of the distinct personal vision of each filmmaker. The resulting movies were quite disparate stylistically and thematically, but, as Truffaut emphasized, the commitment to the idea of truth was the touchstone that bound them together.  “Each of us is trying to bring a certain kind of veracity to cinema,” he explained; thus despite the obvious differences, “In each of our films, what matters is the personal vision of life it projects.” Those were the good old days, but of course, eventually there were inevitable fallings-out, including an especially bitter one that ruptured the friendship of Truffaut and Godard (which, from quite some distance, we’re going to pin on Godard). 

Truffaut made twenty-one feature films over the course of a career cut short by his early death at fifty-two, and it is not unfair to acknowledge the criticism that over the years he came closer to the style of cinema he once rejected, such as with the late career sensation The Last Metro, an impersonal, morally compromised prestige project that was showered with adulation and awards. Certainly it is not surprising that the mature Truffaut did not remain the enfant terrible of his youth—and it is one thing to be an unyielding critic and quite another to be confronted with the challenge of actually making movies. As a filmmaker, Truffaut reflects, he has “become more tolerant” and “lost a bit of my purism as a cinephile,” perhaps due to a greater awareness that, unlike with writing a novel, “in a film one must always sacrifice something.”

Regardless of one’s assessment of Truffaut’s oeuvre, his discussion of films and filmmaking is spellbinding and often revelatory.  Regarding The Soft Skin, he argues persuasively why any other conclusion would have been either dishonest or narratively unsatisfying. Or why he shifted the period of The Green Room from the Henry James source material (1895) to 1928 (he thought the legacy of the First World War was essential to the film’s meaning), or how he unnecessarily rushed the shooting schedule on Confidentially Yours (which would be his last movie—and is a real treat) to help capture the look of the old detective movies he was gesturing at with that picture. No chapter disappoints, though readers will surely gravitate towards their favorite films. We especially savored the observations about Day for Night, in which Truffaut plays a movie director struggling to get a picture made. The obstacles mount, and one fears for the fate of the movie-within-the-movie (“Meet Pamela”), but Truffaut’s ultimate vision is more optimistic, embracing the idea that in filmmaking, “even snags can lead to improvements, can serve to nourish the film instead of impoverishing it.”

 

400 Blows 1

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows

 

400 Blows 2

The 400 Blows

 

soft skin

A Hitchcock-worthy Elevator Ride in The Soft Skin

 

Day for Night

Day For Night: In Love with the Movies

 

FT/JB DFN

Truffaut with Jacqueline Bisset in Day For Night

 

Green Room

Truffaut in The Green Room