The Auteurs: François Truffaut (Part 1)

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A founding figure of the French New Wave movement that reshaped cinema, François Truffaut is one of France’s greatest treasures. Making 21 feature films and 4 shorts from 1955 to 1983, there was no filmmaker during that period who explored ideas of love and youth better than he did. Prolific until his death in 1984, at the age of 52, Truffaut has left behind a legacy that will be studied and admired for years to come.

Born on February 6, 1932 in Paris, France, François Truffaut had a complicated, but fulfilling, childhood in which he spent much time with his grandmother. At the age of eight, Truffaut saw his first film, Abel Gance’s Paradise Lost. It was the spark that ignited his obsession with films. His deep love for the art form frequently got him in trouble at school since he kept skipping classes to go to the cinema. Among the cinemas he attended was the Cinémathèque Française, run by Henri Langlois, which exposed Truffaut to a wide range of films.

At the age of 16, he met the renowned French film theorist/critic André Bazin who ended up having a profound effect on Truffaut. After a brief and unhappy stint in the French Army, Truffault worked as an editor and critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, a magazine that Bazin had created. Truffaut quickly made a name for himself with his pointed critiques of both the state of French cinema as well as films coming out of Hollywood. It was around this time that Truffaut coined the “auteur theory”, believing that the director’s films reflect their personal creative vision. Gaining a sharp critical eye from writing about film, and at the young age of 23, François Truffaut decided to step into the world of filmmaking and try his hand at leaving his own mark on cinema.

Truffaut: The New Wave Years (1955-1969)

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Les Mistons

Une Visite / Les Mistons (watch) / A Story of Water (watch)

In 1955, François Truffaut made his first short film, Une Visite, which told the story of a man trying to seduce the woman who lived with him. In making the film, Truffaut was aided by his longtime childhood friend Robert Lachenay as well as his Cahier du Cinema colleagues Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette, both of whom also had aspirations of careers in filmmaking. The eight-minute short wasn’t screened publicly since Truffaut only made one copy. Instead he opted to show the film to friends at home.

Two years later, Truffaut made another short, Les Mistons, which revolved around a group of young boys in love with a beautiful woman. Based on a story by Maurice Pons, the film follows the boys as they conspire to destroy the woman’s relationship with another man. Bernadette Lafont and Gerard Blain played the young lovers while Truffaut enlisted Michel François to narrate the film. The short featured several elements, such as tracking shots and stylistic approaches to composition, which would become a staple of François Truffaut’s visual style.

A year later, Truffaut teamed up with another critic from Cahier du Cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, who was also itching to get into the world of filmmaking. The result of their collaboration was A Story of Water, a story about a woman (Caroline Dim) who, while stranded in a flooded section of Paris, has a memorable encounter with a stranger (Jean-Claude Brialy). Shot in the span of two days, Truffaut handled a large chunk of the principle photography, while Godard provided the film with an absurdist tone, which was not Truffaut’s intended tone, through his editing style and musical selections.

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The 400 Blows (review)

After attending Expo 58 in Brussels where he saw Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, François Truffaut decided to end his career as a film critic and dedicate all is energy to making films fulltime. His debut feature film, The 400 Blows, was partly inspired by both aspects of his own childhood and Jean Vigo’s 1933 film Zero de conduit. The film told the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a misunderstood boy who is viewed as a troublemaker by teachers and parents.

Truffaut ended up dedicating the film to longtime mentor André Bazin who passed away prior to filming began. The cast included Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier as Doinel’s parents, Patrick Auffay as his friend Rene, and Guy Delcombe as Doinel’s cruel teacher. The film also featured appearances from many of the instrumental figures of the French New Wave movement. Individuals such as Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Jeanne Moreau. Cinematographer Henri Decaë shot the film entirely in Paris with the exception of the third act set in Honfleur. Decaë’s work helped to bring added weight Doinel’s quest to both gain acceptance from his family while coping with his own lost of identity.

The 400 Blows premiered at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, a place where only a year earlier Truffaut had been banned from due to his open disdain towards the French film industry. Playing along with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, the film was smash hit at the festival. François Truffaut won the festival’s Best Director prize and eventually garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay months later. The popularity of the film made the world start to pay attention to the works coming out of French cinema at the time. The 400 Blows was considered the first major work from the emerging and exciting French New Wave scene.

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Shoot the Piano Player (review)

For his next film, François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy decided to adapt David Goodis’ book Down There, a tale about a piano player who enters the world of crime after learning that his brother had cheated some gangsters. The premise intrigued Truffaut as it played into his love of American genre films. Considering that Shoot the Piano Player was the antithesis of The 400 Blows, Truffaut knew that some would be upset by the fact he was attempting something different in tone and style.

Regardless, he reveled in the chance to play with the schematics of the crime genre. With a cast that included Charles Aznavour, Albert Rémy, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier and Daniel Boulanger, Truffaut got the services of cinematographer Raoul Coutard to shoot the film. For the music, Truffaut hired composer Georges Delerue, fresh off Hiroshoma Mon Amour, which sparked the beginning of a lengthy collaboration between the two. Despite working with a small budget, Truffaut found the production of Shoot the Piano Player to be a fruitful and liberating experience.

The film’s first screening was at the 1960 London Film Festival. Audiences, clearly expecting another The 400 Blows, were disappointed and the film was deemed a commercial flop upon its release. Critics were far more favorable to the film and it gained a devoted following among cinephiles. After its disastrous release, François Truffaut went into hiding and worked on a short film, The Army Game with fellow filmmaker Claude de Givray.

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Jules & Jim (review)

François Truffaut had long desired to adapt Henri-Pierre Roche’s semi-autobiographical novel Jules & Jim ever since discovering it in the mid-1950s. With Roche’s consent, Truffaut teamed up with Jean Grualt to co-write the screenplay. The film explored the friendship between two men, the shy Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the French Bohemian Jim (Henri Serre), who both fall for the same woman (Jeanne Moreau). Taking place both before and after World War I, the love triangle between the three individuals gets increasingly complex over the years.

Once again retaining the services of Georges Delerue and Raoul Coutard, Truffaut incorporated many stylistic ideas that had become part of the language of the French New Wave. This included newsreel footage, jump-cuts, freeze frames, photo stills, and several other techniques that set the film apart from mainstream films of the era. Truffaut subverted traditional notions of period pieces by including narration and showing how historical events impacted the dynamics of his characters.

Jules & Jim was a major critical and commercial hit in both Europe and the U.S. Its success had major ramifications for the film world as several filmmakers cited Jules & Jim as a turning point for cinematic storytelling. The impact of the film was especially evident in the works of American filmmakers during the New Hollywood period of the 1970s.

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Antoine and Colette (review)

Shortly after finishing Jules & Jim, François Truffaut was asked to participate in an omnibus film about love entitled Love at Twenty. For his short film, he decided to revisit the Antoine Doinel character in a mini-sequel to his first film. In Antoine and Collette Doinel embarks on a relationship with a high school student named Colette. Over the course of the film Doinel attempts to please Collette while finding himself becoming attached to her parents. Unfortunately for Doinel, he must also deal with Colette’s icy persona as she treats him more like a friend rather than a lover.

With Jean-Pierre Leaud returning as Doinel, and Patrick Auffay reprising his role of Antoine’s friend Rene, Truffaut casted Marie-France Pisier in the role of Colette. Critics and audiences not only enjoyed seeing the Doinel’s character again, but were also happy to see that François Truffaut still maintained a sense of youthful exuberance in his work. Love at Twenty, which also featured short films from Andrezj Wajda, Marcel Ophuls, Renzo Rossellini, and Shintaro Ishihara to name a few, made its premiere in June of 1962. Though it is cited as one of his finest films, Truffaut admitted later on that he wasn’t fond of the finished product.

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The Soft Skin (review)

Wanting to explore the nuances of extramarital relationships, François Truffaut teamed up with Jean-Louis Richard to write a script for The Soft Skin. The film focused on a publisher, Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), who begins an affair with an airline hostess, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). Emphasizing more on the motivations rather than the typical schematics found in the genre, Truffaut’s film brought a unique perspective to Lachenay’s struggles balancing his married life and his affair.

Truffaut decided to shoot the film in various cities such as Lisbon, Reims, and Paris. During the production, life imitated art as Truffaut fell for Françoise Dorléac. The affair eventually led to the breakup of his marriage to Madeleine Morgenstern. The mother of his two daughters, Morgenstern’s father was managing director of one France’s largest film distribution companies. The company funded many of Truffaut’s films.

The Soft Skin was released in April of 1964 before screening at the Cannes Film Festival a month later. Though it received mixed reviews at the time, the film would a more rousing reception when a new generation discovered Truffaut’s work years later.

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Fahrenheit 451 (review)

Following his divorce from Madeleine Morgenstern, and the end of his relationship with Françoise Dorléac, Truffaut was asked to direct a Hollywood adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. The premise involved a man who is tasked to burn books in a futuristic world. François Truffaut and screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard got a rude awakening when both producer Lewis M. Allen and the people at Universal Studios wanted the film to be told in English. Neither Truffaut nor Richard knew how to converse in English. The language-barrier was the first of many problems of the production.

Taking a hands-on approach to casting, Truffaut picked Oskar Werner for the lead role of Montag. Julie Christie was cast as both Montag’s wife Linda and the rebellious Clarisse, a neighbor whom befriends Montag. Filming in color for the first time, shooting began in 1966 with future filmmaker Nicolas Roeg serving as cinematographer. Aside from language-barrier issues, the growing tension between Truffaut and Werner also had a negative impact on the production.

Fahrenheit 451 divided critics and audiences when it premiered at the 1966 at the Venice Film Festival. Though its critical reception would improve over the years, some saw the film as one of Truffaut’s weakest works. Agreeing with the sentiments, Truffaut openly expressed his disappointment over the final cut of the film. Fahrenheit 451 was the only film François Truffaut would make in English.

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The Bride Wore Black (review)

Following the disappointing experience he had with Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut took a break to mourning the 1967 loss of actress Françoise Dorléac, who died in a car accident. It was around this time that François Truffaut decided to make some changes in his cinematic output. The first in this new direction was an adaptation of William Irish’s novel The Bride Wore Black. The story revolved around a woman, Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau), who seeks revenge on the men that killed her husband on their wedding day.

The theme of revenge appealed to Truffaut who once again enlisted Jean-Louis Richard to co-write the script. Truffaut wanted to infuse a lot of traits found in the works of Alfred Hitchcock, whose films he greatly admired. This was especially evident in the way he manipulated the truth about Julie’s day with each man she trapped. Having met the famed composer Bernard Herrmann during the production of Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut asked him to handle the score, which included classical pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, for the film. While Herrmann and Truffaut got along well, the same cannot be said for cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who routinely butted heads with the director over the film’s look.

The film was met with a very hostile critical reaction when it was released in theaters. While the premise did not sit well with critics, the film was a financial success in both Europe and in the U.S. However, Truffaut harshest critic was himself as he wasn’t fond of the final product. Nevertheless, The Bride Wore Black received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign-Language film and eventually became on one of Truffaut’s best regarded films.

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Stolen Kisses (review)

Stolen Kisses saw the return to, albeit in a humorous fashion, the world of his favorite character Antoine Doinel. In the film, Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) was now a young adult who must cope with both a new job and a new girlfriend, Christine (Claude Jade). The tale was another of Doinel’s journeys in which he searches for love in all the wrong places. In this particular tale, Doinel, while working as a private investigator, falls for the wife (Delphine Seyrig) of his new client.

Truffaut brought in new collaborators to work on the film including cinematographer Denys Clerval and editor Agnes Guillemot. They helped Truffaut to find new ways to play with the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. Truffaut showed that Doinel was still a child at heart who had a lot to learn about the world. Doinel wanted to be the great lover, but had no clue in regards to understanding what women want or how to be faithful.

Stolen Kisses premiered at the 1968 Avignon Film Festival in France and was a hit with audiences and critics. The film’s success was just what Truffaut needed as he was being to transition away from the French New Wave scene.

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Mississippi Mermaid (review)

Truffaut’s last film of the 1960s was another adaptation of a William Irish novel, which had been reading during the production of Stolen Kisses. The book Waltz Into Darkness explored a love affair between a plantation owner and a young woman he only knew through letters. Truffaut adapted the script himself to set it in a more contemporary time. In Mississippi Mermaid, the man at its core has no experience with the greater world and enlists the help of a person whom he mistakenly believes he has been corresponding with.

Truffaut shot the film on location in Reunion Island, as well as parts of Southern France, and casted Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve, two of France’s biggest stars, in the lead roles. Deneuve, who was the younger sister of the late Françoise Dorléac, began a romantic relationship with Truffaut during the production of the film. Mississippi Mermaid premiered in June of 1969 and was a hit with audiences and critics in France. It received mixed reviews in American when it was released a year later. The film marked another turning point for Truffaut. Not only was he one of the top international filmmakers in cinema, but had completely left the French New Wave behind to pursue new challenges.

(Part 2)

© thevoid99 2015