Truffaut was cinema
It had to be a woman. And it is a beautiful young woman that we see, riding a bicycle into the wind, while the credits roll over her. These are the first images of Les Mistons (1957), barely the second time that the director had dared place himself behind a camera and the first time that he displayed his own vision in order to captivate us in a cinematic spell. The narrator, referring to this girl of his childhood, recalls, “Bernadette marked the beginnings of our half-glimpsed dreams and secret fantasies. She brought about our awakening, kindled within us a luminous sensuality.” We can apply these same words to the director, a passionate and sensitive man, and a committed and independent artist. A director who, more than loving cinema, represented it. He was cinema. He was François Truffaut.
Before us lay cinephilia, an unheard of pact between those so thirsty for film they only grow calm within a darkened cinema. Truffaut was the first self-taught critic who ended up a public celebrity, an enfant terrible of the Cahiers du cinéma and Arts magazines. A monster created by André Bazin, who managed to learn the craft—literally—by seeing, touching and breathing cinema, as if infecting himself through contact with its creators.
A life in close-up
François Roland Truffaut was born in Paris on 6 February, 1932, son of Jeanine de Monferrand and an unknown father. His mother’s future husband took him on as an adopted son and gave him his surname. But that was all. From birth the boy was placed in the hands of a nanny, such was the family’s shame of having a single mother. From this stranger’s hands he was rescued by his maternal grandmother, who took him to live at her house. His grandfather imposed discipline relieved only by the literary and musical predisposition of his grandmother, who taught the boy to love books. Upon her death François, aged ten, moved in with his parents for the first time.
His first contact with cinema occurred at eight years of age. The film was Paradis perdu (1939) by Abel Gance. Truffaut went to the movies secretly, without paying, truant from school, and taking advantage of every moment in which he was alone. At fourteen, after successively abandoning several schools, he decided to be self-taught. From school the only thing salvaged was one of his classmates, Robert Lachenay, who became his best friend. Truffaut tried to see three films a day and to read three books a week. A regular at the Techniciens du film meetings, his ‘great school’ was the Cinémathèque that Henri Langlois had reopened in December 1944. In October 1948 he himself created a film club, Cercle cinémanie, using money obtained from working in a grocery store. He had to steal a typewriter from his father’s office to cover the cost of the first screenings, which took place on Sundays in a rented theatre.
André Bazin or the search for a father
The Cercle cinémanie screenings coincided with the screenings of the Travail et culture film club, presented by a critic called André Bazin, whom Truffaut decided to visit in order to convince him to reschedule. And so on 30 November, 1948, sixteen year old Truffaut met Bazin, critic of Le Parisien libéré and already a celebrity at 30 years of age. For Truffaut these offices would become a new film school, a home and the place where he would meet Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Alexandre Astruc. Days later his stepfather agreed to cover debts derived from his cinephilic commitments, on the grounds that François promise (in writing) to obtain a stable job and to abandon the film club. But Cercle cinémanie already had another three screenings confirmed and François continued determinedly with his work. Because of this Roland Truffaut placed him in police custody, citing the youth’s broken promise. He slept in a small cell at the police station and from there passed to police headquarters and later to the Parisian juvenile centre at Villejuif. There the psychologist contacted Bazin to request assistance with the boy and Bazin promised to give him a job within Travail et culture. Truffaut was released under conditional liberty to be interned in a religious home in Versailles, from which he was expelled six months later due to bad behaviour.
Bazin hired him as a personal secretary and at eighteen Truffaut obtained legal emancipation from his parents and, at last, his independence. Bazin introduced him to the film society Objectif 49, an elite group that would become the forum for new criticism and the place where directors such as Welles, Rossellini and Sturges would present their work. Later Jean-Luc Godard, Suzanne Schiffman and Jean-Marie Straub joined the group and dedicated themselves to not missing a single session of any club meeting. Thursdays they would visit the Ciné club du Quartier Latin, coordinated by Eric Rohmer. In this film club’s newsletter Truffaut would take his first steps as a critic in the spring of 1950. His first article was on Le Règle de jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939) in light of the recent discovery of the original version of the film.
Using film criticism like a sword
In April 1950 he began working as a journalist at Elle magazine, and continued with contributions to Ciné-digest, Lettres du monde and France-dimanche. Then, in an incomprehensible decision, François enlisted in the French army. He spent the following two years trying to break from military ranks and was imprisoned for attempting to desert. Freedom came about in February 1952, again thanks to pressure exercised by Bazin and various political contacts. After settling in with the Bazin family in Bry-sur-Marne, Truffaut began a fruitless search for employment, whilst dedicating himself (with a little more calm) to seeing films and to writing articles as a freelance columnist.
Whilst he had been in military prison a new film journal had appeared. Cahiers du cinéma was founded in April 1951 by Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, with the desire to publish criticism that was vigilant and active. Truffaut began to work on an essay for that publication, titled “Une Certaine tendance du cinéma française” (“A Certain Tendancy of the French Cinema”), in which he denounced the “tradition of quality”, a term that Jean-Pierre Barrot had coined in L’Écran français and that referred to the inclination of directors like Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy and Yves Allégret for literary adaptations, and the work of scriptwriters such as Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost.
However, his first article to appear (in March 1953) in the magazine was a review of Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952). From then on his literary production was uncontrollable and on occasion he even had to resort to pseudonyms. In January 1954 “Une Certaine tendance…” was published, accompanied by an editorial note from Doniol-Valcroze that anticipated the reactions that its polemic tone would generate. Immediately opinions were divided and polarised, at the same time defending and criticising this youth who dared to attack the untouchables of French cinema. In the article Truffaut remarked:
To invent without betrayal is the key phrase that Aurenche and Bost like to quote, forgetting that it is also possible to betray by omission. This foremost enunciated principle of Aurenche and Bost’s system is so attractive, that nobody has taken care to verify closely its operation.
In six years Truffaut would publish 170 articles in this magazine, mostly film reviews and interviews with directors.
Also that year he was contacted by the editors of the cultural weekly Arts-Lettres-Spectacles, home to the right-wing intellectuals of the time. In the following five years he would publish 528 articles for Arts, in which he continued to attack the tradition of quality and beset left-wing intellectuals. His style was coarse, polemic and moralising; a mixture of vehemence and humour. When eulogy was called for, however, he was also generous, particularly with directors that had his affection.
From publications with a leftist tendency such as L’Express and Les Temps modernes, there was constant criticism, even accusations of fascism. Provocation continued: there were articles in which he defended censorship imposed on American films, praised a film text written by a Nazi collaborator and even paid tribute to the French monarchy. Together with Jacques Rivette he also dedicated himself to interviewing his favourite directors. Truffaut became friends with Renoir, Max Ophuls and, above all, Roberto Rossellini, for whom he wrote scripts and assisted in adapting various projects which, although did not eventuate, would mark him in an indelible way. As a critic, it would permit the development of his theory of authorship, the “politique des auteurs”, a concept that distinguished the profound knowledge of the film director, and put forth an undebatable defence of his style—manifested through mise en scène—and his conception of cinema, unconcerned if some of his films did not reach an expected quality. For Truffaut the director par excellence was Alfred Hitchcock. As far as the French were concerned: Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati.
Can a critic make films?
With Robert Lachenay as producer/assistant and Jacques Rivette behind the camera, he made his first short film, silent and in black and white, entitled Une Visite (1955). Of the film he said, “In any case there was no plot, it was incomprehensible and unshowable.” Disappointed by the end result, he stored the film, which has only screened once (in 1982), much to his embarrassment.
In 1957 he made Les Mistons, based on the short story by Maurice Pons. Following good reviews, it won the prize for best director at the Festival du Film Mondial in Brussels. The director Jean Delannoy provided the only discordant note, understandable given that the children in the film destroy a poster of his film Chiens perdus sans collier (1955). It was a small gesture, but a very telling one: the new wave tearing down the old structures of traditional French cinema. However, Delannoy retaliated with the provocation that François had become engaged to Madeleine Morgenstern—daughter of the CEO of Cocinor, an important distribution company—in order to finance his films and even to help set up a production company of his own, Les Films du Carrosse. The couple were married in October 1957.
In 1958, whilst waiting to start filming an adaptation of the novel Temps chaud by Jacques Cousseau, in which the lead would be Bernadette Lafont, he made a short film shot in two days called Histoire d’eau. Godard helped with the editing and rewrote a great deal of the dialogue. Taking advantage of the floods in the south of Paris, Truffaut filmed a couple in a car, trying to overcome the blocked roads and the flooded fields whilst reflecting on love, the climate and literature. A serious injury to Bernadette postponed even longer the filming of the adaptation and Truffaut decided to throw himself into another adventure. He attended the Cannes Festival for the last time as a critic and officially left behind that activity. At his door beat four hundred blows.
A new wave crashes upon the beaches of French cinema
With funds from his father-in-law he ensured the financing of a new project, based on his experiences of childhood and adolescence. Les Quatre cents coups (The Four Hundred Blows) was born (‘faire les quatre cents coups’ is an expression that means ‘to make mischief’ or ‘to get into trouble’). To cast the lead role an advertisement in France-soir was taken out and a fourteen year old youth chosen. He was unstable and a bad student and his name was Jean-Pierre Leaud. Filming began during the morning of 10 November 1958 and that night—as fate would have it—André Bazin died of leukaemia. In April the following year, the film was selected to be shown at Cannes, where it would obtain the prize for best director.
With this triumph a new aesthetic was validated, a reformist and critical ‘new wave’. Pierre Billard used the term (derived from an article by Françoise Giroud published in L’Express the previous year) ‘new wave’ in a 1958 issue of Cinéma. However, it was only after the premiere of Les Quatre cents coups and Les Cousins (Claude Chabrol, 1959), that the media made extensive use of the expression nouvelle vague and made it fashionable as a symbol of rupture that went a great deal beyond a fleeting whim.
The generation of directors from the 1950s dedicated themselves to making films based on well written scripts, but which adhered to a formula that reduced everything to identical stylistic standards and narrative construction, a sort of ‘recipe for success’ already verified. The thematic focus was always positioned in the past; therefore these directors remained dependent on pre-existent literary works as well as the work of professional scriptwriters. For these directors the reconstruction of scenography and periodic detail was more important than the relevance that these stories had for the audience. Innovation and risk were the great absentees of mainstream French cinema of the 1950s. Nor was there space for small and independent productions.
Truffaut and the other Parisian directors who presented films at Cannes in 1959 were all very young. The following year, another 50 filmmakers screening their first film added to their ranks. All applied realism and the everyday to their aesthetic design, reinvigorating the cinematic form. They used hand held cameras, jump cut editing and amateur actors to make low budget films outside of the studio system, and experimented with the structure of cinematic language, beginning with an absolute freedom to choose the thematic content of their films.
The creators of the nouvelle vague and their contemporaries—Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy, Philippe De Broca, Agnès Varda and Jean Rouch—maintained that a film be considered, above all, as a film d’auteur, where the director asserted him or herself—creatively speaking—over and above any other person involved in the production. The nouvelle vague did not represent an ideologically structured vanguard, but a shock reaction, an almost morally palliative response to an extreme and intolerable situation. For the same reason their productions suffered from an erratic quality and there was no shortage of opportunists that masked their lack of talent with the nouvelle vague flag.
In this period Truffaut was, however, basking in the artistic and commercial success of Les Quatre cents coups, which permitted him to live a comfortable life with no economic necessity. Next, he looked to adapting a novel by David Goodis, Down There, published in the Gallimard hardboiled series as Shoot the Piano Player, a title that the future film (1960) would carry (Tirez sur le pianiste in French). Most important were the people who attached themselves to this production and who would become part of his permanent team, among them Suzanne Schiffman, who began as continuity supervisor and ended as assistant to the director; Georges Delerue, who would become his regular composer; and Raoul Coutard, whose cinematographic style would mark and define the visual aesthetic of the nouvelle vague.
The film premiered in Paris in November 1960, with little box office success, a failure that coincided with the misfortunes of Une Femme est une femme by Godard, Les Godelureaux by Chabrol and Lola by Demy. Paradoxically, the films by the directors attacked by the nouvelle vague were well received. Many journalists blamed the movement for the defection by audiences away from cinema at that moment, given that these films were considered too intellectual and boring. Critics also accused the movement of being empty.
So involved in his next films, Truffaut did not at all sense that the nouvelle vague was dying. Roger Vadim lodged a defamation trial against him because of an article in France-observateur, in which Truffaut complained of Vadim’s interference in a film by Jean Aurel, La Bride sur le cou (1961). The trial divided the movement, Truffaut lost and all were demoralised, marking an era of disbandment, magnified by irreparable stylistic and commercial rivalry. In 1967, a disappointed Truffaut would declared, “nowadays one must be as proud of having been and continuing to be part of the nouvelle vague, as of having been a Jew during the occupation”. Still, this bitterness did not enter into his films, which never lost sight of the main principles postulated by the movement: freedom, independence, and sensibility.
Antoine Doinel, or film in the first person
In a series of films scattered over twenty years, Truffaut constructed a character in the manner of his alter ego. Les Quatre cents coups, Antoine et Colette (1962), Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968), Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board, 1970), and L’Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979) were the films of the adventures of Antoine Doinel, played by the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud during various periods of his life. The director himself made it clear: “The fictional character Antoine Doinel is, therefore, a mixture of two real people, François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Leaud”.
The finalising of the script required collaboration with Marcel Moussy—scriptwriter for a television program—to avoid navel gazing and the settling of scores with real characters (such as his parents). Antoine appears for the first time in Les Quatre cents coups as a mischievous student, misunderstood by his parents. Many of the character’s misadventures were experienced by the director: upon abandoning his studies, Truffaut had to pay his way by selling billboard ‘catalogues’ of films being exhibited in the city, as well as promotional stills from cinemas that he stole at night with Lachenay. Also present in the film is the theft of the typewriter and the subsequent imprisonment which transformed Antoine into a juvenile delinquent.
Audiences saw Antoine a few years later in Antoine et Colette, a short film that forms part of a collective project called L’Amour à vingt ans (Love at Twenty). Here, Antoine works for a record company and falls immediately in love with Colette (Marie-France Pisier) at a concert, but the girl does not seem interested in him. Truffaut met Liliane Romano, his first love, at a summer camping ground. In Paris, despite his compliments, she did not wish to continue with him. Persistent, Antoine decides to rent an apartment in a building facing that of Colette’s parent’s own apartment, as Truffaut did some years later when he fell in love with Liliane Litvin, a young woman with whom he also became obsessed. In part because of his failure with Liliane and in part because of loneliness, Truffaut decided to enrol in the Army, where after deserting he was imprisoned until his release in 1952, having been submitted to endless humiliation. He would use one of these barrages of insults at the start of Baisers volés, when Antoine is dismissed from the Army.
At this point the character separated from Truffaut and began a life of his own: Antoine becomes a hotel porter, an undercover private detective, a television repair man and, lastly, a proofreader in a publishing house. Months before France was to be shaken by the events of May 1968, Truffaut had created a hero that seemed anachronistic, a romantic incapable of adapting to life or obtaining a stable job, but able to find love at last, incarnated in Christine (Claude Jade), a violinist whom he marries. Here they debut as parents—Alphonse is the name of their child—but Antoine still does not see himself in this paternal role.
In spite of personal and occupational differences, there is still much of Truffaut in this character, not only because of his love of women, but also because of direct references, such as having Antoine write a novel—“Love and Other Problems”—in which he ‘gets even’ with his parents, and also his divorce from his wife, as we see in L’Amour en fuite. Truffaut’s wife had obtained a divorce in 1965, so it was not difficult to suppose that Antoine and his spouse were going to experience something similar. In that film, a (happy) court appearance involving Antoine and Christine leads to a series of flashbacks that close the circular narrative, incorporating excerpts of all prior films, including the emergence of Colette as an adult attorney.
The last that we see of Antoine is him passionately kisisng his lover Sabine in a record store, interspersed with images of a happy moment from Les Quatre cents coups, when Antoine escapes to an amusement park and enters a ride that rotates at great velocity which pins him to its walls. In this same contraption that blends and disorientates, the camera captures a blur of bodies and the audience does not always know who is who. If we pay attention, however, we will see among these people, the director, pinned against the wall next to his young alter ego.
Of lost boys and men that don’t want to grow up
The Colombian film critic Luis Alberto Álvarez used to say of Truffaut, “all of his work is a search for a lost childhood.” The phrase is understood fully when we appreciate the way in which Truffaut fashioned Antoine. His alter ego, even as an adult, remained a child. Truffaut caricatured the character, making him unfaithful and easily falling in love and gave him a job testing model ships in a tank, as if playing.
Curiously, this same job is shared by lead characters in two later films, Bertrand in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women, 1977) and Bernard in La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door, 1981). It cannot be coincidental: the director instilled in his characters a lost childhood and the sense that adulthood must recuperate lost time. Therefore what these characters offer their partners is a childlike love, immature and provisional, prone to infidelity.
One of the common factors in Truffaut’s films is the permanent presence of childhood. Although children appear in all of his films, as we can see in Les Mistons, Les Quatre cents coups, Fahrenheit 451 (1965) or La Chambre verte (The Green Room, 1978); two films explicitly pay tribute to childhood, from very different but complementary perspectives. In one the purpose is didactic, in the other, to bear witness.
L’Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970) is a variation on the theme of the abandoned child, deprived of affection and human warmth. Of the film Truffaut remarked, “It’s a film that responds, ten years later, to Les Quatre cents coups. We have on the screen, as we have said before, someone who lacks something essential, but this time there are people who will try to help.” Truffaut plays Dr. Itard who is responsible for readapting Victor, a wild boy found in the forest, to society. The plot was derived from a book by Lucien Malson, Les Enfants sauvages: mythe et réalité, which analysed 52 cases of abandoned children who grew up alone. There is here enormous confidence in the educational process and in the possibility of redemption by exposure to culture, as occurred to Truffaut with his mentor Bazin and to Leaud with him.
The naturalism of this film contrasts with the school environment of L’Argent de poche (Small Change, 1976), a film made from the point of view of a group of students in the city of Thiers. Here Antoine’s awful teachers have been replaced by human beings with feelings, and with affection toward their students. A deep tenderness pervades this film, where children of all ages—from infancy to those on the cusp of adolescence—have an important role. One of them is maltreated by his relatives, which leads to a speech at the end by one of the teachers (a statement seemingly dictated directly by Truffaut) regarding the responsibility that adults have over children (and which could be expanded to the responsibility of the film director in the face of childhood). The last scene in (what was to be) his last film, Vivement dimanche! (Confidentially Yours, 1983), presents the feet of children in a church choir, kicking the lens filter of a photographic camera. There is naughtiness and profound happiness in this game, which communicates the contagious zest for life to be found in children.
Declaration of eternal love to books and to film
In Les Quatre cents coups, Antoine erects an altar to Balzac that almost starts a fire in his parents’ house. His love for the writer leads him to appropriate his style for a school assignment. However, the teacher does not see homage but plagiarism and admonishes him severely. Years later in La Peau douce (The Soft Skin, 1964), Balzac would be the subject of one of the conferences given by Pierre Lachenay, which allows him to meet his future lover.
The credits in Les Deux anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls, 1971) appear over the spine and text of the novel from which it originates. At its heart this film refers to written life; to newspapers, to collected memories, to letters where feelings choke and are soothed. Its characters seem to live in a literary rhythm, as if they knew their genesis and as if they anticipated that their life was going to be collected in words at the end of the film.
It was in another film, however, that Truffaut injected all of his love for books. Fahrenheit 451 speaks to us of a totalitarian society in the future where books are banned (and any found must be destroyed), as the credits of the film anticipate, being spoken not written. But civil disobedience is active: the rebels, unable to preserve a book, transform themselves into one. Each memorises a book and repeats it ceaselessly, they are people-books creating a new oral tradition that allows them to escape the regime and—like Truffaut—live in love of books.
If it is evident with books, it is more obvious still that all of Truffaut’s movies speak of cinema. The characters see cinema, read and discuss cinema, are cinema. In his cinematic world there is a street called Jean Vigo, an awning which refers to John Ford, a fireman whose dream resembles that of the lead character in Vertigo, a copy of Cahiers about to be burned in a futuristic literary pyre and it is even possible for Jacques Tati—as Monsieur Hulot—to make an appearance in Domicile conjugal. The art which transformed his life is the ultimate muse to all his output. La Nuite américaine (Day for Night, 1973) summarised all of this passion in one single film and what we see is the grateful existence of a man, an authentic declaration of faith in an art. Ferrand, the film director (played by Truffaut), is not directing a movie, he is diarising his own existence. The fictitious film project is called “Introducing Pamela” and the film proper is a nostalgic look behind the scenes of a shoot, as days pass in the making of a film. What is supposed to be made is not an ‘auteur’ film but a lowbrow commercial movie. Truffaut’s purpose was essentially anecdotal, not technical. The result is a story of the love of cinema, and it won an Oscar for best foreign film.
French film noir
In 1946, after the German occupation and the end of the war, American movies returned to France. Several of the Hitchcock thrillers formed part of this group and Truffaut instantly became an admirer of their style. A visit to the master took place in Los Angeles in 1962. Six days of interviews gave rise four years later to the book The Cinema According to Hitchcock, the clearest indication of loyalty and respect by Truffaut towards the work of the great English director.
Six movies honour this influence: Tirez sur le pianiste, La Mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black, 1967), La Siréne du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969), Une Belle fille comme moi (Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me, 1972) and Vivement dimanche!. The latter was his best thriller, an authentic French film noir, beautiful in its purpose and irregular in its results. In it Truffaut decided not to take himself too seriously and to make fun of himself and of the genre, paying tribute to Hitchcock at every turn: the lead character likes blondes, there is a dead man with a knife in his back which does not leave “a shadow of doubt” about the guilty party and, as in Rear Window (1954), the accused man is unable to move, locked in a basement, needing the help of a woman.
The problem with his thrillers is that the lead characters are much too sensitive, much too filled with reasons to succeed in criminal enterprise. A typically European melancholy stains his films noirs. As could be expected, the more rounded characters were female: Léna (Marie Dubois), Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau), Julie Roussel (Catherine Deneuve), Camille Bliss (Bernadette Lafont) and Barbara (Fanny Ardant). These women are extremely strong characters and even cruel on occasion, but always behave according to their own way of seeing and understanding the world. However, their creator was much too in love with these women to make them suffer or let them inflict suffering. He only thought to love them.
Passion, love and other problems
In L’Amour en fuite, a nostalgic Antoine remembers his mother: “she taught me that love is the only thing that matters.” Truffaut seemed set to become reconciled with a maternal image, but more importantly still, confessed the passion that fed him and that adorned his cinema. From the prostitutes of his youth to the most glamorous film stars within his reach, his fascination for female love had no limit. It is an attitude maintained by Arthur (Charles Denner) in Une Belle fille comme moi and by Alphonse (Leaud) in La Nuite américaine and it is his voice reflected in the character of Plyne (Serge Davri) in Tirez sur le pianiste: “Woman is pure, delicate, fragile. Women are marvellous, women are supreme. For me women were always supreme”. He fell madly in love with nearly all of his actresses. It was his obsession to have them by his side, without caring about marital status or commitments. He was truly a man that loved all women and such enchantment contributed to the splendid female portraits in his films and to show us the complex spectrum of passionate love.
Jules et Jim (1962), an adaptation of a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché which he had read years earlier, is an ideal film to show us the no strings attached and unpredictable woman that he admired so much. Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) has a vitality that drags two friends into a whirlwind that only death will be able to resolve. Another love triangle, but with a change of gender, is articulated in Les Deux anglaises et le continent, also based on a novel by Roche. The focus of attention is this time a man—Claude (Leaud)—whose presence perturbs two English sisters, Anne and Muriel. The director tries to show us here the different phases that a romantic relationship endures as people mature: at the beginning the adolescent platonic love between Claude and Muriel, later the adult physical love between Claude and Anne. Between these two extremes Truffaut depicted the transitory nature of casual partners that serve to instruct, as well as adultery and self-pleasuring. Death will also play its hand to end this affective conflict.
Truffaut identified passionate love with insanity, with the incapacity to think with clarity when faced by the object of our affection. And what is more curious, he saw this passion as an excess that must be punished, generally by death, as we observe even in Les Mistons. His idea of marriage is no more diaphanous, generally teaming it with boredom that justifies the extramarital adventures. There is marital tedium in Les Quatre cents coups, in Tirez sur le pianiste, in La Peau douce, in La Femme d’à côté. Marriage as an institution leads to sorrow in La Mariée était en noir and to degradation and deceit in La Sirène du Mississippi.
La Peau douce is the most physical of his passionate stories, the one that most delights in the body of the desired and, of course, forbidden woman. She is Nicole (Françoise Dorleac), a flight attendant seduced by an older man, Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), a married writer who literally goes crazy for this beauty. Their furtive encounter in a boarding house is one of the most sensual moments of his cinema, emotionally reminiscent of Les Amants (1958) by Louis Malle. In Truffaut’s stories there is generally a strong and earthy woman set against a man with childlike traits and in La Peau douce it is Franca, Pierre’s wife, who will deliver justice at the end and punish his adultery.
But if one is exploring amour fou carried to the extreme, there are two definitive films: L’Histoire d’Adèle H. (The Story of Adèle H., 1975) and La Femme d’à côté. The first is based around Adele, Victor Hugo’s daughter, who fled to Halifax in 1863, obsessed with Albert, an Army officer. Lovestruck in her madness, she invents a fictitious world, inhabited each time by bigger lies. Truffaut cared dearly about Adele’s character and one can hear his voice in some of Adele’s dialogue, for example in the line, “I was born of an unknown father”. We recognise the autobiographical construction of this character who will suffer the same fate as all those in his cinema that dare to love. This will also occur to the lovers in La Femme d’à côté, where Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) and Mathilde (Fanny Ardant, Truffaut’s second wife) are ex-partners reunited by fate as neighbours. Passion returns to inflame them, falling into the fire they burn without hope. There is something pathetic in their disturbing need to see each other, in their inability to separate despite not having anything in their favour and knowing that they are condemned.
And when death comes…
Maurice Jaubert, the composer who wrote the soundtrack to L’Histoire d’Adèle H., could not attend the film premiere. This was not due to any previous commitment, but to the fact that Jaubert had been deceased for 35 years. The second world war had taken him, defending France on the battlefield. In his short life he had written music for major films such as L´Atalante (1934) by Jean Vigo. Truffaut was not willing to let his musical legacy be forgotten and employed his compositions in L’Argent de poche, L’Homme qui aimait les femmes and, of course, La Chambre verte. In the latter, there is a photo of Maurice Jaubert in the room full of photos, candles and memories where “the dead can keep on living” according to Julien, writer of obituaries in a newspaper who declares himself only “a spectator of life”.
Truffaut himself played the character of Julien in this film, his explicit and mature homage to obsessive love, but this time directed towards death (which he so often referred to in his cinema) which helped him administer justice, to leave everything in its right place. In August of 1983, Truffaut felt as if “a firecracker had exploded in my head”. In fact he was suffering from a malignant tumour, a cerebral glioma. With periods of strength and high spirits, mixed with moments of hopelessness and pain, Truffaut faced the last months of his life surrounded by family and friends. On 21 October, 1984, his earthly life ended forever. François Truffaut had died at 52 years of age.
But artists like Truffaut endure in the memory of those that love them and those that, without knowing them, admire them. For this reason when a film touches our soul, when it speaks to our heart in a whisper and gives us answers, let it be a happy opportunity to remember that once a man existed, over there in France, that constructed a world from cinema and knew how to decorate it—and here is the secret—with his entire soul.
This article was published originally in Spanish in an extended version in Revista Universidad de Antioquia No. 269 (Medellín, Colombia, July–September 2002).
YOU CAN WATCH THIS: François Truffaut Movies