Who takes the train?

Michael Wood

Truffaut called Hitchcock an ‘artist of anxiety’. Truffaut was himself anxious enough, and a great admirer of Hitchcock, but his own best films are a mixture of lightness and weight, as Kundera might say, of gaiety and distress; plenty of pain, tragedy even, but nothing as taut, as possessive as anxiety. Truffaut was the artist of a particular kind of restlessness: the wonderful restlessness of his early films – Les 400 Coups (1959), Shoot the pianist (1960), Jules and Jim (1962).

He knew he was restless. He jokingly remarks in one of these letters that he is going to take tap-dancing lessons – ‘not to launch a new career à la Fred Astaire but because I’m not relaxed enough and too fidgety’. What he seems not to have known, after those first films, was how to turn those fidgets into art. Or did he turn them too thoroughly into art, smooth them away, lose the friction he had found on the borders of art and life?

Truffaut was born in 1932 and died, of a brain tumour, in 1984. ‘Film criticism,’ he says in the last letter printed here, from early 1984, ‘was twenty years ahead of conventional medicine’ since it was sure Shoot the pianist ‘could only have been made by someone whose brain wasn’t functioning normally’. There is courage in such a gag. The story that emerges from these letters, well translated, admirably annotated, is that of a strange success and sudden ending: the drop-out became a prince and then died early. Was the prince happy? That’s harder to say. He got most of what we wanted, and he often speaks happily of his daughters, seems with them to have reversed his own unloved childhood. Was he unloved? Well, he was certainly left to his own devices. He was something of a delinquent, and when he ran away from home ended up in a reformatory, a so-called observation centre at Villejuif. He loved books and movies, though, and the earliest letters collected here show his splendid scrambling appetite for them. He’s received the Balzac, he tells his friend; he’s been to see A Thousand and One Nights. ‘It’s better than The Thief of Bagdad.’ He reads Graham Greene, offers his young literary judgments. Proust and Balzac are the ‘2 greatest novelists in the French language’; Daudet shows ‘a mixture of glibness and sometimes vulgarity yet there’s talent there.’ Much later, turning down a proposal for a film of Proust’s Swann in Love, Truffaut says ‘only a butcher would be prepared to film the Verdurin salon,’ and remarks that the producer seems already to have found ‘just such a butcher’ in René Clément. After the reformatory he worked as a journalist for Elle and La Gazette du Cinéma, then capriciously enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany, a Jim who became a Jules. He went absent without leave, was imprisoned. He was released after considerable negotiations, thanks largely to the efforts of André Bazin, the film critic and theorist, and a leading influence at the Cahiers du Cinéma. He became one of a group of young critics at the Cahiers, busily tearing apart the old French cinema, promoting Welles and Hitchcock; worked as Rossellini’s assistant, and plotted his first movie.

After the first three films, he experienced a sense of sterility and disarray, took to seeing two or three Hitchcock movies a week (‘There’s no doubt at all, he’s the greatest, the most complete, the most illuminating, the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most experimental and the luckiest; he’s been touched by a kind of grace’), and devoted four years of his life to putting together his book of interviews with the master. It is a splendid book, but for Truffaut it seemed to be taking the place of something he had lost. He kept making movies meanwhile – The Soft Skin (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966) – yet it’s hard to believe Hitchcock’s influence was good for him. Lacking the master’s malevolence, Truffaut admired his professionalism and frivolity. More films followed; among them, The bride wore black (1967), Stolen Kisses (1968), The Wild Child (1969), The Story of Adèle H (1975), The Green Room (1978), Finally Sunday (1983).

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