Traffaut’s Heroes

Richard Mayne

Why do we feel protective about François Truffaut? No one else in the old New Wave brings out the parent in us. Godard we either hate or admire, a disturbing influence gone solitary. Rivette and Resnais remain austere masters, full of mystification. Rohmer makes beautiful reflective films behind glass. Malle and Chabrol can take care of themselves. Vadim had it coming to him. But Truffaut! With each fresh film we hold our breath as at the school sports. Will he make it? Will he do himself justice? Sotto voice, will he let us down?

It’s not just because, like Kingsley Amis, he turns his hand to so many genres. True, Fahrenheit 451 seemed to prove that Science Fiction was outside his range: but there may have been personal strains on Truffaut then – including that of filming in England, with uneasy backing and a perhaps too-pat idea. Tirez sur le pianiste, his second full-length feature, had actually been enrichedby mixing slapstick, melodrama, romance and tragedy, whatever some reviewers wrote at the time. And although La Chambre Verte (1978), at last to be seen in Britain, is a disconcerting venture into territory somewhere between Henry James, Jouhandeau and Hammer Films, I find it less of a disappointment than Truffaut’s far more orthodox trifle, L’Homme qui aimait les femmes.

Are we nervous for Truffaut because he charms us? His first ‘big’ film (it in fact had a small budget, was in black-and-white, and ran for 94 minutes) was Les Quatre Cent Coups, about his thwarted childhood. The stubborn, hurt, exploring eyes of Jean-Pierre Léaud as ‘Antoine Doinel’, Truffaut’s alter ego, enlist us from the start in his rebellion. But then Truffaut takes an enormous risk. He makes four more films about ‘Doinel’, still using Léaud; and the appealing tough kid from a miserable background turns into a brooding, diffident, egotistical, elusive young man with a good profile, a honking adolescent’s voice not unlike Truffaut’s, and a succession of delicious girls. So, for some of us at least, the charm wears thin – or rather, it changes its nature. ‘Scapegrace’ may still be the word: as a young man, ‘Doinel’ has an innocent selfish-ness to match his childhood need to lie and play truant. But now, if he gets away with it, there’s irritation in our response as well as pity. He can’t go through life, surely, without growing up. Perhaps that’s why Truffaut seems to have concluded the series with L’Amour en fuite. The alter ego has become more alter than ego: edging towards 50, Truffaut is more his own man.

So it’no longer – if it ever was – the wistful appeal of Doinel/Léaud that makes us anxious for Truffaut, The semi-autobiography in his films is itself a form of disguise. We feel close to him, yet baffled; and what draws us towards him is not his life, which he keeps rather private, but the personal quality of his work. Of all living directors, in fact, he most nearly resembles and rivals his master Jean Renoir.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in