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.

Why then the anxiety? Renoir’s assurance disarmed doubts. With very rare exceptions, the human content of his pictures matched their virtuosily: we knew that behind the camera, relaxed but alert, was a wise, genial man. The lightest gossamer of, say, Une Partie de Campagne was alive with considerable feeling. In Truffaut’s case, we’re not always so sure. His masterpieces – Les Quatre Cent Coups, Jules et Jim. L’Histoire d’Adele H – are beyond dispute: but even films as moving as L’Enfant Sauvage or as attractive as La Nuit Americaine leave awkward questions unanswered. Truffaut plays the teacher in one, and the film director in the other: but how far is he distanced from his roles? Does he really endorse the wild boy’s savage education? Still more to the point, is he really so bewitched by the mechanics of film-making as to mistake form for content, and sacrifice ends to means?

Truffaut revels in the film medium like a potter squelchily kneading clay. As a child, he played truant to go to the cinema; at 15, he founded a film club called Le Cercle Cinemane. Later, rescued from a reformatory by André Bazin, he wrote about half a million words of movie criticism for various magazines, notably Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinema. The Films in My Life is his own selection from that orgy of reviewing, plus some later pieces; and like many of his own films it shows signs of tension between mature concern for content and a youthful fascination by form.

In 1954, aged 22, Truffaut was proclaiming ‘each genre is heroic’ – meaning ‘Westerns, thrillers, sophisticated comedies’. Discussing Howard Hawks Scarface, he was agog at Boris Karloff’s death:

He squats down to throw a ball in a game of ninepins and doesn’t get up; a rifle shot prostrates him. The camera follows the ball he’s thrown as it knocks down all the pins except One that keeps spinning until it finally falls over, the exact symbol of Karloff himself, the last surviyor of a rival gang that’s been wiped out by Mum. This isn’t literature. It may be dance of poetry. It is certainly cinema.

In 1955, be was similarly overpraising Joseph Mankiewicz; five years later, he was ‘both admiring and jealous’ of ... Samuel Fuller.

Some of this excitement was due to the war time absence of American movies; afterwards, they burst on France as French, Italian and Swedish films burst on Britain. Truffaut devotes long sections of the book to his American heroes – including not only Lubitsch, Hawks, Hitchcock and Orson Welles, but also Robert, Aldrich, Frank Tashlin, Robert Wise and Nicholas Ray. Characteristically, his best remarks about them home in on technique. ‘Hitchcock’s mastery of the are grows greater with each film and he constantly needs to invent new difficulties for himself. He has become the ultimate athlete of cinema.’ The talent of Elia Kazan ‘is essentially of a decorative nature’. ‘The cowboys in Johnny Guitar, ridiculously, call each other “Monsieur” in the dubbed French version, which is superior for once to the subtitled version because it lets us see the film’s theatricality better.’ Citizen Kane ‘was the first, in fact the only great film that uses radio techniques’; its ‘deep focus’ photography made it ‘resemble the form of American comics in which fantasy allows the artist to draw one character close up, behind him at full length the person who’s talking to him, and at the back ten characters with the designs on their lies as clear as the wart on the nose of the character in close-up ... It gives the film a stylisation, an idealisation of visual effects that had not been attempted since Murnau’s films The Last Laugh and Sunrise.

But if Truffaut’s bedazzlement by American films sometimes blinded him to kitsch, time and experience made him more demanding. In 1963 he acknowledged what he had learnt from three years’ work as an assistant to Rossellini: ‘His severity, his seriousness, his thoughtfulness freed me from some of the complacent enthusiasm I’d felt for American movies.’ And already in 1958 he had conceded:

If you are irritated by the extravagant admiration of younger movie lovers for the American cinema, remember that some of the best Hollywood films have been made by the Englishman Hitchcock, the Greek Kazan, the Dane Sirk, the Hungarian Benedek, the Italian Capra, the Russian Milestone, and the Viennese directors Preminger, Ulmer, Zinnemann, Wilder, Sternberg, and Fritz Lang.

The ‘Ulmer’ in that list, in case you’re wondering, is Edgar Ulmer, a review of whose film The Naked Dawn Truffaut reprints here – partly because in it he first suggested making a movie from a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. As a result, Roché wrote to him. Then, as Truffaut says, ‘I went to meet him, and the rest of the story is well-known.’ The novel was Jules et Jim.

There are several such personal disclosures in Truffaut’s book. He writes sympathetically of Chaplin’s appalling childhood and of ‘the terror of being picked up by the police’ – as he was himself, shopped by his own father. In a review of Otto e mezzo, he foreshadows La Nuit Americaine:

If you believe Fellini, a director is first of all a man whom everybody bothers, morning, noon, and night. They ask him questions he either doesn’t know how to answer or doesn’t want to answer. His head is reeling with a thousand conflicting ideas, impressions, feelings, and budding desires, and yet everybody is demanding certainties, precise names, exact figures, places, and schedules from him.

Writing of James Dean, he hints perhaps at Jean-Pierre Léaud:

When you have the good luck to write for an actor of this sort, an actor who plays his part physically, carnally, instead of filtering everything through his brain, the easiest way to get good results is to think abstractly. Think of it this way: James Dean is a cat, a lion, or maybe a squirrel. What can cats, lions, or squirrels do that is most unlike humans?

What animal is Jean-Pierre Léaud? A wistful emu? Later in the same piece, Truffaul evokes ‘the adolescent’s eternal taste for experience, intoxication, pride, and the sorrow of feeling “outside”, a simultaneous desire and refusal to be integrated into society, and finally acceptance and rejection of the world, such as it is’.

These very human concerns emerge most clearly when Truffaut writes about European films. At one time, as he says, ‘I had the reputation of being the “demolisher of French cinema”.’ So, ‘in order not to disappoint those who like negative reviews, I kept a few ... that seemed well thought through: Monsieur Ripois, Le Ballon Rouge, Arsène Lupin – though today I prefer the articles that are full of praise.’ Arsène Lupin, by his friend Jacques Becker, he describes as ‘a bottle of mineral water; it refreshes and sparkles, it’s true, but we’d have preferred champagne’ On Monsieur Ripois, he shows precisely how René Clement turned Louis Hémon’s sharp and moving novel into mere ironic comedy; and he has no mercy for the sentimentality of Albert Lamorisse’s Le Ballon Rouge – ‘like a film of Minou Drouet made for Marie-Chantal’:

Truffaut has his blind spots. His low opinion of René Clément, although justified by later films, makes him underrate La Bataille du Rail and Jeux Interdits. He is similarly hard on Claude Autant-Lara, André Cayatte, and the screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The arrangement of his book, too, seems rather wayward, beginning with his heroes from all over, continuing with American and then French ‘talkies’, glancing at a few Japanese and at so-called ‘outsiders’ who include Bergman, Fellini and Welles, then concluding with ‘My Friends in the New Wave’. Although all the pieces bear dates, he might have usefully put them in chronological order. Finally, the translator has made some bad mistakes He attributes Touchez pas au grisbi to Simenon instead of Albert Simonin; he speaks of Bourvil as if he were not an actor, but a character in La Traversée de Paris – and the one played by Jean Gabin, at that; he confuses the Chaplin-Griffith-Pickford-Fairbanks United Artists with ‘Allied Artists’, a subsidiary of Monogram set up in 1946; he misquotes Dr Johnson; and he gives the wrong title for Du Rififi chez les hommes.

Anyone who cares for cinema, nevertheless, will treasure this book. What it reveals, essentially, is how Truffaut has learned – partly from his heroes – that virtuosity is not enough. In 1955, saluting Max Ophuls, he wrote: ‘Lola Montès is presented like a box of chocolates given to us as a Christmas present; but when the cover is removed, it comes out as a poem worth an untold fortune.’ More and more, as time goes on, Truffaut undoes the gift-wrapping. ‘I sometimes wonder,’ he wrote in 1971, ‘whether Ingmar Bergman really finds life as hopeless as his films of the past decade would indicate.’ ‘Buñuel,’ he added, ‘is a cheerful pessimist, not given to despair, but he has a sceptical mind. Notice, he never makes films for, always against.’ ‘As I watch certain films,’ he confessed three years later, ‘I am shocked by a kind of artificial political layer on the surface which I sometimes feel has become as obligatory as the shot of the inside of the automobile through the windshield ... What you get is a computer film – what André Bazin called cybernetic cinema.’ For Truffaut, as he puts it, ‘men are more important than what they do.’

When a man makes himself ridiculous by his stubborn insistence on striking a certain pompous pose, whether he is a politician or a megalomaniac artist, we say that he has lost sight of the bawling baby he was in his crib and the groaning wreck he will be on his deathbed. It is clear that the cinematographic work of Jean Renoir never loses sight of this naked man, never loses sight of man himself.

On the evidence of this book, as of his best recent films, we can now read ‘and Françcois Truffaut’ in that sentence alongside ‘Jean Renoir’.