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).

The Letters begin in 1945 and continue to the year of Truffaut’s death. He has some regular correspondents and confidants – Robert Lachenay, his school friend, Helen Scott, who worked with him on the Hitchcock book, Annette Insdorf, who wrote a book about him – but also writes to friends at the Cahiers, to actors with whom he is working, to journalists requesting information, people who send him scripts, offer him awards, so we see all the small change of fame. We get a clear picture of the quickness of Truffaut’s mind, and of his energy. There is, perhaps predictably, given his restlessness and his unsettled early life, very little introspection, and almost no invitaton into his private world, only the faintest of indications of a broken marriage, hints at love affairs.

There are eloquent moments when he thinks about loss – ‘There have been many, too many, deaths around me, of people I’ve loved’ – and his correspondents (and by implication others) obviously cared a lot about him. Apart from the constant listings of films seen, there isn’t all that much talk about films here, almost none of the exchanges with or comments on other directors we might expect. There is one famous exception, which I’ll return to. Truffaut does write enthusiastically about Zazie to Louis Malle; tells a colleague at the Cahiers what he ought to think about André Cayatte’s An Eye for an Eye (1957). ‘With Oeil pour Oeil André Cayatte and Curd Jürgens extend the frontiers of the grotesque on the screen ... Fernandel is paid fifty million francs a film and it’s only proper that Curd Jürgens should receive twice as much since he’s twice as funny.’ I must say I feel suitably rebuked. I thought An Eye for an Eye, a revenge movie set in North Africa, terrific when I saw it around 1960, and remember it as one of those films I’d love to see again. I haven’t seen it again, though, and would guess the young Truffaut was right about its exaggerations, the overloading of its signals to the audience. I hoped for rather more of this sort of stuff in the Letters.

It is absurd to say, as Gilles Jacob, the editor of this volume, does, that Truffaut ‘was undoubtedly one of the last of the great letter writers’. But the Letters do offer an interesting picture of a life in films, and they do allow us to ask some useful questions about Truffaut’s films, and about the New Wave.

In Day for Night (1973), an amiable but low-powered work, Truffaut plays a movie director who much resembles Truffaut. Trying to persuade an actor not to leave a film in progress because of his personal problems, Truffaut says everyone has personal problems, but ‘films are more harmonious than life, there are no traffic jams in films, there is no dead time. Films move like trains, like trains in the night.’ Il n’y pas de temps mort. Truffaut is paraphrasing Hitchcock who (in the book he did with Truffaut) called his films slices of cake rather than slices of life, and said drama was ‘life with the dull bits cut out’. Of course the fictional director is wrong in a serious sense, and so was Hitchcock. Making films is not more harmonious than life, it’s a frantic mess, and the mess is what Day for Night is about. More, making films is life, a job like any other. Even so, Truffaut is offering a sort of declaration of faith. A finished film converts dead or wasted moments into rhythms of excitement, or it cuts them out; it edits existence into a model of live time, temps retrouvé.

Truffaut knows that this is a complicated project, and that Hitchcock’s cake can be a weird diet. He says in one of these letters that his chief inspiration in Day for Night was Singin’ in the Rain, a musical about musicals, so he was not being naive about the translation of problems into films, or weather into song. ‘Day for night’ is itself a technical movie term – the French phrase is la nuit américaine – which refers to night scenes shot in daylight, with the use of a filter. Movie magic, an inversion of nature.

Still, there is magic and magic. In a letter of 1974 Truffaut says that the subject of Day for Night is ‘quite simply, my own reason for living’. And in his book Les Films de Ma Vie (1975) he speaks of the joy and the anguish of making movies as if there were little else in life. He is talking like his own film, and perhaps he really is afraid of dead time, the time off the screen; more afraid than he used to be, or further from the threat of actually having to get through such time without assistance, without a film. It’s not that the later movies aren’t well-made, consistently intelligent and generous, but they lack the freshness, the barely-managed nervousness of the early ones. They are keen to be movies and nothing but movies. Jules and Jim, for example, was both raw and stylish, a rare combination; you felt the grace and the ruin of the characters Truffaut was depicting. He seems to have understood this, but in reverse, so to speak, as an effect to be avoided. He writes in 1961, before the film is even released, of ‘the frightful melancholy’ of Jules and Jim, and he’s right. But it is a light melancholy, a distanced, even an amusing melancholy. This film has no dead time, but it is close to death. It moves not like a train in the night, but like a bicycle in the country, or an elegant old car. Losing this melancholy, he seems to have lost his way.

It’s not that he began to bow to commercial considerations – his biggest commercial success was for a long time Les 400 Coups, overtaken only by The Last Metro in 1980. One of the high points of this collection of letters is Truffaut’s long and dignified answer to Jean-Louis Bory, a novelist and film critic who had suggested that ‘Truffaut, Chabrol, Demy and Rohmer have sold out to the system.’ The letter is a miniature autobiography, and makes clear that Truffaut’s independence as a filmmaker was hard-won and continuing, that the only ‘system’ he served was that of getting particular movies made and distributed – just as a writer sells a book to a publisher. Truffaut ends with an eloquent description of the lonely but ultimately successful career of Eric Rohmer (‘His success is as well deserved as that of Ingmar Bergman, I hope you agree’), and the wish that Bory will not turn out to be ‘one of those snobs who are capable of admiring a work of art only when it has been rejected by the general public’. The point is well made, but of course one could remain financially independent and still fail to ask the hard questions: and this is what Jean-Luc Godard seems to be saying in a muddled and nasty letter which signals the end of his friendship with Truffaut – signals only, since there seem to have been several other causes, barely hinted at in this collection.

Picking up the image of films as trains in Day for Night, Godard asks: ‘who takes the train, in what class, and who is driving it with an “informer” from the management standing at his side? ... No one prevents you from taking the train, but you prevent others.’ This is in part a rehearsal of Bory’s accusation and Godard can’t have it both ways: if it would be acceptable for ‘others’ (namely, Godard) to take the train, why shouldn’t Truffaut take it if he can? The person who gets a job doesn’t ‘prevent’ others from getting it – he/she just gets it. But leaving aside the ugly insinuation of informing, Godard is right about the questions we need to ask about such trains, and right to suggest that Truffaut doesn’t ask them. Day for Night seems to reveal a great deal about movie-making, but in fact reveals mainly glamour and soap-opera distress, while concealing large amounts of squalor and self-serving. Like Singin’ in the Rain, we might say, and Truffaut retorts that Godard’s films don’t tell the whole truth either, that he is merely a specialist in looking clean: ‘That’s always been one of your gifts, setting yourself up as the eternal victim ... Yes, decidedly, they say, Godard is Godard, he’ll never change.’ The letter convincingly relates various ignoble feats of Godard’s (leaping on unsuspecting actresses, intimidating people who work for him, calling a producer a filthy Jew) and concludes: ‘I’ve always had the impression that real militants are like cleaning women, doing a thankless, daily but necessary job. But you, you’re the Ursula Andress of militancy.’

It’s clear from the ferocity of this quarrel that deep and ancient divisions are being addressed, but it is possible to disentangle a critical point – much the same point as came up between Truffaut and Bory. It’s true that Godard’s films are also made with money, and have their own concealments, their own ways of getting rid of dead or unwanted time. True, too, that there has always been an element of the poseur in Godard, a tendency to talk (and to direct) as if he were a parody of a French director. He does it again here, in the generous if woolly Foreword he contributes to Truffaut’s Letters. He remembers being delighted by the choice of Les 400 Coups to represent France at Cannes in 1959, ‘as pleased as Athos was by one of D’Artagnan’s exploits’. He evokes their shared passion for movies, regrets their quarrel (without offering any clarification), and ends: “François is perhaps dead. I am perhaps alive. But then, is there a difference?’ This is Ursula Andress trying to sound like Montaigne. The use of ‘perhaps’ is exquisitely phony.

Godard’s films do, however, ask questions which Truffaut’s don’t, leave spaces and silences which Truffaut’s better-made works tend to close up. It’s day for night in Godard as in Truffaut, and metaphorically so in all filmmakers: but in Godard we continue to see the transition, the shift, the camera confesses the filter. Or to put that another way, keeping the comparison within Truffaut’s own works, we might say that the gags of Shoot the pianist, certain camera movements in Les 400 Coups, the voice-over in Jules and Jim reveal more about the movies than the apparent revelations in Day for Night.

And the New Wave? It’s tempting to compare its directors to the American movie brats of a decade later. Both groups were cinema addicts, went to the movies the way others take pills, both groups littered their films with quotations, followed Orson Welles in thinking of movies as train sets. But the French group were film critics where the Americans were film students – with some exceptions: Louis Malle went to film school and Eric Rohmer taught at one – and they had grown up during the German Occupation rather than on Kennedy’s New Frontier. None of the French made, or could have made, anything like Star Wars or The Godfather, although they could perhaps have looked towards the equivalent of Mean Streets or Raging Bull. Perhaps. Scorsese is trickier and, where the spectator is concerned, more domineering, more a montage man, than any disciple of Bazin could want to be.

Arlene Croce put it well when she spoke in 1960 of the ‘ambiguity cherished among New Wave directors’. By ‘ambiguity’ she meant a ‘deliberate withholding of explicit comment’, as in several of Godard’s movies, where the camera merely interviews its subjects, or in Les 400 Coups, where an unseen psychologist talks to the delinquent boy, and we just watch and hear his reactions. ‘Revelation,’ Croce says, ‘is a matter of the direct perception of what people say and do, and what is revealed to you is your own feeling about the words and deeds of others.’ In the light of the controversy about the trains in the night we have to think again about ‘direct perception’, but it is obviously possible for movies to leave relative degrees of liberty to the spectator; and helpful to see that New Wave movies left a lot. They left it in quite different ways, of course: Godard’s speed and seeming casualness in Breathless (1960) have little in common with Resnais’s slow enigmas in Last Year at Marienbad (1961); and neither of those films is much like Jules and Jim. But a certain trust in the audience is common to all three, a willingness simply to let the audience watch the (however artfully) photographed world. Truffaut, in a late letter, has a last go at defining the New Wave: ‘The revolt, to use a very grand word, of Cahiers du Cinéma was more moral than aesthetic. What we were arguing for was an equality of observation on the part of the artist vis-à-vis his characters instead of a distribution of sympathy and antipathy which in most cases betrayed the servility of artists with regard to the stars of their films and, on the other hand, their demagoguery with regard to the public.’ That is awkwardly put, but the ingredients of the claim are interesting. Earlier films – and we might add many films made since, in France and elsewhere – had a vested interest in cliché, in stock characters and stock responses. It’s true that there is also life in clichés, but that life is only available if the clichés are used, not merely trotted out or bowed down to. Clichés are more harmonious than life. They move like trains in the night. The New Wave changed the tracks of at least some clichés, switched them in the dark and sent them off to alternative destinations in the morning.