Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]

By Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana
Translated by Catherine Temerson
Knopf, 1999

Reviewed by Bob Wake

French film director François Truffaut died from a brain tumor in 1984 at the all-too-early age of 52. His legacy is substantial: 21 feature films; published collections of correspondence, film reviews, and screenplays; and an influential 1967 book based on interviews he conducted with director Alfred Hitchcock. Truffaut's career as a journalist began when he was still in his teens. He was directing movies by his mid-twenties. It comes as no surprise that his biography is a rich 462 pages in length. Written by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana -- editors of Cahiers du Cinéma, the famed French film journal where Truffaut made a name for himself in the 1950s -- Truffaut was published originally in France in 1996 and has finally appeared here in a 1999 U.S. edition. Catherine Temerson's translation was worth the three-year wait, for she has rendered a complex and detailed text into lively, lucid, and always readable English prose. The authors had access to an enormous archive of personal files containing letters, private journals, film scripts, and memorabilia stretching back to the director's childhood. Truffaut once characterized himself as a "self-hating autodidact," and there is no question that his life was minutely annotated by his own hand beginning at an unusually early age. As a youngster, he began compiling voluminous clipping-files of articles on his favorite films and directors. Anyone who has seen the 1992 documentary François Truffaut: Stolen Portraits (co-directed by Serge Toubiana) will recall the amazing sight of Truffaut's office, the bookshelves lined with hundreds of carefully labeled files which he placed in meticulous order during the final year of his life when he knew he was dying. At the time of his death, he was at work on an autobiography that was never to be completed, titled The Screenplay of My Life.

Truffaut's much-admired first feature-length film, The 400 Blows (1959), remains his most literal in terms of its autobiographical content. Antoine Doinel, played indelibly by 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, is a troublemaker at school, a colorful liar, a truant, and a petty thief. He is also the product of a chaotic Paris home life with an uncaring mother of adulterous passions and a passive-aggressive stepfather. This outline is faithful to the director's life. Doinel offhandedly reveals what is perhaps the most significant true-life corollary during the famous interview scene with his boarding school psychiatrist: he was raised by his maternal grandparents until he was ten years old. When his grandmother died, his mother and stepfather reluctantly brought him into their home. The melancholy and aloof self-reliance of an unwanted child were qualities that forever left their imprint. Twelve-year-old Truffaut, unaware that his stepfather Roland Truffaut was not his real father, discovered the truth one afternoon while reading through his stepfather's journals. Years later, in 1968, Truffaut hired a private detective to locate his biological father, who turned out to be a Jewish dental surgeon living in the town of Belfort in eastern France. Although he made the trip to Belfort and even staked out his father's house and watched the man leave for work one morning, Truffaut chose not to make contact with him.

If François Truffaut's adult career as a renowned filmmaker follows a certain predictable pattern of artistic triumphs and failures, it is the early years of his life, and his movie-obsessed teens, that are the more engrossing to read about in de Baecque and Toubiana's biography. Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, Truffaut saw hundreds of films, and he came to know many of them by heart, such as Welles's Citizen Kane and Renoir's Rules of the Game. At sixteen, he went seriously in debt attempting to start a film club, which involved renting a movie theater and contacting studio representatives and convincing them to loan him films on credit. So incensed was Truffaut's stepfather by the financial losses his son incurred with this enterprise, that he arranged to have the boy thrown in jail and then given a three-month stay in a juvenile detention center. By seventeen, Truffaut was in a strict religious boarding school in Versailles (from which he would soon be expelled as a disruptive influence). The following autobiographical self-analysis was composed for a classroom writing assignment at the time:
My life, or rather my slice of life to this day, has been banal to the utmost. I was born on February 6, 1932; today is March 21, 1949, therefore I am seventeen years 1 month and 15 days old. I've eaten almost every day and slept almost every night; I think I've worked too much and haven't had very many satisfactions or joys. My Christmases and birthdays have all been ordinary and disappointing. I had no particular feelings about the war or the morons who took part in it. I like the Arts and particularly the movies; I consider that work is a necessary evil like excreting, and that any person who likes his work doesn't know how to live. I don't like adventures and have avoided them. Three films a day, three books a week and records of great music would be enough to make me happy to the day I die, which will surely occur one day soon and which I egoistically dread. My parents are no more than human beings to me; it is mere chance that they happen to be my father and mother, which is why they mean no more to me than strangers. I don't believe in friendship, and I don't believe in peace either. I try to stay out of trouble, far from anything that causes too much of a stir. For me, politics is merely a flourishing industry and politicians intelligent crooks. This sums up my adventure; it is neither gay nor sad; it is life. I don't gaze at the sky for long, for when I look back down again the world seems horrid to me (1).

Almost a manifesto, this youthful essay says much about the man that Truffaut would grow into: a pugnacious aesthete embracing film, literature, and music, reactionary in his politics, passionate in mood and feeling, incurably romantic and idealistic, while at the same time a sardonic and dispassionate realist. Here, fully developed at seventeen, are the contradictions and enthusiasms that would imbue his life and films.

By eighteen, Truffaut was making a comfortable salary as a society reporter and photographer for Elle magazine and contributing film reviews and articles to journals like Ciné-Digest. His credentials as a journalist gained him access to filmmakers in the French movie industry. He met and interviewed director Robert Bresson on location while the final scenes for Diary of a Country Priest were being filmed. Nevertheless, exciting as his world had become, it was also during this period that Truffaut attempted suicide for the first time by administering 25 razor slashes to his right arm. He was depressed and despondent over his unrequited infatuation with Lillian Litvin, a member along with Truffaut of the loose-knit group of young friends and film enthusiasts (including Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol, all future film critics and directors) who frequented the screenings at the Cinémathèque Française. Movies were Truffaut's marked passion, but so was his growing immersion in intense love affairs balanced against what would be a life-long dalliance with prostitutes. Of course Truffaut survived the suicide attempt, but his self-loathing remained strong enough that he decided to enlist in the military in 1951 and was posted to Saigon. But he had a disastrous (or fortuitous, depending on your interpretation) change of heart, and decided instead to become a deserter, an action which landed him in an army prison. After another suicide attempt while incarcerated, he was placed in a military psychiatric hospital.

However far removed from society he found himself during these years -- whether in boarding school or the military or prison or a psychiatric hospital -- Truffaut invariably strengthened his resolve by turning inward, toward aesthetic contemplation and literary pursuits. He was never without books in prison, never without his journals and letter-writing. Proust and Balzac were always near at hand. While in the military, Truffaut read Jean Genet's A Thief's Journal, which deeply affected him, and he began a correspondence with Genet that resulted in a friendship with the author and existential outlaw (famously dubbed "Saint Genet" by Jean-Paul Sartre). Another formative and crucial friendship for Truffaut had been forged earlier with eminent French film critic and theorist André Bazin, whom Truffaut met while going in debt with his ill-fated film club. Bazin and his wife Janine opened their home to Truffaut when he deserted from the army, and they advocated with legal and military authorities for Truffaut's release from prison after he turned himself in and was jailed. Perhaps most importantly, it was Bazin who encouraged Truffaut's film criticism and published his early pieces in Cahiers du Cinéma. As one of the journal's founding editors, Bazin sent a copy of the first issue to Truffaut in military prison in 1952.

Truffaut began writing for Cahiers in 1953. So prolific were his film reviews that he published many of them under pseudonyms (including an alter ego who composed a passionate and obsessional essay on Marilyn Monroe's underwear, a theme which prefigures the curious fetishistic attention Truffaut would later lavish on women's stockings and lingerie in films like The Soft Skin (1964) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969) ). But he signed his own name to the controversial essay that appeared in January, 1954, titled "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema." An unabashed right-wing assault on the mainstream French "cinema of quality," its principle targets were a well-known screenwriting team of the period, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, whom Truffaut accuses of writing "frankly anti-clerical films" filled with "profanation and blasphemy." Truffaut sounds off against filmmakers who "desire to be superior to their characters" by manipulating the dialogue and plot to make pessimistic socio-political statements "instead of letting us see [the characters] for ourselves, with our own eyes." In part, "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" seems calculated to explode like a Molotov cocktail aimed at the French filmmaking establishment, and to garner as much attention as possible for its young author. But there's clearly an ideological element to the essay. In fact, André Bazin refused to print an earlier version that was even more strident in tone. De Baecque and Toubiana stress in their biography that Truffaut's style as a film critic was often mean-spirited and politically malicious:
Truffaut himself enjoyed being provocatively right-wing. His moralistic intransigence in attacking the leading lights of French cinema sometimes induced him to take extreme, dubious, contrarian positions, as when he went so far as to praise American censorship in the January 1954 issue of Cahiers... His determination to be a redresser of wrongs, while identifying with minority intellectual groups that were decried, and sometimes even banned, occasionally led him to pure political provocation (2).

If it was attention Truffaut wanted, he certainly received plenty of it with the belligerent tone of "A Certain Tendency" and much of his film criticism that came after. In addition to writing for Cahiers, he also published regularly in the right-wing cultural weekly, Arts-Lettres-Spectacles. It was during this time that the leftist French journal Positif branded Truffaut as a "fascist" and "intellectual vigilante" whose "political choices go hand in hand with a distinct taste for authority and the police" (3).

While there is no attempt in the biography to whitewash the ugly reactionary strains of Truffaut's 1950s film criticism, the authors appear at pains to imply that Truffaut's polemics were a rhetorical style or a "moral" stand rather than a reflection of ideological convictions on Truffaut's part. This seems disingenuous. If the biography falters, it is in the way this troubling aspect of Truffaut's personality is left unresolved for us. Other authors over the years have looked deeper into the political subtext of Truffaut's "auteur theory" -- the somewhat vaguely defined school of criticism based on the idea that directors "author" their films in an individualized and identifiable manner similar to novelists -- and the postwar environment that might have instilled in him a right-wing temperament. John Hess, for instance, has suggested the following (in the American film journal Jump Cut):
La politique des auteurs was, in fact, a justification couched in aesthetic terms, of a culturally conservative, politically reactionary attempt to remove film from the realm of social and political concern, in which the progressive forces of the Resistance had placed all the arts in the years immediately after the war (4).

Did Truffaut subscribe to an overarching ideological agenda? Or did his arguments with leftists stem simply from a belief that politics had no place in filmmaking? Was he arguing as an aesthetic purist or as a political dogmatist? The biography doesn't answer these questions. On the one hand, Truffaut's formulation of the auteur theory could be seen less as an autocratic enshrinement of the "director" at the expense of actors and screenwriters than a means of bestowing artistic significance on lowly and forsaken B movies and genre films (which is how Bazin characterized the auteur theory and is why he never cared much for it). According to de Baecque and Toubiana, Truffaut despised "message films" and what he called the "cultural political activism" of leftists and Marxists involved in literature and the arts (5). Perhaps this is born out in the remarkable irony that Truffaut's own film career was comprised of motion pictures brimming with sensitivity and psychological subtlety, but devoid of political posturing. Were his more vituperative essays and reviews to be taken at face value, one might suspect Truffaut was poised to become cinema's version of Jean-Marie Le Pen directing agitprop hymns to nationalist purity. (It's worth noting that he never reprinted "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" in published collections of his writings.) Instead, Truffaut inexplicably blossomed as one of the cinema's supreme poets of childhood resilience and adult sexual desire. In other words, once he began to express himself as an artist, he turned inward once again, to the rarefied aesthetic landscape that he'd nurtured while in prison -- the novelistic textures and emotional nuances of Proust and Balzac, the existential doggedness of Jean Genet, and perhaps most of all, the quiet despair of an unwanted yet resourceful little boy named François Truffaut.



As I write this in the spring of 1999, a full-scale retrospective of Truffaut's films is playing theaters in several major U.S. cities. Fox Lorber Homevideo has begun re-releasing much of his work on video and DVD, a good deal of which has been difficult to come by in recent years. Truffaut's legacy is being discussed again and reevaluated. As might be expected, there is disagreement in assessing the director's oeuvre. Truffaut himself once observed:
I think I've noticed that generally speaking, every director has three films to make in his lifetime, the first three that spring from his most secret self. After that, he engages in a career, which is different (6).

Without a doubt, Truffaut's initial three films -- The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962) -- were seminal in defining the excitement and freshness of the cinematic movement that came to be known as the French New Wave. There is a narrative fluidity and rich stylistic playfulness to these three films that stands in contrast to the more austere intensity that came to characterize Truffaut's subsequent work. Richard Brody, writing in The New Yorker (May 24, 1999), expresses the oft-held view that Truffaut's career was all downhill after a promising beginning:
[E]ven the best of his later films, such as Two English Girls and The Woman Next Door, fail to measure up to his first four films, each of which was a step ahead in ambition, emotional range and depth, and formal conception.

The fourth film that Brody alludes to -- The Soft Skin (1964) -- is worth considering in closer detail, and I'll return to it momentarily. The later films, in Brody's estimation, "fail aesthetically," although he suggests that they "exert a strange psychological fascination" that invites us to speculate on Truffaut's own personality and obsessions.

David Kehr, on the other hand, believes that the "first three" have aged poorly, and he is of the revisionist opinion that many of the films that Richard Brody dismisses as failures are, in fact, Truffaut's finest works precisely for the brooding and inarticulate qualities that Brody defines as limitations. Kehr, writing last spring in The New York Times (May 16, 1999), put it this way:
The work that stands up best today is invariably the darkest: The Soft Skin (1964), Two English Girls (1971), The Story of Adele H. (1975), The Woman Next Door (1981), and the surpassingly strange The Green Room (1978). These are films in which love becomes obsessive, turns inward and sours; love that destroys the lover and obliterates the object.

The one film mentioned favorably in both Brody's and Kehr's otherwise dissimilar lists is The Soft Skin, Truffaut's chilling exploration of sour middle-class marriage and adultery. Following the 1962 success of Jules and Jim, The Soft Skin was a notable failure in 1964 (though it did well in Scandanavian countries, where its sexual frankness had appeal). Especially galling for Truffaut was the hostility with which the film was greeted at Cannes, where The 400 Blows had been such a stunning triumph in 1959. With The Soft Skin, however, Truffaut was accused of having capitulated to bourgeois tastes by making exactly the sort of bland mainstream melodrama that he himself used to attack as a film critic.

What seems more obvious today is that The Soft Skin is a radical break with the lyrical romanticism of Truffaut's earlier work, especially with Jules and Jim, which The Soft Skin seems almost to repudiate (in a classic display of Truffautian contradiction). At the center of Jules and Jim is the noble selflessness of Oskar Werner's Jules, whose love for Jeanne Moreau's complex Catherine is seen always as admirable and steadfast. The Soft Skin, conversely, presents this identical quality of steadfastness as something else altogether -- sick, debilitating sexual obsession. Jules has mutated into Pierre Lachenay, played with brilliant neurotic verve by Jean Desailly.

Scripted by Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard, The Soft Skin is a pitiless and detailed examination of an adulterous affair between a married editor (Desailly) of a literary journal and the airline stewardess (Françoise Dorléac) he meets while attending a conference in Lisbon. Jean-Louis Richard describes the film's genesis:
Originally two images had struck François's imagination. A woman and a man kissing in a taxi and the sound of their teeth clinking. And female legs in silk stockings, crossing and uncrossing, and the sound of stockings rubbing against one another. The kiss in the taxi of course is an adulterous kiss. I don't think there are many husbands who kiss their wives making their teeth clink (7).

Truffaut chose to film this story utilizing Hitchcock's trademark technique of placing the audience directly in line with the protagonist's perceptions, so that the character's heightened anxieties become our own. For the first time, Truffaut availed himself of intricate and formalized montage editing that allowed him, for instance, to portray a hotel elevator ride with the suggestive rhythms of sexualized excitement. In another masterful sequence, a frustratingly interrupted shopping excursion to a lingerie store is given the kind of suspense-building that Hitchcock brought to elaborate set-pieces like the retrieval of the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train. Again and again throughout The Soft Skin, Truffaut finds the cinematic equivalent of obsessional psychological states and creates a world of neurotic energy that captures the private misery of a character caught up in passions over which he has no control. Truffaut once remarked on the contrast between American versus French appreciations of Hitchcock's films: American audiences are convinced they're watching murder mysteries told as love stories, whereas the French see Hitchcock's movies as love stories wrapped in murder mysteries. More to the point, Truffaut's curious observation defines the countervailing temperaments behind both directors. Hitchcock and Truffaut never rest easy within their respective narrative environments; each director is forever mindful of the paradoxical subtext beneath human impulse and desire. Although Truffaut never repeated the bravura stylistic experimentation of The Soft Skin, he certainly revisited its themes of sexual obsession tinged with Hitchcockian frisson in the wildly erotic Mississippi Mermaid (1969) and, less successfully, his overt Hitchcock homage, The Bride Wore Black (1967).

Following The Soft Skin, Truffaut's films continue in often disguised form to focus on obsessive-compulsive behavior, sometimes in a lighthearted manner, as in the Antoine Doinel series: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and Love on the Run (1979). Jean-Pierre Léaud's portrayal of Doinel was transformed over the years from the melancholy Truffaut-surrogate of The 400 Blows into a comedic and hapless womanizer through whom Truffaut indulged his affection for the romantic screwball comedies of Howard Hawks. Often unfairly criticized as being too "commercial" and lightweight, Truffaut's latter Doinel films actually seem surprisingly deft today, their off-the-cuff slapstick charms providing solace from the bleakness that emerged in Truffaut's dark masterpieces of obsession, Two English Girls (1971), The Story of Adele H. (1975), and The Green Room (1978). These three films were box-office failures when they were released (unlike the Doinel sagas, which were always surefire moneymakers for Truffaut), although The Story of Adele H. fared well with U.S. critics. Pauline Kael, for example, thought the film had a psychological depth that was comparable to a great work of literature. But even The Story of Adele H. remains far less known today than Truffaut's mid-career "hits" like The Wild Child (1969) and Day for Night (1973). With the retrospective currently underway, one might hope that some of the lesser-seen Truffaut riches will find receptive audiences. Like the similarly abundant filmography of Truffaut's former friend and eventual nemesis, Jean-Luc Godard, there are many films to choose from, many different genres, styles, and moods. Perhaps those of us who grew up with Truffaut's films (I, for my part, retain an irrational childhood fondness for Fahrenheit 451 (1967) ) are as yet too close to the material to form an objective historical judgment of his place in the cinema pantheon. But then, what does "objectivity" have to do with our deep -- if not obsessive -- love of Truffaut's film art?



1. p. 44. [Page cites from de Baecque & Toubiana's Truffaut, unless otherwise noted.]
2. p. 85.
3. p. 85.
4. The John Hess quote [from Jump Cut, vols. 1 & 2] appears in Movies and Methods, Vol. 1, edited by Bill Nichols, Univ. of Calif. Press, 1976, p. 224.
6. p. 190
7. p. 201.

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Other Book Titles of Interest

The Films in My Life by François Truffaut

Hitchcock by François Truffaut

French New Wave by Jean Douchet


Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review and author of Caffeine & Other Stories.

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