Sunday, October 10, 2010

François & Bert Part I

[As a follow up to my previous post, "A Hard Act to Follow," the following is a transcript of an interview (the subtitles, that is) that was part of the Cinépanorama television program aired (in France) on 20 February 1960. The words in boldface appear, almost verbatim, in another interview that professor and film critic Bert Cardullo claims he conducted with François Truffaut in 1984, five months before his death. Richard Brody reprinted that interview last August in The New Yorker and an observant reader named C. Keller called attention to the coincidence of the interviews, along with another longer interview from 1965 that I will include in my next post.]


A mechanical toy elephant blowing bubbles sits on a desk between François Truffaut and France Roche.

Voice of Jean Bescont: "This cute animal is not just for decoration. We put it there to set the mood for the young director of The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, who is just back from the U.S., and you'll see that France Roche wanted to minimize the culture shock."

France Roche (speaking in English): François Truffaut, what do you think of Brigitte Bardot?

François Truffaut: (responding in French): Brigitte Bardot is special in that she wasn't made a star by the producers, but rather by the public, which is very rare. Usually it's the producer who makes a star, but here it was the public that wanted to make this starlet into a real star. I only wish she appeared in better films.

FR (in English): And what do you think of Charles de Gaulle? [the rest of the interview is conducted in French]

FT: Oh, well!

FR: Those were the questions the American press asked most frequently during your recent trip to America. Did they ask other questions?

FT: Of course they asked me about the New Wave because they're very interested by this phenomenon, which reached there several months later than in France. But there's now a street in New York where they show only French films. On that street, you can see The Lovers, The Cousins and The 400 Blows.

FR: Are they interested as press or as film lovers?

FT: They're really enthusiastic. They even know about French films that haven't been released in Paris yet. They're very curious about everything made in France and the new cinema, above all.

FR: As an ex-journalist, did you want to ask them questions?

FT: Sure, I asked them about American cinema, to which we owe so much and which they don't know very well. Especially early American cinema, which they hardly know and even scorn.

FR: What filmmakers did you talk about?

FT: I talked about Sidney Lumet, Robert Mulligan, Frank Tashlin, Arthur Penn, types of movies we've seen little of in Paris, but that we liked a lot and which they've barely seen.

FR: Why did you like them?

FT: Because they're a total renewal of American cinema, a little like some films in France made by young directors. They're extremely alive, like very early, primitive American film, and at the same time quite intellectual. They manage to unite the best of both.

FR: Why do they scorn these filmmakers?

FT: Basically because they don't know them very well, and because they aren't successful. Success is everything in America.

FR: Your film, on the other hand, was very successful, since it won the New York Film Critics prize.

FT: Yes, it enjoyed a certain ambiguous success, since it's a French product. When it was released in New York four months ago, the theaters were empty until the reviews came out. Since the reviews were flattering, the theaters filled up. I think business was starting to slow down right when the American critics decided to name it best foreign film.

FR: And then the people came back?

FT: The people came back, and when I arrived in New York, I think it was starting to slow down again. But we gave interviews and made the papers and all that, and I believe it started up again. It's been showing for four months, but it could slow down again.

FR: If ticket sales slow down, you pack your bags?

FT: No, we'll have to come up with something different.

FR: As a former critic, if you had to talk about The 400 Blows, would you have spoken about it in the terms your colleagues have?

FT: Probably not. I honestly think I'd like it, because I like the ideas in it - they're good ideas - but I wouldn't have gone as far as most of the critics did. I couldn't have called it a masterpiece or a great work of art, because I can see too clearly what's experimental or clumsy in it.

FR: Is it awkward, for a writer-director, to have been a critic? When you start a scene, does the critic in you tap you on the shoulder and say "I don't think so!"

FT: It is indeed rather awkward, because I've seen nearly 3,000 films. I always tend to think, "But that was done in such and such a film. This or that is no good." Plus, I'm very skeptical of story lines, so that no script can escape analysis. I turn it around in my head and I often want to drop the film at the last minute.

FR: So how do you ever manage to make a film?

FT: Because the advantage of cinema over novels, for example, is that you can't just drop it. The machine's in gear, contracts are signed. I like actors a lot, at least some, or those I choose. There are promises to be kept. It's a motivation to keep your work. But once you're in it, once you start shooting, those types of problems fall away, those doubts of a general nature. Then there are just daily problems, strictly technical, that you can solve amid the noise and the laughter, and it's quite exhilarating. Then, when the film is over, the doubts come back.

FR: Was The 400 Blows received in the same way in every country?

FT: No. It sold in almost every country, but it flopped in Italy, fore example, perhaps because it is similar to Italian films, and they always flop in Italy.

FR: Good thing Italian films make up for it abroad.

FT: Yes, that's true. But it didn't go over very well in Germany either.

FR: In what country did it work?

FT: It worked in Japan and Holland. It will be released in England soon. Russia bought it, but Spain doesn't want it, for example, despite the Catholic prize we won in Cannes.

FR: Why?

FT: They wanted to cut out so much that it would end up being a short, so they aren't interested.

FR: What did they want to cut? And why?

FT: Cuts on moral grounds, which I admit I don't quite understand. I think it's the situations: adultery, a child seeing his mother with another man, or escaping from reform school, things like that.

FR: You can't escape from reform school?

FT: Not in Spain.

FR: Your film met with some reaction from French censors, didn't it?

FT: It was shown to the censors during the Cannes Festival but before the jury made its decision, so it was rated for 16 years and over. Two days later, we were awarded best director and the Catholic prize, and the 16+ rating was rescinded.

FR: Were the censors afraid they'd look like idiots?

FT: I think that's it.

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