Monday, November 28, 2011

Remastering the Film: François Truffaut

"What is your greatest ambition in life?"
"To become immortal, and then die."

(Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville in Breathless.)

As David Thomson correctly suggested last year when Godard's Breathless turned 50, if you want to locate the heart of the French Nouvelle Vague, you would have found it beating in the breast of François Truffaut:

"There is a temptation to see Breathless (or A Bout de Souffle) as the epitome of the New Wave. In this reading, it was the emblematic film for a group of young critics and cineastes who had longed to make films themselves and who suddenly found the chance. But if you want the right emblem, you’d be better off going to Truffaut (with Les 400 Coups or Tirez sur la Pianiste)."(1)

Truffaut was the embodiment of the cinephile, so in love with film that it shaped his personality. More than his love of books, which often led him very far astray, (2) his judgement of films was a guiding and abiding passion. But because they gave him such a consistent and gratifying escape from the circumstances of his adolescence, he developed an irrational love for American films that clouded his judgement. The auteur notion that Truffaut introduced has been so abused that it is almost meaningless by now. Just because Edgar Wallace was an author did not make him the equal of Kipling, any more than it makes John Ford the equal of Ozu.

Those first three films, Les 400 Coups (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1962), are for the ages. But it is impossible to properly examine Truffaut's work without at some point facing up to the fact of its precipitous decline. One can actually watch it happen in his fourth feature film, The Soft Skin, about which I wrote at length for .

One theory is that he was not content to be the avant-garde creator of small budget art films and wanted to live a more comfortable life. Godard, who revelled in being the struggling artist, took a dim view of Truffaut's transformation and made this abundantly clear. To him, Truffaut was turning into the same kind of director he had attacked in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema.

The New Wave was long over by the time Truffaut died of a brain tumor in 1984. By the mid-1960s, Chabrol was making a string of oh-so-stylish thrillers, and Truffaut was deep into his own noir period, having, I suppose, forgotten that he once made the greatest send-up of film noir, Shoot the Piano Player. Godard just went on twiddling, drifting from Marxist-Leninism to Stalinism to Maoism - to no avail. While occasionally trying to stay in touch with his sources, with further Antoine Doinel films (3) and a retelling of Jules and Jim with the sexes reversed (Two English Girls), Truffaut had lost alot of his passion, and the ecstatic reason for being that his first three feature films exuded was missing. He "squandered his talents", as they say. But, as George Orwell wrote about H.G. Wells, "But how much it is, after all, to have any talents to squander." (4)

(1) The full article can be found here.
(2) His love of fiction that can only be called trash was pronounced, but the French have generally overestimated the value of American pulp fiction.
(3) As often happens to child actors, Jean-Pierre Léaud grew into a surprisingly bad actor.
(4) Orwell, "Wells, Hitler and the World State", Horizon, August 1941.

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