Director: Francois Truffaut

by | May 18, 2020 | 0 comments

A View at One of the French New Wave’s Fathers and His Evolving Rebelliousness

François Truffaut is one of the most well-known names in international cinema. The Frenchman is known to be one of the founders of the French New Wave, which sought to redefine French filmmaking after the dissatisfying commercial turn that mainstream French films had taken. The result were such names as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and the aforementioned Truffaut emerged as potent filmmakers. Truffaut was perhaps the most internationally well-known of this landmark generation; this might have been thanks to his contagious themes of rebelliousness against an established system; such is the case in his films The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1962), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and Day for Night (1973).

After suffering to find a calling in his life, shuffling from writing, to the military service, to a stint in jail, Truffaut was finally able to find an intriguing career at cinema magazine, “Cahiers du Cinema” where he became known for his scathing reviews. The deep criticism against such established French directors of the time, such as Jean Dellanoy, Claude Autant-Lara, and Yves Allegret, led him, and a handful of other critics, to start making their own films, kickstarting the French New Wave. Truffaut would continue his journalism career sporadically, such as when he interviewed one of his directing idols: Alfred Hitchcock and produced the ultimate Hitchcock bible: “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” On his filmmaking rebellion, the French New Wave started with Truffaut’s own first film The 400 Blows, which captured aspects of Truffaut’s own troubled childhood in a spectacularly nuanced and harrowing way. The film looks at the life of the young Doinel in Paris, who is unwanted by his parents and is scolded at school for being a troublemaker. Doinel only finds solace in playing pranks and stealing with some friends; the young boy is eventually repulsed by the adult world and all its representations. Not even when Doinel is sent to a juvenile correctional facility is society able to make him see the error of his ways. Truffaut is able to perfectly craft the frustrations and incomprehensibility that Doinel has towards the imposed rules and punishments. Throughout the film Doinel is reproached if he acts too childishly and yet is not permitted to act as a full-fledged adult. It is this contradiction and impossible situation that allows Truffaut to place viewers on the side of Doinel and his crusade against the adult world. The final feeling Doinel and viewers have is perfectly captured in the closing scenes where our protagonist runs away from his correctional facility, sprinting and wanting to escape it all. The message that viewers of the film are left with is: let children be themselves, especially in such confusing times of puberty. This message seems to be the indication with the terribly translated title; in French, “400 blows” is an expression of “wreaking havoc” in a childish way, and thus is a supplication from Truffaut to let chaos be wrought, for the sake of future generations’ sanity.

 Truffaut’s commercial and critical triumph with The 400 Blows encouraged the French director to produce one of his most experimental films: Shoot the Piano Player. The film is a noir gangster thriller with a curious use of voice-overs and comedy. It was claimed that the script was still being written while shooting had already begun, and this gives Shoot the Piano Player a rather bizarre tone, where viewers aren’t sure whether to take the film satirically of its genre or not. The film follows a famous pianist, who after a terrible tragedy has changed his name and resorted to playing in rundown Parisian bars. However, when his criminal brother comes knocking, he is pulled into a violent scheme involving vengeful gangsters. The film is most original when it has the two representative gangsters kidnap our protagonist and his love interest, Lena, where there is a comical discussion about the terrible driving of one of the gangsters. This comedy is used as well in terms of the social awkwardness of our protagonist pianist: Charlie. During his romantic attempts at wooing Lena, a voice-over gives us a view into Charlie’s thoughts of trying to take her hand while they walk down the street. These relatable romantic doubts give the film a curious clash of tones between a rather enjoyable comedy/satire and a grimmer indulgence into its crime/gangster genre. In fact, the film seems to switch lanes completely in the latter half, when we find out about Charlie’s past, and how his social introversion may have led to the inadvertent suicide of his first wife. This darker tone develops as Charlie is forced to murder his bar employer for jealousy over Lena, and finally viewers witness a rather tragic gun-fight where Lena is caught in the crossfire. The entire film feels like one of Truffaut’s most impersonal, since he seems more intent at focusing on experimenting with filmic style and genre instead. This makes for some interesting sequences, but it also causes for an imbalance that makes the emotional aspects of each character seem less appealing or realistic for viewers. The result was a commercial failure that nevertheless did garner positive reviews; the economics of the film, however, forced Truffaut to scale back on his on-set experimentation from then on.

 This experimental restraint allowed for a release of Truffaut’s emotional side. His next solo directing outing was one of his most acclaimed and highly regarded films: Jules and Jim. The film tells the story of two best friends in the early 20th century. They are a Frenchman and a German who are true bon vivants, in that they fill their lives with the courting of beautiful women, visiting museums and artistic exhibitions, and debating philosophy over good meals and drink. Their seeming utopia is somewhat shaken when a woman named Catherine steps into their lives, Jules is able to woo her first, but Jim is conflicted when he also falls in love with her. The three are soon spending much time together, seeing their pleasurable lives continue somewhat uninterrupted. It isn’t until World War I erupts that both friends are forced on separate sides. At this point in the film one expects the narrative to play out in a clash of politics and personal relationships, but Truffaut chooses to skim over these aspects and lands us in a post-war Europe where the unconvincing perfect lives of Jules and Jim are starting to crumble. Catherine has married Jules and moved to Germany. Meanwhile Jim seems to be orbiting their relationship in hopes of an in. The rest of the film is an almost melodramatic game of musical chairs where Catherine flits between one partner and marriage to the next, ending in a tragedy for the decades-old friendship between the two men.

 The film in many ways is a balancing response to the message seen in The 400 Blows, of letting an unchecked rebelliousness and lack of responsibilities reign supreme. Jules and Jim both reject the conventional ideas of what relationships, politics, and life in general should be; and this works out for them for a while. However, once Catherine enters their lives and is seemingly pushing them to further ignore more rules and conventions, we begin to see how the smiles in Jules and Jim’s faces start to fade. Catherine is not so much a sexist representation of women breaking men’s relationship, but rather of how an unchecked and sustained rebelliousness can lead to a form of destruction. Jim and Jules struggle to adapt to a more “serious” post-war Europe that is seeking to shed off the irresponsibility of past decades for a more mature way of life. This is a perfect juxtaposition to The 400 Blows, which sought to repel the idea of an adult-oriented world with responsibilities and rules. Jules and Jim shows how such a world would work for “childish adults” and, while fun most of the time, Truffaut demonstrates how this way of life can have terrible consequences. It should be noted, that the French director is not contradicting his own themes in The 400 Blows. Rather, he is making sure viewers see that a balance is necessary. One can behave with the freedom that Jules and Jim had, but to go to the extreme of Catherine would be unwise. Truffaut is thus still advocating for a certain form of rebelliousness, in moderation.

 The manner to capture the humanity in a rebel must have made Truffaut an appealing director to helm the adaptation of the best-selling Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. The narrative, set in a dystopian future where books are banned, follows protagonist Montag, a “fireman” whose job is to find and burn books. The story finds Morag beginning to read books and seeing the value they truly have, finally turning against the system he himself had been helping sustain. Fahrenheit 451 might be the easiest example to show Truffaut’s ideas of rebelliousness against a system, since the production has the exaggerated clarity that Hollywood studio films have, a feature filled with much less subtlety than Truffaut’s other work. The French auteur took a step in filming Fahrenheit 451 in color, which was rare for him to do; however, it was necessary in order to show how the lack of books and imagination forced everything to be visually represented. Truffaut took some liberties with the adaptation, however, introducing a new character, played by Julie Christie, who is a literary rebel that tries to “convert” Morag into reading and help save books. Truffaut plays with duality in Christie’s casting, as she also is cast as the passive and screen-addicted wife of Morag. This casting choice might be representative of the duality that each of us has within, of wanting to respect rules and be “sedated” by them, and also revel in the thrill of defying authority. Thus, Christie’s characters are more a symbolism of Morag’s own mindset and debate, than fully fledged characters themselves. While this aspect of Truffaut’s adaptation was decried, for failing to be faithful to the novel, it was a comprehensible change when considering Truffaut’s exploration into his own rebelliousness, its contradictions, temptations, and internal battles. This choice was the necessary coup by Truffaut in order to infuse some further symbolism and aura of mystery into his film, as a direct adaptation would have robbed any director of infusing his or her own style due to the novel’s strong narrative.

 Day for Night is one of Truffaut’s most fascinating films, as its own existence and themes are a perfect encapsulation of Truffaut’s fascination with chaos and rebellion. The film tells the story of the making of a fictional melodramatic film named Meet Pamela, with all the drama between the crewmembers and actors. Truffaut is able to perfectly capture the beauty of the chaos that is a film set, and how against all the odds, a feature comes together. If one has ever worked on a film set, one can appreciate how Truffaut finds the clarity in the raucous mess that on-set work can be. Day for Night came as close to capturing the real aura and feeling on-set as any film has, before or since. Truffaut is able to reinforce his idea of how his own filmmaking is an act of rebellion, since it is a fight against producers, actors, studio heads, etc. Truffaut himself takes an acting role as the film’s fictional director, making a much more direct commentary on the meanings of himself making films.

Day for Night is a love-letter to the act of filmmaking itself, but it is also an exposé of certain ugly aspects. Such as the rampant sexism seen when the director and producers want to fire an actress after they find out she is pregnant, or the psychological effects that such stress and pressure can have on both performers and crew members. Truffaut is able to define the act of filmmaking as one that is able to give him solace and purpose. We don’t know much about the background of many of the crewmembers, but we see that they achieve a purpose and family that brings comfort to them. The tragedies or dark lives that the crewmembers may be living outside seem to dissipate in the fictional worlds that they are creating at the studio. However, Day for Night’s view of the actors is very different; while there is a comedic capture of how dramatic and exaggerated performers can be, there is also a gentle understanding of their vulnerabilities. The actors are all discarded and regarded cogs of a machine rather than people; crewmembers and producers are more concerned with the days left to shoot and budget. This is represented not only in the aforementioned attempted firing of a pregnant actress, but also in how the mentally ill lead actress is pushed to a breaking point in order to “keep the film together,” how young actor Alphonse is ignored despite having an incredible insecurity that is never addressed (only by lead actress Julie, who later pays the consequences), and even the tragic death of veteran actor Alexandre in a car crash is overlooked as a minor bump in production. This last event is met with a response of whether the studio has insurance against the tragedy and whether to reshoot his scenes or not. The cold look at how actors are discarded is only a further indication from Truffaut of how films and their making can be so self-encompassing that they seem to transcend the humane aspects of life. Furthermore, Truffaut may be recognizing that despite filmmaking being an admirable act of rebellion against society, it is an engulfing act that may do more harm than good.

Throughout the films discussed, Truffaut crafted his own character arc in his life. From starting as a suppressed youth searching for love and purpose, as exemplified in The 400 Blows, to gaining a confidence to try and discover new aspects of his capabilities, as seen in Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut would find the love and admiration his parents stole from him in the hordes of fans of his films. With an increasing awareness of the power of film, and how his young rebelliousness might need some structure after all, came his more cautiously rebellious films Jules and Jim and even Fahrenheit 451. This last one is a curious detail in the argument of a more balanced mindset of the director, since he was still bringing themes of revolution and defiance of authority, while working within the most authoritarian times in Hollywood. Truffaut would cap off his arc of young rebel to practical reformist with Day for Night, which in itself was an introspection of Truffaut’s own film career and the dangers and benefits of his chosen medium. This introspection into his life arc is especially made apparent with Truffaut’s use of Jean Pierre-Leaud as an actor in both The 400 Blows as the lead child and in Day for Night as the insecure Alphonse.  Truffaut had an impressive career that was cut too short when he died of brain cancer at age 52. His films helped start a cinematic movement that is still having ripple effects in all forms of art today. His films championed an act of rebellion and skepticism against the establishment, all with Truffaut developing a maturing sense of the costs of being such an anti-system. The result is one of the most impressive filmographies and evolutions in the history of cinema, leaving an aura of influence that is sure to impact many generations of artists and filmmakers to come.

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