Get local news delivered straight to your phone
and Serge Toubiana
American reviewers and moviegoers perceived the French New Wave as a coalescent artistic movement when its films washed up on our shores in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In retrospect, what’s most surprising and remarkable is the striking individualism of the Nouvelle Vague directors: the innovative Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), the misanthropic Claude Chabrol (The Cousins), the intellectual Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), the romantic Jacques Demy (Lola), and the New Wave’s most admired filmmaker, Francois Truffaut. Although distinctive in theme and tone, his first three features—The Four Hundred Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), and Jules and Jim (1961)—established Truffaut as a poetic realist, the inheritor of Jean Renoir’s lyrical humanism.
Today, it’s difficult to convey the impact that The Four Hundred Blows made when it opened in this country. To energize this autobiographical account of his troubled childhood, as well as to execute his feature debut on a tiny budget, Truffaut took his camera into the streets. Other filmmakers had done so before—Renoir and Jean Vigo in the ’30s, the Italian neorealists Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, and their American imitators Henry Hathaway and Elia Kazan in the ’40s—but for 1959 moviegoers accustomed to airless studio productions, Truffaut’s affecting self-portrait transformed the opaque screen into a transparent window on the world. The film won Truffaut the Best Director award at the 1959 Cannes Festival.
With Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut took greater risks, translating hardboiled novelist David Goodis’ Down There into a brooding yet comic movie that dared to fuse a variety of seemingly incompatible tones—romanticism, suspense, and slapstick. A financial failure when initially released, it soon was embraced as an influential cult classic. Then came Jules and Jim, the filmmaker’s masterpiece. Based on Henri-Pierre Roche’s then-obscure autobiographical first novel, written when the author was in his mid-70s, Truffaut’s “hymn to life and death” about the triangular relationship of two friends, a Frenchman and a German, and the mercurial woman both love was recognized as a classic from the moment it appeared.
We can't make City Paper without you
“I think I’ve noticed,” Truffaut observed in a 1963 interview, “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.” In the mid-’60s, Truffaut made a trio of rewarding but unpopular films—The Soft Skin (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and The Bride Wore Black (1967)—and then began to lose his footing. Although accomplished, his few remaining critical and commercial successes—Stolen Kisses (1968), The Wild Child (1969), Day for Night (1973), and The Story of Adele H. (1975)—lacked the adventurous spirit and emotional depth of his earlier films. But the majority of his remaining works turned out to be marginally watchable duds: Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me (1973), The Man Who Loved Women (1977), The Green Room (1978), Love on the Run (1979), and The Woman Next Door (1981). When he died of a brain tumor in 1984, Truffaut’s reputation rested more on his acting appearance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind than on any of the nine movies he had directed in his final decade.
Truffaut: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, both of Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French film journal with which Truffaut was long associated, fails to cast much light on or even acknowledge the filmmaker’s artistic decline. Nevertheless this meticulously researched and documented book offers as fully detailed an account of Truffaut’s life as one could hope for, as well as enough clues to the director’s complex, fragile psyche to allow readers to form their own hypotheses about what might have gone wrong.
Born “of unknown father” in Paris in 1932, Truffaut was the child of teenage Janine de Monferrand, who later married Roland Truffaut, an Alpinist employed by the French Boy Scouts. (In 1968, the year of his mother’s death, Truffaut hired a private detective to track down his biological father, who turned out to be Roland Levy, a Jewish dental surgeon residing in Belford. The filmmaker located and briefly stalked Levy, then chose not to confront him.) Regarded as a burden by his artistically inclined, seductive, independent-minded mother, who had the impudence to invite her lover to share weekly dinners with her husband, young Francois was an introverted, rebellious child who found escape from his loneliness in books and movies.
Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), the protagonist of The Four Hundred Blows and four subsequent movies, was Truffaut’s alter ego—a compulsive school truant and petty thief committed to a juvenile detention center and, later, imprisoned by the French army for desertion. At 18, with his life in chaos, Truffaut, despondent about his relationship with a capricious girlfriend, attempted suicide by slashing his right arm 25 times. Cinema, in the person of his mentor, critic Andre Bazin, became his salvation. With Bazin’s personal support and intellectual tutelage, he began writing criticism. His 1954 breakthrough essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” attacked the then-prevalent stodgy, impersonal French “tradition of quality” filmmaking, paving the way for the emergence of the New Wave.
In 1957, Truffaut, who had attained notoriety and financial stability with his provocative, often scathing film journalism, married Madeleine Morgenstern, the daughter of a successful motion picture distributor. With his father-in-law’s financial support, he made several short movies and The Four Hundred Blows. He fathered two daughters with Madeleine but did not cease his compulsive womanizing. Plagued with what might now be dubbed “intimacy issues” stemming from his ambivalent relationship with his mother, he patronized prostitutes and shared passionate but short-lived affairs with most of his leading ladies, among them Jeanne Moreau, Julie Christie, Jacqueline Bisset, Catherine Deneuve and her sister Francoise Dorleac, and Fanny Ardant, the mother of his third child.
De Baecque and Toubiana uncover a wealth of information about Truffaut’s friendships, including his formative associations with Rossellini, Renoir, Jean Genet, and Max Ophuls. They devote considerable space to the creation of his celebrated book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, which started the vogue for Q&A volumes that continues to this day, with publications devoted to directors as disparate as David Cronenberg, Barry Levinson, Krzysztov Kieslowski, and David Lynch. Truffaut’s complicated relationship with fellow New Waver Godard threads throughout the biography, from their early friendship (Truffaut supplied the germ of the screenplay that became Breathless) to their violent rift following the success of Day for Night: In a letter steeped with Marxist-Leninist self-righteousness, Godard accused Truffaut of capitulating to commercialism and attempted to guilt-trip him into financing one of his upcoming projects. Until then a steadfast Godard defender, the enraged Truffaut responded with a blisteringly eloquent 20-page epistle: “Because of that letter I feel it’s finally time to tell you, at length, that in my opinion you’ve been behaving like a shit….The idea that all men are equal with you is theoretical, not deeply felt.” (The full text of this scathing document appears in Truffaut’s posthumous Correspondence, 1945-1984, which features an introduction by a chastened Godard.)
Truffaut’s biographers also provide hitherto unrevealed information about their subject’s emotions and values. Throughout his career, the director suffered bouts of insecurity and depression spurred by unhappy love affairs (his breakup with Deneuve was especially traumatic) and poorly received movies. Although he was resolutely apolitical, his commitment to unfettered free expression intermittently forced him into brief, uneasy allegiances with both leftist and rightist groups. Above all, Truffaut possessed a gift for friendship, attested to by the heartfelt tributes by the collaborators, acquaintances, and lovers interviewed by the authors.
Unlike pop biographers, de Baecque and Toubiana soberly refrain from dramatizing their subject’s life. Their book contains no reconstructed dialogue; nor does it open on a formulaic moment of triumph such as Truffaut winning his award at Cannes or receiving his Best Foreign Film Oscar for Day for Night. Readers who come to the biography unaware of Truffaut’s achievements are likely to find it rather dry and themselves baffled by many of its arcane references. The authors allude, often with little or no identification, to dozens of French artistic and political figures, many of whom are unknown in this country.
The major failing of this otherwise valuable book is its refusal to deal critically with Truffaut’s oeuvre—to recognize, for example, that The Last Metro (1980) is precisely the sort of complacent, star-studded, self-consciously literary “tradition of quality” project that the young Truffaut scorned. De Baecque and Toubiana rarely venture beyond anecdotal accounts of the genesis and shooting of each movie, followed by recaps of its critical and commercial fate. But these summaries are not always reliable. We’re told that American reviewers, including Pauline Kael in the New Yorker, considered Bed and Board (1970) “a critical triumph.” In fact, Kael dismissed it as “a flimsy, conventionally ‘beguiling’ picture” that “left [her] unmoved.”
One closes Truffaut: A Biography satisfied that there’s little left to learn about the man yet with the mystery of the artist’s creative decline unsolved. How could the director of the sublime Jules and Jim have ended his too-brief career cranking out piddling misfires such as Love on the Run (1979) and Confidentially Yours (1983)? De Baecque and Toubiana give the essential account of Truffaut’s life, but the definitive study of his art has yet to be written. CP