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The Essentials: Francois Truffaut

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com February 5, 2014 at 2:32PM

This week sees Francois Truffaut's seminal love-triangle "Jules Et Jim," one of the French filmmaker's best-loved and most seminal works, get an upgrade to Blu-Ray on the The Criterion Collection. And with New York City's Film Forum staging a significant retrospective of his work beginning in March, and "The 400 Blows" also being reissued on Criterion in April, it feels like the perfect opportunity to do something we've been dying to do for ages: put the spotlight on the filmmaker's work.
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Francois Truffaut

This week sees Francois Truffaut's seminal love-triangle "Jules Et Jim," one of the French filmmaker's best-loved and most seminal works, get an upgrade to Blu-Ray on the The Criterion Collection. And with New York City's Film Forum staging a significant retrospective of his work beginning in March, and "The 400 Blows" also being reissued on Criterion in April, it feels like the perfect opportunity to do something we've been dying to do for ages: put the spotlight on the filmmaker's work.

Truffaut went from runaway schoolboy to bad-boy Cahiers du cinema critic to wildly acclaimed filmmaker before the age of 27, and sadly, passed away of a brain tumor aged only 52, and the result is that his career can sometimes seem like a brief, if brilliant one, especially in contrast to that of friend and colleague Jean Luc-Godard, who's still working today. But Truffaut packed a lot into his quarter-century of work, dancing between autobiography (his Antoine Doinel series), crime drama, period fare, sly comedy, and sometimes all of the above.

He's one of our favorite filmmakers, and has one of the more fascinating resumes out there, so as "Jules Et Jim" makes the 1080p upgrade, we've picked out ten of our very favorite Truffaut pictures (limiting ourselves to those he directed, rather than wrote, like "Breathless," or just appeared in, like "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind"). Most people have the same favorite top few Truffaut films, but beyond that, it gets a little more subjective -- you can take our choices to task, and offer up your own, in the comments section below.

400 Blows

"The 400 Blows" (1959)
"The only way to criticize a movie as to make another movie," Truffaut's great friend, rival and colleague Jean-Luc Godard once said. And to be fair to them, the two put their money where their mouths were: after upending the critical establishment with his work at Cahiers du cinema across the 1950s, Truffaut moved into shorts with 1955's "Une Visite," and after being inspired by Orson Welles' "Touch Of Evil" in 1958, made his feature debut with the autobiographical "The 400 Blows." And while the knives must have been out for it when it premiered at Cannes, Truffaut had the best possible response: he'd made a glorious movie, one that turned the director from firebrand critic to one of cinema's brightest hopes. Drawing on his own delinquent adolescence, the film is the first of five Truffaut made to focus on his surrogate Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who met the director through a casting call in a newspaper, then aged only 14), who here, faces the worst trouble of his young life so far, as difficulties at home and school lead to him attempting to steal a typewriter from his stepfather, which leads to him being arrested and sent to a center for troubled young boys. A sort of Gallic answer to the Angry Young Man narrative that was emerging at almost exactly the same time across the Channel and the Atlantic with "Look Back In Anger" and "Rebel Without A Cause," it's a deeply moving and humane picture that captures about as accurately as anything that's ever been made the swirling mass of hormones that you suffer from when you're fourteen and hate your parents, your teachers, and well, pretty much everyone, thanks principally to its laser-tight focus on Antoine. And by Antoine, that means Truffaut: this is cinema in the first-person, to all intents and purposes, with the filmmaker demonstrating in practice what he'd been talking about for so long in terms of the auteur theory. With distance, it's easy to forget what a technical firecracker it must have been — even on a limited budget, the black-and-white Cinemascope looks thoroughly gorgeous, and his command of where his camera looks, and where he cuts, is immensely confident. The film, which won Truffaut Best Director at Cannes (a festival from which he was banned as a critic the year before), is dedicated to Andre Bazin, the great critic who'd passed just as the director was preparing to make the film, and who'd been both a mentor and something of a saviour to him. We all have a reason to be thankful to Bazin, then.

Shoot The Piano Player

"Shoot The Piano Player" (1960)
Godard followed his friend's footsteps into feature films with 1960's "Breathless" (which the pair wrote together), but the same year saw Truffaut follow up his debut with his own playful noir picture, an adaptation of David Goodis' novel "Down There." "Shoot The Piano Player" is a definite reaction against "The 400 Blows" — Truffaut considered the latter film very French, and wanted to showcase his love of American cinema, and kick against expectations, saying at the time "I wanted to please the real film buffs and only them, even if meant confusing most of the people who liked 'The 400 Blows.' In the end, 'Shoot The Piano Player,' may confuse everyone, but so what." True to that statement, the film probably stands as the director's most experimental work, though experimental might be the wrong word for it — it's a playful film, mischievous and restless, and more comic than you might expect. The plot nominally focuses on singing star Charles Aznavour as the musician of the title, drawn into the underworld to protect his brother, but Truffaut couldn't really be less interested in the story — there's a loose, freewheeling energy closer to "Hellzapoppin'" than, say, Nicholas Ray, grabbing on to whatever transgressions and sidebars take the director's fancy. It probably says something that the entire second half of the film is made up mostly for a flashback. It should feel like classic second album syndrome, indulgent and self-involved, but there's something deeply infectious and enjoyable about the picture — having got to grips with the medium first time around, this is now a director taking Orson Welles' proverbial best-train-set-a-boy-could-ask-for, and building it into loop-the-loops and corkscrews. It's probably Truffaut's most Godardian picture in some ways, but if Godard had grown up on the Marx Brothers and Ernst Lubitsch, and while it's critical and commercial failure meant that the director never really repeated his experiment, the film's DNA is present in so much of what follows.

Jules Et Jim

"Jules Et Jim" (1962)
1962's "Jules et Jim" is the film that launched a thousand rom-coms, and a million study-abroad years in Paris, with its loose lyrical story of a love triangle between two friends (Henri Serre and Oskar Werner) and a freewheeling Bohemian girl (Jeanne Moreau). Probably Truffaut's most popular and accessible film today, several scenes — the race across the railway bridge, the leap in the lake, the musical refrain of "On s'est connus" — are obvious sources for the montages of delirious capering that pass for romantic storylines in much of current cinema.  But in truth, "Jules et Jim" is a remarkably adventurous and complex film, technically and narratively, and it's one which Truffaut arguably never bettered. "Jules et Jim" was shot by Raoul Coutard, Jean-Luc Godard's cinematographer throughout the '60s, as well as Costa-Gavras' on “Z”, and it's watching this film that you realize it was Coutard, more than any of the New Wave directors (and in spite of their allegiance to auteur theory), who liberated the camera and transformed the whole feeling of cinema in the early '60s, shooting parts of "Jules et Jim" from a vantage point on a moving bicycle. But while the style was hyper-modern and the rebellious vibe feels very 1960s, the underappreciated heart of "Jules et Jim" is historical. Jules et Jim's friendship founders partly on the issue of Catherine, but just as much on the face that Jim is Austrian, Jules is French, and the movie takes place before, during and after the First World War: it's amazing how easily this is forgotten by people who think of Moreau's outfits as the last word in '60s cool. "Jules et Jim", although it only features a few moments of newsreel from the trenches, is one of the great war and anti-war movies, up there with Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" and Powell and Pressburger’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (from which it borrows the basics of its plot) as a statement on the pity and futility of European war. And in that sense it's a strangely old-fashioned film that sits uncomfortably next to the rest of the New Wave's fantasies of revolutionary violence. But it's from that background of history and personal tragedy that "Jules et Jim" gets its deep emotional depth, which keeps it a fascinating film long after its technical innovations have been absorbed into the mainstream.

This article is related to: Features, The Essentials, Feature


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