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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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Stolen Kisses

"Stolen Kisses" (1968)
Truffaut had picked up Antoine Doinel's story with the 1962 short "Antoine and Colette," his swoony, featherlight contribution to the anthology picture "Love At Twelve," but the director's alter ego got his next real feature-length showcase almost a decade on from "The 400 Blows" with 1968's "Stolen Kisses," and it might just be the finest of the Doinel pictures. After flirting with the idea of putting Jean-Pierre Leaud and his character in a script like "Shoot The Piano Player" or Godard's 'Bande A Part," and beginning work on a discarded screenplay based on his early days in journalism, Truffaut instead makes our hero a drifting twentysomething, dishonorably discharged from the army, floating between a number of jobs he's swiftly fired from (including, memorably, being a private detective), and circling round his sweetheart Christine (a delightful Claude Jade, who'd go on to star in Hitchcock's "Topaz"), while also lusting after his boss's wife (Delphine Seyrig). It's a looser and less focused film than 'Blows' or "Antoine & Colette," with a structure that's something close to farce (again Lubitsch, and even Preston Sturges, feel present under the surface, and rewatching it now reveals it to be an obvious influence on "Frances Ha"). It helps that Leaud, now 24, has grown into a hugely impressive performer, with some deft coming timing, but also an ability to make the audience identify just as much as Truffaut clearly did. While it's a direct sequel to "The 400 Blows," it spiritually has as much in common with "Shoot The Piano Player," from the light noir trappings of the detective scenes to the abrupt, but entirely effective, shifts in tone. The following Doinel pictures, 1970's "Bed And Board" and 1979's "Love On The Run," are absolutely worth watching as well, but the character is at his most fleshed-out and fully realized in the centerpiece of the sequence here.

The Wild Child

"The Wild Child" (1970)
Leaving behind the genre concerns of his late 1960s work (the thrillers of "The Bride Wore Black" and "Missisippi Mermaid," the science-fiction of "Fahrenheit 451" ) to return to the theme of childhood, "The Wild Child" marks Truffaut's first period piece since “Jules Et Jim”  and something of a spiritual follow-up to "The 400 Blows." The idea of an uncontrollable child is one that had interested Truffaut for some time (he'd tried to obtain the rights to "The Miracle Worker," about Helen Keller, in the early 1960s, but was beaten to the punch by Arthur Penn) and inspired by an article in Le Monde, happened upon the story of Victor of Aveyron (Jean-Pierre Cargol),  who emerged at the start of the 19th century, aged eleven or twelve, having seemingly spent his childhood without any human contact. And the result is something quite remarkable, a quiet, intimate picture quite different from anything the filmmaker had made before. Eschewing most of the techniques he popularized with the coming of the French New Wave, there's instead a sparse, almost documentary feel to proceedings that seems closer to Bresson than to Godard, and there's a real richness to the themes that marks it as the obvious riposte to those who find the director lightweight; it's a film that, among other things, is about the beauty of education, but also one that questions the cost at which that education might come. Which makes it sound more punishing than it is, because it's also filled with beauty and warmth and humor as much as the director's other films. And he also manages to make it feel personal, in part because, in his first major acting role, he casts himself as Dr. Itard, the doctor who takes in the boy, and whose narration (often derived from the real-life inspiration's notes) relates the story. It's not an egotistical touch, however. Though he's a compassionate and good soul, Truffaut's film remains a touch skeptical of Truffaut's character, but the casting clearly shows how to dear to his heart the film, one of his very best, must have been.

Two English Girls

"Two English Girls" (1971)
Given that "Jules Et Jim" was one of his greatest successes, you can't blame Truffaut for returning to the author of that film's source material, Henri-Pierre Roche (who was famously 74 when he started writing), and adapting the second of his two major novels to the screen. But it's still surprising that, despite "Two English Girls" also revolving around a love triangle, it feels wildly different from its predecessor, while just as essential in the Truffaut canon. As the title might suggest, this time around, the story revolves around a young man and his romances with two British woman — in this case Claude (Jean-Pierre Leaud, coming up with a creation quite distinct from Antoine Doinel), who falls for the virginal, sickly Muriel Brown (Stacey Tendeter), only for an enforced separation to lead to a relationship with her older sister Ann. Despite its relationship with "Jules Et Jim," it actually comes across as much more of a companion piece to the recent "The Wild Child," also taking advantage of a period setting, and a quieter, more literary feel, thanks in part to the heavy use of narration and letters. "Jules Et Jim" felt like a movie about being in the heart of a love affair, but "Two English Girls" is a more wistful and melancholic piece, looking back long after the fact. Not that it's lacking in passion — the scene where Claude and Muriel finally sleep together is one of the most memorable and heart-pumping things Truffaut ever shot. And, for all its melancholy, it's also very funny in places. Along with "The Wild Child," "Two English Girls" marks the end of Truffaut's wild-young-man period, but proved that his entrance into middle-age could lead to work just as rewarding as anything that came before.

Day For Night

"Day For Night" (1972)
Arguably the greatest ever movie about the making of movies, "Day For Night" is Truffaut's love/poison pen letter to his chosen profession, and the medium which dominated his adult life. Appropriately enough, it's also one of his solid-gold masterpieces. Rich and almost novelistic, it details the making of a rather dire looking period drama called "Meet Pamela," a shoot so full of drama and disaster that it would make even Terry Gilliam a little terrified, as the director (played wryly by Truffaut himself) wrestles with problems both minor and major, and the cast and crew make out, break up and make up with each other. Loosely structured without being fatty (it's something of a forerunner to the style that Robert Altman was developing around the same time), it's really something closer to a decade-plus worth of anecdotes than a definitive memoir, but all the more enjoyable for it, with an all-star cast (including Jean-Pierre Leaud, in a rare and somewhat meta non-Antoine Doinel performance as a young actor, a career-best Jacqueline Bisset and, in a curious cameo, Graham Greene) clearly relishing the chance to send up themselves, and their colleagues. Few films have captured the tedium, infighting, soapy drama and low-key panic of actually making a movie better, and even fewer have displayed the magic and trickery involved in shooting a film even as hacky and mediocre as "Meet Pamela" — Truffaut highlights the artifice of his own technique even as he dwells on that of the movie-within-the-movie. The film's bafflingly fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years, or maybe just gone underseen, but it really is one of Truffaut's best, and most enjoyable achievements. The score, by frequent collaborator Georges Delerue, is also a delight, by the way.

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


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