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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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Small Change

"Small Change " (1976)
The closing section of an unofficial trilogy about childhood begun with "The 400 Blows" and concluded with "The Wild Child," "Small Change" is the culmination of nearly twenty years work — Truffaut had begun making notes for a project that would combine a number of stories about childhood in the mid-1950s (his '57 short "Les Mistons" came out of those notes). Without much need to shoehorn it into narrative, the film isn't made up so much of episodes as it is snippets or slices of the lives of a group of children, and in lesser hands, could have easily threatened to slip into a sort of highbrow version of "Kids Say The Funniest Things." But that would be to wildly underestimate Truffaut's skill. Leaning even more into docudrama than "The Wild Child," it has a sort of improvised feel suggesting that these aren't actors (which, really, they weren't), but real kids hopping onto the screen for a few minutes at a time. And fortunately, the kids are wonderful, from the heartbreaking, Antoine Doinel-like Julien to the almost silent-comedy-esque interplay between a 2-year-old and a kitten near a dangerously open window. Rarely for a film entirely about children (a few parents or teachers do appear, but they really are supporting players), there's little sentimentalization or sanctification of childhood — this is just kids being kids, from telling dirty stories you don't really understand to learning to fend for themselves. Letting his child cast be themselves on screen is a tricky proposition, but it works like magic — indeed, Steven Spielberg, who worked with the director soon after on "Close Encounters Of A Third Kind," claims he learned how to direct children thanks to Truffaut's advice.

The Green Room

"The Green Room" (1978)
Truffaut's biggest financial disaster, and a film much bleaker and darker than most of his work, is also one of his very best, and certainly one of his most underrated. Adapting two Henry James short stories, "The Altar of the Dead" and "The Beast In The Jungle," it stars Truffaut himself as  a death-obsessed journalist and traumatized World War One survivor who omes across Cecilia (Nathalie Baye), a younger woman who hangs out at the same cemetery. Truffaut (who was only six years away from his own passing) had become increasingly preoccupied by death, particularly after the passing of Cinematheque Francaise director Henri Langlois and friend Roberto Rossellini, and after watching "Shoot The Piano Player" and realizing that half of those on screen were no longer alive. The question of how we, as a society, honor the dead, became a major interest of the filmmaker, which culminated in this low-key, haunted and haunting picture that seems, in the best way, to come from a different filmmaker entirely. For a fairly committed atheist, it's a remarkably soulful and thoughtful picture in its treatment of death and grief, but his trademark humanity is never far from the surface, and the slow, gradual bond between Truffaut's Julien and Baye's Cecilia, and their building of a shrine together, is one of the most moving parts of the director's whole oeuvre. Nodding to Bergman in theme, and Tarkovsky in form (the photography, by frequent collaborator Nestor Almendros, who was Truffaut's go-to for his more "serious" fare, could be the most striking of any of his films), it's a definite outiler in his career, and probably his least accessible film, but all the more rewarding when you spend a little time with it.

Confidentially Yours

"Confidentially Yours" (1983)
This is probably a controversial choice in some quarters, but we'll stand by it: Truffaut's final film is undeniably something of a minor work, but in retrospect feels terminally underrated (including by Truffaut, who dismissed it), and perhaps his mostly fully-achieved and enjoyable experiment in crime noir. Based on "The Long Saturday Night" by Charles WIlliams (who also wrote the book that "Dead Calm" was based on), it's a sly upending of the mystery-thriller, which sees Barbara (Fanny Ardant), the secretary of estate-agent Julien (Jean-Louis Trintignant), step in to clear her boss's name when he's accused of killing his wife's lover. Nodding more to something like "The Thin Man" and even screwball comedy (Truffaut asked Ardant to perform her lines at top speed), it's also a return to the Hitchcock influence that had taken a back seat. But whereas something like "The Bride Wore Black" sometimes felt like imitation rather than homage, here, "Confidentially Yours" feels like its own beast, and 100% a Truffaut picture. The black-and-white photography gives it all the more authenticity, too — it sometimes seems like it could be a lost gem from an earlier era that's somehow only just been unearthed. It's perhaps all the more touching as the film is clearly a deeply felt love letter to Ardant. Truffaut had relationships with many of his leading ladies, but none are more glowingly paid tribute to than Ardant (who was in a relationship with the director from the early 1980s until his death). And as such, while it's tempting to wish that Truffaut had ended his career on more of a note of summing-up, it'd be hard to deny him this one, even if it wasn't so much damn fun.

Honorable Mentions: There’s certainly an argument to be made that Truffaut never made a truly bad film, and narrowing this list down proved to be more than a little tricky. But to name some of the ones that came closest to cracking the final ten, there’s 1964’s “The Soft Skin,” 1968’s ‘The Bride Wore Black,” 1969’s “Mississippi Mermaid,” 1975’s “The Story Of Adele H” and 1980’s “The Last Metro.” Any others you think deserve promotion or recognition? Any on the list that you think we’re crackers for including? Let us know in the usual place below. -- Oliver Lyttelton, Ben Brock

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


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