The Movie Screen As Mirror
No other filmmaker in movie history has immersed himself more completely in his art than the great French director François Truffaut. Nor was there ever a director who in his work would blur the line between fiction and autobiography, or who would advocate more passionately that the art of film should emerge from the artist's life.
During a career that included more than twenty films, the man who came to be known as the father of auteurism would forge a distinctive approach to making films that are "as personal as a fingerprint." According to Truffaut, the informative new biography by historian Antoine de Baecque, and documentary filmmaker Serge Toubiana, the formulation of these revolutionary ideas about his beloved medium began practically at birth. Born François Roland, Truffaut came into the world as the unwanted son of an unmarried and immature nineteen-year-old. A fragile, sickly child, little François would spend the first twenty months of his life in the care of a wet nurse, until his mother finally married and he was legally claimed by her husband, Roland Truffaut. Even after his mother's marriage, though, the boy would remain estranged from his family until his grandmother, fearing he might die, brought the child into her home. Forced indoors because of his frail health and a tyrannical grandfather who demanded total silence, François began very early in life to cling to the books he found in his grandmother's library.
As the authors of this densely researched and sometimes plodding history reveal, Truffaut's first brush with filmmaking came at the age of ten, when his parents and some members of their ski club decided as a lark to make a parody of Les Visiteurs du Soir, a dramatic film by Marcel Carne. At around the same time, Truffaut began to haunt the many movie theaters near his home. The first film he saw was Abel Gance's Paradis Perdu, but by the age of twelve he was watching two or three films per week. Before long he saw that many each day. And if there were no new films to see, he would see his favorites over and over again. According to his records, he saw Children of Paradise nine times, Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Raven thirteen times, and Sacha Guitry's The Story of a Cheat twelve times. So totally absorbed was the young cineaste in his regimen that he would say, "Life was the screen."
Life may have been a screen for the budding filmmaker, but it was not easy. He claims he saw his first 200 films on the sly, playing hooky and slipping into the movie theaters without paying. In school his teachers viewed him as a bright but undisciplined child. Out of school, he was beginning to get into real trouble. He and friends would meet late at night to steal film stills from the glass cases outside movie theaters and then sell them the next day on the street. (A scene in Day for Night was based on these incidents.) In addition to these minor pranks, the young enthusiast began to organize cine clubs around Paris, but he could not keep up with the expenses and sank into debt. Trying to raise some cash, he stole a typewriter and sold it to another film buff. When all these transgressions came to light, Roland Truffaut took his adopted son to the nearest police station and arranged for him to be sent to the Paris Observation Center for Minors. Truffaut remained there for just a few months, but during that time he was diagnosed with syphilis and underwent a battery of painful injections.
After his release the troubled seventeen-year-old was sent to religious boarding school in Versailles, where shortly after his arrival, he was asked to write an essay describing "the most beautiful or saddest adventure in your life." His answer, which he began by stating that his whole life had been a sad adventure, gave some indication as to how much he had suffered in recent months. Though he paints a dark picture, there are some rays of light. "Three films a day, and three books a week, and records of great music would be enough to make me happy until the day I die, which will surely occur some day soon and which I egoistically dread." In closing Truffaut writes, "This sums up my adventure; it is neither gay nor sad; it is life. I don't gaze up at the sky for long, for when I look back down again the world seems horrid to me."
Before Truffaut emerged from his adolescence, he attempted suicide twice, enlisted in the army, and wound up in jail for desertion before receiving his discharge owing to "an unstable character." Because of these setbacks, his biographers assert, Truffaut emerged from his childhood well prepared for the battles of young adulthood. Upon his return to Paris, he moved in with the influential critic Andre Bazin and his wife, where he was offered a stability he had never known before. Almost immediately Truffaut began to find work as a journalist, applying the passionate advocacy of his early years to become one of the most knowledgeable and outspoken critics of his day. His tastes were singularly uncompromising. He knew what he liked, and why; what's more, he was not content merely to give his opinion, pro or con, about what he saw. He wanted to remake French cinema -- if not filmmaking the world over -- from the ground up.
His first salvo came in 1954 in the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema, and was titled "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," in which his first target would be the so-called tradition of quality. With this piece the young critic declared war on "the civil servants of the French Cinema." In the winter of 1953-54, Truffaut joined the staff at Cahiers, which later opened its doors to Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol. This group become known as "The Young Turks," and joined Truffaut in the battle against the stuffy academicism of the "tradition of quality" directors. But none of his confreres had the talent for polemic that Truffaut possessed, or his restless energy. Not content merely to attack the filmmakers, the young firebrand later took aim at his own kind, the film critics, claiming they were neither free nor intelligent. Rather, according to de Baecque and Toubiana, both of whom have had a long association with Cahiers, and are well versed in its history, "they are ignorant of both the history and technique of motion pictures, and lack imagination. They are professorial and full of prejudices. He even accuses them of being chauvinistic and of selling out to the highest bidder."
The brand of criticism that Truffaut championed (and unapologetically practiced) would be "frank, direct, violent, sectarian, founded on value judgments, always detailed but often provocative and scathing with no qualms about being peremptory and unfair." Predictably the reaction from within the profession -- by those, according to Truffaut's Cahiers colleague Jacques Laurent, "for whom cinema is not a religion but a pleasant pastime" --was shock. Immediately the president of the French Association of Film and Television Critics demanded Truffaut's resignation.
He would not resign, of course, but instead escalated his attacks on the complacent French film culture. A few years later, as a result of such unalloyed opinions, Truffaut was banned from attending the Cannes Film Festival. Still, it became clear during this time that Truffaut had already begun the transition from New Wave critic to New Wave filmmaker. The truest expression of the kind of film artist he would become can be seen in several essays written over the course of the next few years. In those pieces the would-be filmmaker began to formulate what would become known as the auteur theory or the politique des auteurs. Based on the statement by Giraudoux that "there are no works, there are only authors," Truffaut's belief in a cinema that was "authored" by the director in the same way that a novel is "authored" by the novelist still stands today as the central conceit behind almost all film criticism. It would also establish the standards by which most films are evaluated and to which most filmmakers aspire.
According to de Baecque and Toubiana, this and subsequent essays became a map for the controversial writer to follow when he made the now inevitable transition from Truffaut the critic to Truffaut the filmmaker. In an article published in Arts magazine in May 1957, the same year that Truffaut would direct his first film, a short titled The Mischief Makers, the critic wrote that "the film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual or autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them ... and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new. The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful adventure. The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it.... The film of tomorrow will be an act of love."
Beginning in 1957, shortly after the essay was published and lasting until his death from a brain tumor in 1984, Truffaut would go about the task of fulfilling his own prophecy. In films such as Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The Story of Adele H., Truffaut struggled to create the variety of filmmaking that lived up to the standard he created as a critic. Not just in the films that featured his alter ego Antoine Doinel (The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run, and the short Antoine and Colette), and those in which he would appear, Truffaut practiced what he called "verification through life," making the "autobiographical more concrete but also more universal" by combining his personal investment in a story with details and anecdotes collected from others.
With his untimely death at age 53, Truffaut would leave his work, his great self-portrait, unfinished. If nothing else, though, this biography, which makes little attempt to interpret its subject's films, provides a useful chronicle of events, giving us the raw material from which we might elaborate the brush strokes to complete the autobiography. It takes us through the innumerable love affairs, the frequent depressions, but above all, the many days spent on location, doing what the man who loved film loved most -- turning his days into film.
By Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Translated by Catherine Temerson. Alfred A. Knopf, 462 pages, $30
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.