Film Reviews

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.

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Hal Hinson