Thursday, July 4, 2013

My Favorite Truffaut

Christine, Ed Garea and David Skolnick share their top five Francois Truffaut-directed films.

By Christine

When we lost Francois Truffaut at the young age of 52 from a brain tumor, we lost more than a director; we lost an artist who climbed to the status of a cultural icon in a little over a quarter of a century. He was easily the best director France has had since the days of Jean Renoir (we can only wonder about what sort of career Renoir would have had if not for the war), and our most prolific in terms of films that are now acknowledged as classics of the cinema.

There were no limits of genre for Truffaut; his films range from stark drama to the autobiographical to romantic comedy to science fiction. A jack of all trades? Yes, and in my opinion, a master of all. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Truffaut’s films successfully crossed over to the moviegoing audiences in other countries, especially America, where foreign directors had long been consigned to an “art house ghetto.” I think the reason for his success comes from the fact that he eschews the stridence of the political statement for the emphasis on the universal human condition. He had famously said that “life is neither Nazi, Communist, nor Gaullist, it is anarchistic.” For Truffaut, the human condition comes down to love: the abundance or lack of it; the elation it brings and the despair it imposes; the difficulty of communication with respect to being in love; and the resilience of children in the face of the lack of love.

Although many of his films were autobiographical, he also availed himself of other sources, ranging from Henry James to Cornel Woolrich to Henri-Pierre Roche. He once said that if the story was good, did it matter who the author was? That material could not be in better hands, for he had that rare ability to take such material and make it his own without compromising the integrity of that original material, a rare feat for a filmmaker.

I was asked by the editors to pick my five favorite Francois Truffaut films. Five. Five? A most difficult task to accomplish when every film he made is my favorite. But, yes, I suppose it must be five. Hence, beginning with number five, here is my list:

5. Vivement dimanche! (Finally Sunday, or Confidentially Yours, 1983): It was Truffaut’s last film, and sadly showed why he died all too soon. Keeping with his theme of love, this is a heartfelt tribute to the movies he grew up with; the movies he loved. Fanny Ardent is the secretary to businessman Jean-Louis Trintignant. When he is falsely accused of murder, she sets out to investigate and clear her boss in this wonderful mélange of film noir and suspense thriller alleviated by screwball comedy in a style that reminds us of Hitchcock. I loved the name of the secretary, “Barbara Becker,” a wonderful noir moniker denoting at once the Hitchcockian relevance – and reverence. Warning! This film should be recorded rather than seen live, for once viewed, you will want to see it again. When I saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery with my husband, we noticed the similarity between Allen’s movie and Vivement Dimanche! I shed more than one tear thinking about what Truffaut would have said about it.

4. Les Quarte cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959): One can do no better in a film debut than create one of the enduring classics of cinema. The heartbreaking story of Antoine Doinel’s childhood was based closely on Truffaut’s own childhood. A realistic, and yet, extremely personal film about Doinel’s troubled childhood, it’s the very sort of film Truffaut challenged others to make. When I first saw it, it made me laugh, especially with the school scenes. Later it made me cry, when his mother abandons him in the reform school with the coldness with which one might dispose of an old piece of furniture.

3. Le Nuit americaine (Day for Night, 1973): A touching and hilarious look at the madness that comes with the making of a film. Truffaut stars as Ferrand, a director filming Je vous presente Pamela (Meet Pamela), the story of an English married wife falling in love and running away with her French father-in-law. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Ferrand is beset with problems large and small, from choosing the right props for a scene to the film lab ruining an expensive crowd scene to dealing with the actors themselves, including a leading lady recovering from a breakdown, a co-star more interested in romancing the script girl than the movie, an alcoholic actress who can’t remember her lines, and most hilarious of all, a cat that won’t hit his mark. For me, the beauty of this film is in the genius with which Truffaut put it together, establishing the difference between Ferrand, the character, and Truffaut, the director. As Ferrand he shoots Meet Pamela rather unexceptionally with a static camera, but as Truffaut, filming the behind-the-scenes story, he uses fluid camerawork. Day for Night is a technical term for night scenes shot during the day with an optical filter, and when we think about it, it sums up the picture perfectly. If it seems similar to a film Jacques Tati would make . . . well, Truffaut once confided to me of his admiration for Tati when I broached the subject. So let us draw our conclusions.

2. Baisers voles (Stolen Kisses, 1968): This is my personal favorite of the Antoine Doinel series. Antoine is dishonorably discharged from the army and returns to Paris, where he finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life. He takes on a series of jobs, going from a dismal turn as a night clerk at a hotel to working as perhaps the most improbable private eye in history, to a turn as a television repairman. For me the beauty of the film lies in its subject matter: an awkward age that we tend to ignore, one’s early twenties. I think for we French, the early twenties are more confusing than our teen years because until then everything is pretty well laid out for us. It’s when we have to assume the adult life that everything comes crashing down. For me that moment came after finishing my university studies balancing what it was I intended to do with my life while dealing with love in the form of a few boyfriends. I generally remained confused until my mid-20s when I began my career as such and shortly after that, meeting my husband, who made it all come together, proving that Truffaut was right about the power of love.

But alas, for Antoine Doinel, love was never that easy. It is difficult enough when thinking of his Christine, but when he’s in love with her, she’s not in love with him; and when she’s in love with him, he’s pursuing someone else. Look for the scene where Antoine and Christine spend the night, and in the morning he proposes to her with what looks like a bottle opener substituting for a ring. I think it’s one of the most beautiful and deeply poetic scenes in cinema history.

1. Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1962): For me, it would take a really remarkable film to top Baisers voles. This should give the reader an idea of how remarkable Jules et Jim is. It’s not only Truffaut’s finest film, but also one I regard as one of the 10 best films ever made. It’s a riveting story of the love and friendship forged over a span of 25 years between best friends Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) with the free-spirited Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). I shall leave it to others to describe the plot, but the thing I have always found interesting is that the novel upon which the film is based in an autobiographical one. With this film Truffaut first begins to examine the very nature of love while creating a mise-en-scene of the world as a fable. In the first half of the film, as the three friends experience the joy of love, Truffaut’s camerawork expresses their euphoria. In the second half, when the three friends are facing disillusionment and loss, the camera reflects the mood and the film becomes subdued. It seems strange that a period drama adapted from a novel written by a 75-year old man should have such resonance with the youth of the time, but Moreau, Werner and Serre bring an infectious exuberance to their characters. Besides being attractive and charming, they also defy the conventional morality of society. Catherine is the epitome of the free spirit, moving freely from one lover to another; fighting for equality in her own way. Unlike Jules and Jim, who channel their desires through art, Catherine expresses her talents in the act of living itself; her essence lies in her very unpredictability. Yet, at the same time she is searching for love and the security that goes with it. It would seem that she finds it with Jules, but their temperaments are too far apart to reach an accord because Jules can never satisfy her need for adventure. 
And so ends my list. Writing about these films has caused me not only to remember them, but to also remember the man that made them. Perhaps that’s the true nature of love – the memory that never dies.

By Ed Garea

This month, TCM is planning a festival of Francois Truffaut movies. Each Friday during the month, four or five will be spooled to what I’m sure will be an eager audience. Many of Truffaut’s films were intensely personal, arising from incidents or episodes in his life. In the end, though, Truffaut ultimate scenario was his premature death at age 52 from a brain tumor.

An avid reader and intense film buff since childhood, Truffaut was a true autodidact. Beginning his career in films as a critic with Cahiers du Cinema in the early ‘50s, he made a name for himself with his 1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” which called out the old guard of French directors for their “stodginess,” and stating his preference for American films, even the low budget B variety. He was also the instigator of what came to be known as “the auteur theory,” which has since become part and parcel of our understanding of the intellectual fabric of cinema. For Truffaut, the creative personality of directors over the body of their work was more important than individual films themselves. Some of the directors he admired included Abel Gance, Jacques Becker, Max Ophuls, Roberto Rossellini, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock, a personal idol of Truffaut’s.

But as a director, while his technical expertise is to be admired, a far more important factor in evaluating Truffaut is the fact he’s a marvelous storyteller. All the technical competence in the world is worth nothing if a director cannot communicate his story to the audience. However, while I’m sure my colleagues here at The Celluloid Club see him as France’s greatest director, I see him only as France’s best director since the establishment of the revolution created by La Novelle vague, taking a back seat to the body of work of Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Jean Vigo.

Be it as it may, the three of us agreed to present our five favorite Truffaut films. While it would be easy to plug in what I believe to be his “artistic” and critical best, I’m taking the other road in that I’m listing what I consider to be his five most entertaining movies. Put it this way – if I were listing my five favorite Henry James novels, I would keep in mind that The Golden Bowl is his best, both critically and artistically, but it is not my favorite. That would be The Bostonians, which I believe to have the better story. It’s the same with Truffaut; his most critically acclaimed may not necessarily be my favorite, and as I lean towards the psychotronic in a director’s body of work, the reader will notice that this preference is evident in my choices. So, without further ado, below are my five favorite Francois Truffaut films.

5. The Bride Wore Black (1968): It’s sort of Truffaut’s homage to Hitchcock, even down to having Bernard Herrmann write the score. However, Hitchcock was never this obvious. Jeanne Moreau is mourning the fact that thugs whacked her fiancée at the church door right after he and Jeanne tied the knot. She thinks of killing herself, but gets an even better idea: why not track down the killers and kill them? At any rate, it’s a lot of fun, as Jeanne dispatches her victims in most interesting ways.

4. Stolen Kisses (1968): Not only is this is one of Truffaut’s most beautiful films, but it also shows the growth and maturity from his Nouvelle Vague days. Continuing the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Truffaut’s alter ego from The 400 Blows, we discover he has been dishonorably discharged from the army for questionable character. So, he takes on a series of odd jobs while trying to find his niche in life. At the same time there’s the problematic relationship with the love of his young life – Christine Darbon (Claude Jade). Their problem is that they can never find themselves on the same page, which provides the basis for much of the film’s humor. As I noted before, watch for the scene where Antoine proposes to Christine. The camerawork is excellent and the score enhances the action on the screen.

3. Fahrenheit 451 (1966): This Truffaut film will not be screened during July’s celebration, but it’s a favorite of mine and deserves inclusion. It’s Truffaut’s first and only film in English; he co-wrote the screenplay and began shooting before he mastered the English language – and it shows. He was very disappointed with the awkward and stilted English dialogue, preferring the French-dubbed version, which he supervised. But no matter, for it’s still a compelling film based on Ray Bradbury’s book about a future society where books are burned. Watch for the book burnings: one of the books being burned is an issue of Cahiers du Cinema, and on its cover is a still from Breathless, for which Truffaut collaborated on the screenplay.

2. The 400 Blows (1959): Truffaut’s first and most autobiographical film, and one I can watch multiple times. It never grows old for me. While this is not, as many think, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s first film, it is the film that brought him to the attention of the public and secured a place for him in cinema history. He went on to play the same character, Antoine Doinel, for Truffaut four more times. It’s a touching story of a neglected teenager, brutalized both at home and at school, who responds by acting out: skipping school, sneaking into the movies, and petty theft. Truffaut’s mise en scene of a dingy Paris full of arcades, dingy apartments, abandoned factories, and regular working day avenues helps raise this above other films of the time. At the end, it presents the question of whether the punishment of Doinel fitted his crimes.

1. Day For Night (1973): I saw this long, long ago when I was first married. We went to a theater called The Lost Picture Show, believe it or not, to see a Truffaut double feature of Day for Night with The Green Room. Although I enjoyed both, Day for Night especially moved me. It’s a wonderful film about a director and his problems both on and off the set, as he has to deal with temperamental actors, an actress rescheduling because of her pregnancy, problems with the set, and other emergencies that suddenly crop up, calling for the filmmaker to be a fireman, a confidant, and a psychiatrist in addition to his directorial duties. It is extremely entertaining and one of the few Truffaut films I own on DVD. 

By David Skolnick

There are only few directors in the history of cinema who can compare to Truffaut. His films are incredibly well-made whether it's a comedy or a drama or, as in most cases, a combination of both. You'd think that because Truffaut made only 21 feature-length films, it wouldn't be that difficult to pick his best five. After all, I get to select nearly 25 percent of them. But because of the quality of each movie, the selection process is difficult. It means some of my favorite films - The Bride Wore BlackShoot the Piano PlayerMississippi Mermaid, The Man Who Loved Women and Stolen Kisses - didn't make this list.

5. Two English Girls (1971): This is a role reversal of Truffaut's classic Jules and Jim, made in 1962, about two men in love with the same woman. In Two English Girls, it is two women in love with the same man, Claude Roc, played by the incomparable Jean-Pierre Léaud, who stars in more Truffaut's films than any other actor and is the face of the French New Wave. Two English Girls takes place around the turn of the 20th century with Claude meeting an English woman, Muriel Brown (Stacey Tendeter), with the two immediately becoming close friends. She invites Claude to her family's estate hoping he'll fall in love with her sister, Ann (Kika Markham). The three are inseparable, but Claude falls for Muriel, who falls even harder for him. Their families insist they don't see each other for a year and if they're still in love after that time, they can be married. Claude spends most of the year having sex with several women in Paris and with only one month until the year is up, he breaks it off, devastating Muriel. Ann, who isn't assertive by nature, goes to France to confront Claude, but instead the two fall in love. While neither relationship works, the three characters are deeply affected for decades as a result of the passionate love each sister has for Claude and his love of them. It's a beautiful yet tragic film that has been wrongfully maligned over the years by some who can’t appreciate its underlying message of intense love never fulfilled.

4. The Woman Next Door (1981): Truffaut's second to last film, released three years before his death, The Woman Next Door tells the story of Bernard Coudray (Gérard Depardieu), a happily married family man living in the French countryside who's life gets turned upside down when Mathilde Bauchard (Fanny Ardant in her greatest role) and her husband move next door. It turns out Bernard and Mathilde had a passionate love affair years ago. They try to fight their feelings, but succumb to them. There are a few light-hearted moments in the film that initially comes off as a romantic comedy. But at its core, it is deep, dark and tragic with outstanding acting and beautiful cinematography. And that ending stays with you long after the closing credits. 

3. Day for Night (1973): This film permanently ended the friendship between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, probably the second most important director of the French New Wave movement whose earlier films were groundbreaking, but made largely inconsistent movies the rest of his career. Day for Night is a film about making a film with Truffaut playing Ferrand, a director. Godard sent an angry letter to Truffaut after seeing the film. He complained that Truffaut’s character and Jacqueline Bisset, who plays Julie Baker, the lead actress in the fake movie, called Meet Pamela, don't have a sex scene in Day for Night as the two were a real-life couple at the time. Godard wrote a letter calling Truffaut "a liar" and then had the nerve to ask for money for his next film project. Truffaut's letter in response puts Godard in his place, calling him "a liar" by posing as a "victim" of the film industry system despite making whatever movies he desired. As for the film, it's an excellent portrayal of the difficulties and challenges of making a movie with the focus not only on the actors of the fictitious film, such as Bisset and Jean-Pierre Léaud, but also the crew members giving viewers a complete look at the process. What’s very interesting is the fake film comes across as trashy, simplistic and dull, sort of the anti-Truffaut movie. The acting is top-notch with Valentina Cortese stealing many scenes as Severine, a nearly washed-up alcoholic actress having trouble accepting that her better days are behind here. Also, kudos to Truffaut, who is great in his portrayal of the director. It's a beautiful tribute to cinema; a love letter from Truffaut to film without getting mushy or sentimental.

2. The 400 Blows (1959): This is Truffaut's debut feature-length film and it's a masterpiece. Before he made The 400 Blows, Truffaut was a film critic for Cahiers de Cinéma, a French film publication, and made no secret about what he saw as the shortcomings of the movie industry. Incredibly, he shows the world how to make a daring, brilliant film and helps create a movement that changed the face of movies, inspiring numerous directors in the decades since its release. Rather than stick with the traditional French formula for making movies, Truffaut championed films with strong, creative directors who personalize their work. Jean-Pierre Léaud had a small part a year earlier in King on Horseback, but this is his first leading role – a 14-year-old playing the 12-year-old Antoine Doinel, strongly based on Truffaut. As previously mentioned, he'd reprise the character in three other feature-length films (all are excellent with 1968's Stolen Kisses the best of the bunch) and a 30-minute short. You can see even at this age why Léaud would become Truffaut's go-to actor in many films and why at such a young age, he was already a gifted actor. He has a natural charisma, charm and talent, seemingly so at ease portraying the mischievous and misunderstood Antoine. Truffaut deserves a lot of credit for the brilliant filming of this movie, making the gritty, dirty streets of Paris the young actor's main co-star and helping to highlight the lost, confused existence of Antoine. Its final scene on the shoreline with a freeze-frame of Antoine’s face is among the most iconic endings to a film. Many directors, actors and film fans say this is their favorite movie. It's definitely in my top 15.

1. Jules and Jim (1962): Just edging out The 400 Blows as my favorite Truffaut film is this incredible movie. The plot takes place over a period of about 25 years before, during and after World War I, depicting the intense friendship between two men – Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchman – that is stronger than many marriages, and how it evolves because of the presence of Catherine (Jeanne Moreau, one of cinema's all-time best actresses), an impulsive, captivating and enchanting woman. Catherine loves both men, marrying Jules before the war – he and Jim are fighting for opposing countries and fearful they'll meet in combat. After the war, Jim visits Jules and Catherine, who have a daughter. But things aren't good between the couple and Catherine, who's had several affairs, falls for Jim. Jules' love for her is so great that he agrees to divorce Catherine so she can marry Jim with all three of them, and the child, living together. But that marriage also has its problems. Jim leaves, but plans to return when Catherine becomes pregnant with his child. They don't get back together because of a miscarriage with Jules and Catherine becoming a couple again. That too is short-lived when the three meet years later and Catherine wants to get back together with Jim, who loves her but realizes there's no future for them as a happy couple. The acting is extraordinary, the voice-over narration by Michel Subor greatly enhances the storyline – narration can easily kill a movie – and everything works to perfection from the beautiful cinematography that uses photos, freeze-frame, archived footage and tracking shots to the storyline adapted from Henri-Pierre Roché’s book to Georges Delerue’s soundtrack. Passion and the impact it has on people is something Truffaut focuses on in a number of films, including The Woman Next Door. While the ending to that 1981 film is outstanding and memorable, the conclusion of Jules and Jim is even better. This is one of the finest films ever made. It is as much a piece of art as a master painting, a captivating song or a brilliant poem. It is easily the best French New Wave movie I've seen, and the greatest French film of all-time, which is as big a compliment as I can give because no other foreign country has made more quality movies than France.

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