The 100 Essential Directors Part 9

Victor Sjöström to Luchino Visconti

by PopMatters Staff

28 August 2011


Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut
(1932 - 1984)

Three Key Films: The 400 Blows (1959) Day for Night (1973), The Last Metro (1980)

Underrated: The Soft Skin (1964). The story has been told a million times: a married man (Jean Desailly) begins an affair with a young woman (Francoise Dorleac) and tragedy ensues. Upon its release, this film surprised critics and audiences who had become used to Truffaut’s picaresque style in films like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim (1962). Inversely The Soft Skin is a dark tale lifted straight out off newspaper headlines. He recurs to an almost documentary-like approach which makes the doomed romance all the more painful to watch because of the intimacy the camera achieves. Perhaps inspired by the work of his former colleague Alain Resnais, the film’s sensuality transcends the screen and its resolution remains one of the most haunting moments in 1960s cinema.

Unforgettable: When you think of Francois Truffaut you usually think of Jean-Pierre Léaud, and with reason: the underrated actor was the director’s muse. He worked with Truffaut in seven films and was the main star of Truffaut’s most famous series: the Antoine Doinel movies. Playing Doinel in five films, shot over almost two decades, Léaud became Truffaut’s alter ego of sorts (so much that in an interview the director mentions they began looking like each other).The Doinel series began as an autobiographical experiment in which the life of a rebellious Parisian boy takes an almost Dickensian turn as he faces time in a center for troubled youth. It is here where one of Truffaut’s most iconic scenes takes place as Antoine is interviewed by an unseen psychologist. The child’s responses and natural qualities in front of the camera are magical and most surprising of all is the realization that most of his work was improvised.

The Legend: Few filmmakers have loved the movies like Francois Truffaut. It might sound like an exaggeration, considering he was part of the French New Wave: arguably the greatest artistic movement powered exclusively by cinema geeks. Yet as you become immersed in his life and eventually in his filmography, you discover a man whose work equals pure cinematic joy. Truffaut’s childhood was defined by his rebelliousness, he grew up with his grandmother and moved i with his parents only after her death. He was expelled from several schools and decided he’d become self-taught. His education consisted of becoming a film omnivore. As a teenager he started his very own film club and through this met André Bazin, the co-founder of the legendary Cahiers du cinéma after working as a film critic in the magazine he decided to try luck making his own movies.

His first feature film, the autobiographical, The 400 Blows, was a critical success earning him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Truffaut was an essential part of the New Wave, along with his Cahiers colleagues they redefined how movies were being made and consumed by worldwide audiences. Even after beginning work as a film director, Truffaut was faithful to his writing and his essays on cinema are some of the most insightful pieces on the medium. He’s usually attributed with the creation of the “auteur theory”, which proclaimed that directors are the authors of their work. He based most of his theory on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, who he greatly admired to the point that he made an entire book about him. Reading it you can feel the great admiration he had for other filmmakers and his fanboy-ish qualities are obvious in the way in which he referenced other films and genres in his own work. From the noir-ish tragedy of Shoot the Piano Player (1962), to documentary-by-way-of-Kipling feel of The Wild Child (1970), his influences are notable but never intrusive. Two of his greatest works deal almost directly with cinema: the Oscar winning Day for Night, gives us a glimpse of the misadventures of a film crew (Truffaut himself plays the movie director) and The Story of Adele H (1975), his biopic of Victor Hugo’s mad daughter, feels like a 19th century documentary about artistic creation, romantic obsession, and disillusionment.

Wanting to do it all when it came to movies, Truffaut also excelled as an actor, his supporting performance in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) earned him a BAFTA nomination. Despite his tragic death at age 52, Truffaut’s legacy is undeniable. He once said “cinema is an improvement on life” when the truth is that his work was an improvement on cinema. Jose Solís Mayén



Damn the Double Nickel: "Convoy" Shows a Great Director Slumming

// Short Ends and Leader

"Dividing the auteurist from the average hedonist.

READ the article