An Underrated Genius Rediscovered
“I have always thought that if one has something to say, then one should either say it or write it, but not make a film. A film does not say anything, a film conveys emotional information that is too shattering, too sensual, too dislocating for it to be capable of eventuating in a cold-blooded message.”
Out of all the French New Wave directors, François Truffaut has always been the least discussed in purely academic terms. Where everyone has something to say about the complicated, if not always complex ideas behind the work of Jean-Luc Godard, the perverse humanism of Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy’s obsession with melodrama and the moral reevaluations of Eric Rohmer, few scholars have ever had much to say about Truffaut other than how good he was with child actors or how much he looked like his onscreen alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Truffaut’s cinema has always been seen as the middlebrow sibling who came out during one of the most important artistic revolutions in France (perhaps the world). Why couldn’t his movies be more transgressive or explore sexuality in a more open way? Why did he seem to have so little interest in bending the limits of genre and producing works that could immediately be identified as Truffaut-esque?
These very questions seem to have plagued author Anne Gillain, who confesses that as a young woman she too began to think of Truffaut as one of her country’s lesser artists. It wasn’t until she met him, began to study his films individually, and filtered them through psychoanalysis, that she realized he may be the most underrated filmmaker in modern history.
In her brilliant book, François Truffaut: The Lost Secret, available in the English language for the very first time (with a translation by Alistair Fox), Gillain serves us with a delicious reexamination of someone’s work that will make us want to sit down and take in all of Truffaut’s wonderful filmography at once. Gillain elaborates how, almost accidentally, she ended up discovering the dilemma at the center of most of Truffaut’s movies: his need to be close to a mother figure whom he loves and fears, and his never ending quest to find out who was his biological father. On the surface these two issues sound specifically like standard Oedipal dramas, but Gillain’s brilliance isn’t reduced to pointing out the obvious with scholarly terms, but in tracing it back to almost every movie the director made during his thirty-year long career.
Using language that’s both enlightening and friendly, Gillain weaves a complex study of how a seemingly simple man with a fascination for the emotional core of cinema (which he considered the greatest of the arts) ended up inadvertently creating a system that sounds almost mathematical, in order to conceal his darkest, deepest fears within his movies. Through analyses of the number of shots and symbols he used in specific movies, Gillain was able to “guess” what Truffaut’s entire framework was based on, something that he never publicly acknowledged when he was alive but that helps see his oeuvre under an entirely different light.
Gillain doesn’t rely on the reveal of this “secret” to come up with a sensationalist work interested merely in thrilling readers with salacious accounts of the director’s life. He was a well known womanizer who also happened to suffer severely for love (Catherine Deneuve seems to have been the woman who marked his life), but the author goes beyond biographical details to create connections between movies that couldn’t seem to be less related if they tried. She pairs The 400 Blows with The Woman Next Door to show us how his strange relationship with his mother marked him from his very first film to almost his last. She uses Freudian theories of representation to draw similarities between the seemingly shallow plots of Stolen Kisses and Two English Girls, which reveal Hitchcockian obsessions with desiring more than what you’re allowed to have (it’s no coincidence that Truffaut also wrote the definitive book on Hitchcock).
By the end of François Truffaut: The Lost Secret, we are shown a man who had much more than a sweet side, Gillain makes a strong case about why Truffaut’s work might have more in common with Jane Campion and Wong Kar Wai than with Steven Spielberg (with whom he’s usually compared for the wrong reasons). In her meticulous study of his filmography, the author is able to uncover a man who contradicted himself to the point of exclaiming sometimes he made a film just to tell someone something, after having expressed that movies aren’t about message.
François Truffaut: The Lost Secret is revelatory because it forces us to reevaluate works that at first glance seem to have no further meaning than what we can see with our conscious vision (there are many metaphors about seeing spread throughout the book), but which upon further study reveal the heartbreaking truth that even in these sweet films, Truffaut was a man crying out to the heavens for help. He stated that ”fiction is a vampire and constantly needs fresh blood”, a harrowing way to sum up how his work got the best of him.