Seeing François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard's films again, you're reminded of their brilliance, their bravado, and their beauty.
I think that our business, the art of cinema, is the art of our century. But I also think it's the art for young people.
-- Fritz Lang
"The exploiter never tells the exploiter how he's being exploited. We who represent information, cinema, television, the press, we are inside the discourse," says Jean-Luc Godard, "are telling the story. We, who are inside, must tell things. We, who are inside, must tell things differently, and in the end, tell different things."
Godard's determination to "tell different things" has made him both notorious and admired, a rebel and, however ironically, an icon. He takes up a familiar place in Two in the Wave (Deux de la vague), cast as one of the two most popular filmmakers in the French New Wave, alongside François Truffaut. Their pairing is not only traditional, but also rather neat, a way to organize clearly the many complexities of their thinking, their lives, and their remarkable art.
Even as it presents this history yet again, Emmanuel Laurent's documentary, open this week at New York's Film Forum, serves as a useful and compelling introduction to the movement. It shows how artists took seriously their commitments, their ideas, and their challenges to the status quo. That Truffaut and Godard ended up taking different approaches does not mean either "sold out" or relinquished his ideals. But their falling out does illustrate the difficulty of maintaining a united front, or even similar sets of fronts, regarding art in the face of an implacable industry.
In other words, the artists took seriously the stakes of art and commerce. Though they are often set in opposition, art and commerce are always, in film as elsewhere, interconnected. Movies, from their 19th-century inception, have ever negotiated between artists and consumers, all participants in the process seeking a sense of control, meaning, and possibility. Truffaut and Godard, the film proposes, began their journey as "Young Turks," their devotion to film -- as a concept, as an experience, as a way to fathom life -- emerged through their childhood fascinations ("All these young film fans see themselves as film creatures," narrates Antoine De Baecque, "For a film buff, life's purpose is to be with the pals in the kingdom of shadows") and developed in their early work as critics. Writing in Cahiers du Cinéma (the journal founded in 1951 by André Bazin), they found causes to support (including extolling the brilliance of Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock) and encouraged one another to pursue their expanding ambitions. Writers and filmmakers, including Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol, shared ideas and encouraged each other's invention and risk-taking.
Two in the Wave offers an occasionally awkward conceit, that points out that a young researcher (Isild Le Besco) is discovering newspaper and film clips that become the documentary's own story. She wanders through parks, she leafs through magazines, and she's mostly unnecessary. She finds, for instance Truffaut and Godard came from different sorts of backgrounds, Truffaut famously underclass, defiant, and in trouble, never knowing his biological father and frequently truant from school in order to see movies (see: the Antoine Doinel films) and Godard raised in a "rich, cultured, Protestant family." But when they came together with a shared love of the same films and most crucially, a similar faith in the transformative power of films, their capacity to reflect and provoke. When Truffaut broke through to prominence with 1959's The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cent Coups and Godard the following year, with Breathless (À bout de soufflé), they seemed for a time to be excellent partners, each writing and producing for the other, each helping to promote and goad the other.
Two in the Wave observes as well their work with Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose own public and artistic experience commenced at Cannes, when The 400 Blows was a sensation and he was just 14. The documentary juxtaposes the roles Léaud played for both filmmakers (he starred as Antoine Doinel in five films, as well as Truffaut's Day for Night [La Nuit américaine]; he won a 1966 Silver Bear as Best Actor for Godard's Masculin, feminine), noting that his capacity to accommodate their diverging politics and formal strategies make him seem "The New Wave child, who incarnates its intense fragile persona." Léaud's own interviews, most drawn from archives during his youth, reveal his thoughtfulness and also his own commitment to the essential point of his "fathers," that cinema is politics, as well as art and business and a source of identity.
Just so, the two filmmakers at the center of Two in the Wave describe themselves repeatedly in filmed interviews -- shadows on screens, images of themselves, father and teachers for all their viewers. "I think this intense contact with film is a learning process," says Truffaut. Or again, "I always thought cinema was great but lacked sincerity, and we ought to do it better." Godard insists on another sort of investment and effect equally passionately: "If we, movie people, want to be called artists, we must remember and respect this rule: 'Any true moral standards imply a fierce resistance to tyranny.' That's from a guy to whom modern cinema owes it all, Orson Welles."
Two in the Wave laments that when they broke up, like lovers, "A friendship end[ed], killed by a conflict over filmmakers and commitment." Seeing their work again, you're reminded of their brilliance, their bravado, and their beauty. Even if the men never spoke again in their lives after 1973, in film they continue to speak, together and in tension.