The late French film director Francois Truffaut was an enigmatic figure in world cinema. Initially a critic and passionate film theorist, he was later a practitioner at the forefront of a major European cinematic zeitgeist: La Nouvelle Vague, which changed the industry forever.
La Nouvelle Vague was a seismic cultural development, greatly aided by the arrival of the latest version of Arriflex’s small 35 IIC camera, a compact and technically advanced 35mm professional model at complete odds with the physically cumbersome and then-prevalent studio-suited gear manufactured by Mitchell and Panavision. Such new technology allowed for previously undreamt of levels of literal artistic freedom; with directors no longer restricted by camera size, this new marvel signified a major progression in feature-quality location photography, which was now easier to capture than ever before, using just available light and natural diegetic sound. The Arriflex’s influence on Truffaut and his peers, and their respective output, was immense.
Truffaut’s influence and interests flirted with mainstream cinema, too. Not one to thumb his nose haughtily at Hollywood’s output, any US-based director whose work was viewed as rich with artistic merit had the potential to become a doyen of Truffaut and his cinema-obsessed contemporaries based at the legendary film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema. The primary recipient of this praise went to Hitchcock, a director that Truffaut worshipped.
Truffaut’s reputation as an iconic and admired figure of international cinema continued through the years until his death in 1984 at the young age of 52. In 1976, when Steven Spielberg, then one of Hollywood’s most promising new directors, was seeking to cast a part in his new film — that of a UFO expert based on the French scientist Jacques Vallee — he chose his hero Truffaut, who agreed to participate in what became the excellent Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Truffaut had been very impressed by the young filmmaker’s Duel, and no doubt by Spielberg’s clear natural proficiency for Hitchcockian suspense.
So what of Truffaut’s body of work as a director? A voracious film buff, he certainly consumed films and absorbed influences as regularly as people consume food. As aforementioned, unlike many European filmmakers, he admired those working in the mainstream as well as those of the avant-garde; Truffaut was just as likely to hail the visual brilliance of, say, the Hollywood-based German émigré and melodramatist Douglas Sirk as he was to enjoy the delightful eccentricities and art-house eclecticism of Luis Bunuel. What influence did this diverse appreciation of genre have on his output? Indeed, what of his unsettled childhood and its manifestation in his films?
To aid appraisal, UK distributor Artificial Eye has released a selection of Truffaut’s best-regarded films on both DVD and Blu-ray formats, and together they represent a feast for cinephiles. A fantastic collection, there are eight titles in total: The 400 Blows (1959); The Soft Skin (1964); Stolen Kisses (1968); Bed and Board (1970); Love on the Run (1979); The Last Metro (1980); The Woman Next Door (1981) and Finally Sunday (1983).
Perhaps one of Truffaut’s best-known and personal films, The 400 Blows — his debut as director — is a touching, semi-autobiographical piece about a young adolescent boy, Antoine, who drifts into a life of petty crime, played against a backdrop of a turbulent home life. Despite the potentially dramatic subject matter, Truffaut crafts a gentle, lyrical film and deliberately avoids passing judgement on Antoine and his deeds. Instead, Truffaut sympathetically presents the evidence and the mitigation, and allows the audience to decide. (For more on this film, see PopMatters‘ “Double Take” on it.)
A Palme d’Or nominee that was nevertheless a commercial failure, The Soft Skin features Jean Desailly as Pierre Lachenay, a literary scholar who has an affair with an attractive air hostess he meets whilst on a flight to Lisbon. Essentially a complex morality play, The Soft Skin examines both the process of, and havoc wrought, by adulterous behaviour. The French landscape of the period is also beautifully and palpably evoked by Truffaut’s keen eye for detail.
Next is a trio of films that reunite us with Antoine, the young protagonist from The 400 Blows. Stolen Kisses is a delightfully simple and uncluttered curiosity that charts Antoine’s transition into adult dysfunction, whilst the quirky Bed and Board contains a narrative quite different from the moving honesty of Antoine’s debut back in 1959. Love on the Run concludes the series on a sour note, and finds Antoine still struggling to make connections with women.
The award-winning commercial hit The Last Metro illustrates the extent to which Truffaut was a master of naturalism. Containing some hefty star power in Catherine Deneuve and a young Gerard Depardieu, the film is set in Paris during the Nazi occupation, and concerns the lives of a Jewish theatre owner and his wife, and the struggle they endure to maintain their business. Again, Truffaut’s unobtrusive style allows the narrative to unfold with beautiful simplicity.
The Woman Next Door sees Truffaut re-examining the devastating effects of adultery. Gerard Depardieu and Fanny Ardent play Bernard and Mathilde, married neighbours who harbour a secret: unbeknownst to their respective spouses, the pair used to be lovers. Inevitably Bernard and Mathilde rekindle their passionate relationship, and in doing so Truffaut presents us with a fascinating dichotomy: whilst the couple share a wondrous and breathtakingly powerful love, their union is nevertheless forbidden within the boundaries of acceptable social morality. The primary actors are superb here, too; never before has the emotion of a doomed affair been evinced so painfully.
Lastly is Finally, Sunday, a fairly lighthearted yet intelligent confection, and Truffaut’s Gallic homage to his idol Hitchcock. Shot in black and white and seeming to evoke an earlier period, the film certainly contains many thematic similarities to the latter’s work: a murder, an innocent accused, amateur sleuths poking around in places they shouldn’t be in and so on. (Woody Allen’s 1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery has shades of Truffaut’s film, too).
Finally, Sunday is a great example of Truffaut’s demonstrable love of cinema; it is a celebration of film, of influences, of genre. It’s a fitting end to Truffaut’s career; it would become the last film he directed. It is of some comfort that he appeared to having such fun making it; his enthusiasm is infectious, and makes Finally, Sunday a suspenseful, satisfying and enjoyable experience.
Overall, this is a sterling and highly recommended collection of films, made by a master filmmaker with total control and understanding of cinematic history and language. As fellow cineaste Martin Scorsese once remarked: “In Truffaut, you could feel the awareness of film history behind the camera, but you could also see that every single choice he made was grounded in the emotional reality of the picture. If you look at those movies carefully, you will see that there’s nothing extraneous or superficial”.
There are plenty of extras accompanying the films, with every disc containing at least a commentary from a key cast member, and others also containing additional material such as theatrical trailers and unreleased footage.