Cannes 2015: 'Hitchcock/Truffaut' Looks at Great Directors' Careers

Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Even people familiar with both directors will find elements of Hitchcock/Truffaut surprising, especially a moment where Hitchcock seems haunted by the question of whether he might have been looser behind the camera.

CANNES, France — It is, film people agree, one of the few indispensable books on the movies.

It’s the printed record of an unprecedented conversation, a tape-recorded colloquy between two exceptional directors, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, talking candidly about the philosophy as well as the mechanics of their craft.

Yet even though Hitchcock/Truffaut, first published in 1967, is a memorable reading experience, turning it into a documentary film would seem a daunting task. But Kent Jones had a different opinion. “I didn’t see any problems,” he says. “I was really into the challenges.”

In fact, when Jones, who’s found the time to do documentaries on Val Lewton and Elia Kazan as well as writing criticism and currently serving as director of the New York Film Festival, was approached to direct the film, “I jumped at the chance” in part because “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad Hitchcock movie.

“Hitchcock’s deeply invested in every single one of his films. For someone who’s got that big a body of work, Hitchcock and Jean Renoir are alone.”

The resulting documentary, also called Hitchcock/Truffaut and having its premiere at the Festival de Cannes before being distributed theatrically by Cohen Media Group, handsomely rewards Jones’ passion.

Smart, thoughtful and elegantly done, Hitchcock/Truffaut is more than an authoritative look at the careers and interpersonal dynamics of these two unlikely soul mates. It’s also, as Jones intended, a love letter to film itself, to the value and lure of the cinematic experience.

Though he is best known to U.S. audiences as the director of French New Wave classics like The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Truffaut first worked as a critic for the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema. He came to view Hitchcock as not only his favorite filmmaker but the best in the world as well.

Truffaut wrote Hitchcock a letter that the British director said brought tears to his eyes, suggesting the book-length interview. It took place over a week in 1962 and lasted 27 hours, with Helen Scott doing the translating since the men did not share a common language. One of the pleasures of the Hitchcock/Truffaut film is that it makes extensive use of those taped conversations, allowing us in effect to eavesdrop on history and get a sense of the spontaneous passion and conviction both men brought to the table.

That passion is not something usually associated with Hitchcock, who was often portrayed in the media, partly with his own cooperation, as something of a disinterested technocrat. Nothing, Jones and his film emphasize, could be further from the truth.

“He’s so animated, so deeply in the moment,” Jones explains of the tapes, referring for instance to Hitchcock’s talking about the emotional scene in Vertigo where James Stewart’s character is waiting anxiously for Kim Novak’s to come out of a hotel bathroom.

“This is not a guy who made movies on paper; that was something he sold. The same is true when he talked about Psycho, when he says it was pure film that caused the audience to react the way it did. Not a big star, not a celebrated novel. It was pure film.”

It was to impact the public view of Hitchcock, Jones said, that Truffaut thought of the book project in the first place.

“He wanted to correct the American image of Hitchcock as a light entertainer, but he also wanted to correct overly abstract French formulations that removed Hitchcock from the circumstances in which the films were made. Truffaut felt Hitchcock didn’t need help, he didn’t need to be compared to Racine, he just needed to be described accurately.”

Because he took this task so seriously, Truffaut put a lot of time and effort into preparation for the interviews. As French director Olivier Assayas says in the film, this book was an essential part of Truffaut’s life’s work, fully as important to him as one of his films.

Assayas is one of 10 directors, including France’s Arnaud Desplechin, Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and America’s Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and David Fincher, whose on-screen interviews add informed analysis and enthusiasm to the final project.

“I just wanted filmmakers, I wanted it to be very pure, I didn’t want to get into the register of actors talking about their experience working with Hitchcock,” Jones explains. “I’ve been talking to Marty and Arnaud about him for years, and with the others I wanted people who were going to be surprising, who would rise to the occasion and speak extemporaneously with passion and interest.”

When it came to illustrating the conversations between Hitchcock and Truffaut, Jones made expert use of clips from moments in Hitchcock films both familiar (the shower scene in Psycho, the kiss in “Notorious”) and not. They all serve to illustrate Fincher’s intriguing on-camera comment to the effect that cinema is editing behavior over time, making short events long and long events short.

Even people familiar with both directors will find elements of Hitchcock/Truffaut surprising, especially a moment where Hitchcock seems haunted by the question of whether he might have been looser behind the camera.

“Should I have experimented more with character and narrative?” he wonders to Truffaut. “Did I become a prisoner of my own form?” One of the many questions this very special film will leave you pondering.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.