Seesaws and connections

Cahiers du cinéma no. 410; July-August 1988.

Francois Truffaut

Thematics

When we examine Truffaut’s work, we run the great risk of getting caught up in thematic and psychological constants, of enumerating them and continuously looking for them.

It’s that everything invites this approach. Truffaut was the first critic to systematically list the commonalities across various films of a filmmaker he defended. That was needed in the years 1954-57 in order to prove that directors like Hitchcock, Aldrich, Ophuls or Nicholas Ray were also auteurs of films, something that a lot of people denied. And, more than any other approach, this catalogue furnished irrefutable proofs. It’s normal, then, that to speak of Truffaut the filmmaker, we adopt an old principle conceived by Truffaut the critic. But it’s somewhat of a tautology: how could one suppose for a moment that the champion of the politique des auteurs wasn’t himself an auteur? A tautology and an anachronism: discovering auteurs through Hollywood standards of the forties and the fifties constituted an unusual and justified quest. Looking for auteurs among independent French films of the sixties and the seventies is a little like looking for Blacks among Africans…

On top of that, the choice of Truffaut encourages this approach: five of his films reuse the same central character (and the same actor): a continuity that we don’t find in any other filmmaker, except of course the comics. And, with some indulgence, we could even extend this consistency to The Wild Child or Small Change – the Doinel from before The 400 Blows – or to Day for Night or Two English Girls, thanks to Léaud.

Even if it takes the easy way out, I’m not against such an approach. It’s perhaps indispensable. But there are so many similarities that lend you a helping hand… So, we stop there and forget the rest, the essential. After all, if Truffaut titled his first article on Hitchcock “A bunch of false keys”, it’s because he knew very well that with so many commonalities one could also end up at the wrong place. “Auteur perhaps, but of what?”  said Bazin. A quip that must be used for the films of Zeffirelli, Cavani, Robbe-Grillet, David Hamilton, Vadim, Petri, Ken Russell, Magni, Albicocco, Moguy to name a few.

An example: the literature on Truffaut often evokes the theme of the double, the presence of mirrors. I confess that I didn’t notice them during my viewing. On reflection, it seems quite evident to me. But it doesn’t take us far. If I didn’t notice them when I saw the films, it’s because these constants don’t work very well, too derived as they are from outside influences, that is to say from the masters Hitchcock, Ophuls or Sirk. Perhaps because there’s no moral resonance in the Hitchcockian sense: the innocent double of the culprit belongs to an ideology different from Truffaut’s, where no one’s either innocent or guilty, good or bad. Perhaps because the mirror has no plastic existence in the work of this filmmaker who tends to give plastic values a miss.

High points

Every film of Truffaut’s contains one or many moments (varying according to the viewer’s sensitivity) that leaves a precise memory, striking and indelible even after twenty or twenty-five years. Perhaps the only exceptions to this law are Two English Girls1, one of its kind, a meteor in Truffaut’s work, and Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. It’s not a coincidence that these are consecutive films: should one see here a fleeting influence of post-68 modernity? Whatever it was, after the relative lack of success of these two films, Truffaut was to definitely return to the practice of high points.

This presence of a high point is an increasingly rare characteristic today (except among the comics, and Truffaut makes you laugh).

It’s difficult to find them in Duras, Bene, Rocha, Rivette, Jancso, Fassbinder, Oliveira, Straub, Bertolucci, Satyajit Ray. It’s a general impression that emerges from their works, the whole and not the part. This is another feature that links Truffaut to olden filmmakers and draws him away from the modern ones. Today, films of which we recall a single sequence are failed or low-calibre works. Interesting films tend to be difficult to grasp, to slip away like an eel from any effort to analyse them.

It could be a line of dialogue or a short series of words, the child invoking the death of his mother to justify coming late to class (The 400 Blows), the “yes, sir” addressed by the employee to his boss, who understandably takes it for a declaration of love, or Antoine’s repetition of his name thirty times in front of the mirror (Stolen Kisses).

There is a commonality here with dialogue-based French cinema of 1930-50, but in Truffaut, the author’s remark doesn’t have a descriptive, accessory or gratuitous character like the too-famous “bizarre, bizarre” of Jouvet or the “atmosphere, atmosphere” of Arletty. It’s rather a rapid, unusual, paradoxical and provocative explosion that often changes the course of the story being narrated.

The intermittent and literary aspect of these high points partly explains the success of his films among viewers and critics: this shows an evident proof of talent that’s easy to communicate to others…

We could also add to the list the opening tirade in The Green Room, where Truffaut the actor walks around a coffin and expresses his indignation about the Church easily assuring the superiority of the other world. Here, the high point is in the text, in the performance and in the situation all at once.

For the high point is often based on the situation, the idea of a scene: The Man Who Loved Women is killed by a double “accident at work”: run over by a car while getting to a pretty woman across the road, he snaps the tube of his drip trying to caress the nurse. The murderer in Confidentially Yours gives himself away when he lights a second cigarette while already having one in the mouth. There is the actress who agrees to shoot only if she is served a block of butter at breakfast, which the manager hypocritically obtains by mixing many packets, Valentina Cortese’s opening of the wrong door (Day for Night).

At times, it’s an odd story picked up from a minor news item: Nelly Benedetti sets out to kill her husband with a huge rifle in a contemporary restaurant (The Soft Skin).

Romantic high points are frequent: Fanny Ardant meets Depardieu, now married like her to another person, after many years in a very eighties, banal and adulterous context (an underground parking), but when he kisses her, she faints in the purest romantic style (The Woman Next Door). If the ten-year-old boy keeps going to his friend’s place, it’s not to meet the friend, but his mother, whom he is in love with (Small Change). Pisier (Love at Twenty) slowly turns Leo’s love into a sibling relation while she openly flirts elsewhere, an ambiguous situation unknown in cinema where one had to either love or break up. The woman discourages and terrifies the seducer on the street by bluntly expounding the reality of sexual facts (The Soft Skin). Nathalie Baye says yes to Menez’s allusive courtship right away, challenging the man to proceed further, turning the tables once again (Day for Night). And I easily have twenty more examples in reserve.

The high point, especially when it’s anecdotal, draws its power from its genuine quality. It’s so odd and absurd that it couldn’t have been invented. It’s necessarily true. It’s hence very much at home in Day for Night, where the viewer tends to take the story of the shoot for an unquestionable reality because it distinguishes itself very clearly from the film being shot, Pamela, a very obvious fiction. A new form of an accentuated impression of reality, even though it’s totally refuted upon reflection.

The high point is almost always comical, except when the situation is too dramatic: that’s the case with the two funerary urns (Jules and Jim), the paltry remains of the two heroes, with the presence of a single person at the funeral. In the olden days, when cinema filmed the burial of its protagonists, it made sure it showed a large and heavy coffin and, if possible, a large crowd. Another high point in opposition to cinematic tradition.

There are rarely more than three or four high points in a single film. It loses its effectiveness beyond that. It’s omnipresent in Shoot the Piano Player (Aznavour’s hand going over the body of Marie Dubois, over that of Michèle Mercier, Lapointe’s song, the dying grandmother, Nicole Berger’s suicide etc.) and this is thanks to the heterogeneity of facts. This permanence creates an obstacle, a refusal to accept the reality shown and, secondly, a dangerous and reductive addiction. After Piano Player, high points will be more integrated, better distributed across a smooth narration, appearing after we’ve had the time to warm up to the film, to accept it.

The paradox

As we have seen, it often characterizes the high point. One of the rare commonalities with Godard. It’s the woman who takes the initiative. Or it’s Léaud who calls Delphine Seyrig “sir” (adding to this is the flamboyant paradox of the Léaud-Seyrig couple). It’s Antoine’s arrest, not when he steals a typewriter – as any writer would have had it – but when he returns it (The 400 Blows). Through an insane investigation, the man who loved women succeeds in finding out the address of the pretty girl he once glimpsed. On the telephone, she doesn’t sound unresponsive to the man’s approach, and we expect a typical seduction lesson during the scene of their meeting. Bang, the man learns that there’s been a mistake and leaves with an apology, while the woman’s attitude makes us think that it could all have worked out very well. Truffaut manages to surprise us every time. He defuses the scene, avoids the commonplace the viewer expects, all the while retaining the potentials of the situation, harnessed to the maximum. A praiseworthy approach for an age in which the viewer is often way ahead of the story.

The absence of surprise is also the reason for the failure that, in my view, constitutes Fahrenheit 451. We’d read the book, or knew that it was a variant of 1984. It’s the same principle, certainly original, but repeated from start to finish, with good guys and bad guys. And, on top of that, the publication of the shooting diary eliminated the few unknowns that remained for a certain number of viewers. A disappointment that’s customary with long-matured or late-blossoming films (The Big Red One, The Demise of Father Mouret etc.)

This taste for paradox, this desire to do the opposite of what others are doing, must be seen against a work and a life in contradiction with itself, in constant oscillation. It’s this game of seesaw that makes the work so “alive”, so unexpected, and gives it its force, far removed from all sectarianism. Truffaut reacts every time against what others are doing, and against what he himself did the moment before. The contradictions are numerous…

This classic filmmaker, who’s always taken pains to establish a protective distance between his work and himself, between the public and the private, who has always eliminated the “I” from his films, suddenly starts playing lead characters in The Wild Child and The Green Room. This maniacal perfectionist, who rewrites his scripts ten times, who spends six months on his editing which he sometimes modifies five or six times after the film’s release, makes his films with the least malleable material that exists: children.

As a critic, he champions, with the rage of a fanatic, films that were the total opposite (except those of Gance and Welles): masterpieces of a modest appearance, founded on rigour, moderation and discretion, primarily The Golden Coach, all Resnais, all Hawks, Journey to Italy and even – in a certain sense – Hitchcock, hidden behind his labels (detective movie-humour). Whence a non-paradox, there where people often see one: it’s not surprising that, like his masters, he too made films of a modest and conformist appearance.

As a critic, he champions films by atheist intelligentsia and celebrates an art inherited from the past, based on a traditional aesthetic and on Christianity. As a director, the denounces common sense morality against that of conventions, in a spirit agnostic and respectful of human insignificance (Jules and Jim) and rises against the mirage of the Christian hereafter (The Green Room) with a vigour much more energetic than that of Jean Aurenche whom he once decried so much.

What is this discontinuity between the detractor of post-war “progressive-humanist” cinema and the signatory of the “Manifesto of the 121” that many leftists didn’t dare to even sign, between the pro-Langlois, anti-Cannes militant of May 1968, the seller of La Cause du peuple and the one who had Bernard Granger slapped, guilty as he was of deserting the theatre for the Resistance (The Last Metro) or the one who associates the only true villains of his entire filmography (Richard Daxiat in The Last Metro and Lonsdale in The Bride) with political engagement.

Was the image that Truffaut gave of himself a false image intended to forge a legend, or was there an evolution – as we can rightly say in the case of Godard or Chabrol – or is there a natural dichotomy between the critic, sensitive to what had been done, and the creator, understandably driven to do something different from what the masters had done? I admit to hesitating between the second and third options. I am tempted to say that, in Truffaut, we must make reference to an instinctive logic based on the precise moment of action, which we will discuss later.

Connections

The existence of high points is the most evident characteristic in Truffaut. Is it the most brilliant sign of his art? It’s better to qualify our statement here.

There are high points in Small Change (romantic: the kid loves his friend’s mother; anecdotal: the baby falls from the sixth floor and is unhurt; verbal: “thank you for the frugal meal”). But the film doesn’t work. It’s a series of gems without any connection between them, a collection of interesting scenes that Truffaut couldn’t put in his previous films. It doesn’t work because Truffaut didn’t deploy his master weapon, narration. No principal story, no connecting thread. Like all failures, Small Change is negatively more revelatory of its auteur’s art than his perfect successes.

On the other hand, let’s consider a film essentially built on narrative talent, but without high points, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. It holds together magnificently. It’s a series of dizzying dramatic turn of events, sudden impulses of characters, absolutely unbelievable – but we don’t have the time to realize that – and without any concern for psychology. Characteristics that provoked the distain of French critics. Like in Piano Player, Confidentially Yours or the beginning of Stolen Kisses, it’s the little world of fantasy, very Left Bank à la Queneau-Vian-Audiberti, superposed on the more structured world of the American crime novel by Goodis, Farrel or Williams. Another game of seesaw. The film works marvellously on pace and narration, but it’s a tightrope act since it rests on nothing. I realized that well the day I saw a scene from the movie on television isolated from its context. It seemed to me to be totally gratuitous, morbid, voyeuristic, abject. Evidently, it’s the connection between the elements that makes for Truffaut’s art and not the elements themselves.

We can say the same thing about Confidentially Yours, where an element essential to a work supposedly so respectful of its characters is surprisingly lacking: we don’t understand why the secretary falls in love with her boss. We could suppose that she has a maternal side, a protective side for the man in danger.

We could suppose that, but the film doesn’t give us any clue to say so. There is surely an explanation for this blatant miss: Trintignant, small, timid, awkward, evidently stands for Truffaut. And a description of Fanny Ardant’s motivations towards Trintignant-Truffaut would’ve constituted an indecent intrusion into Truffaut’s private life, which would’ve disturbed his modesty.

We realize that this apparently conformist and narrative filmmaker works against psychology or without bothering about it, whereas we frequently group narration, psychology, classicism and realism together.

Why did the man who loved women love women so much? Sure, there is a brief reference to the mother. But it has more visual and comic value than explanatory value.  It’s only after having seen Blake Edwards’ remake that I realized that Truffaut had eliminated the reasons for this neurotic, or at least odd, behaviour and that the film held together very well without these explanations. On the other hand, Blake Edwards’ film gets unfortunately tangled up in a very American and very pedantic psychoanalytical study that forestalls the surprises created by the actions and the elliptical elegance of the original.

We sense that Truffaut was hostile to psychology inasmuch as it supposes a certain continuity in the individual. He latches on to an actor’s truth of the moment, which can be entirely different from the truth of the next moment. We understand better the Truffaut character, apparently so contradictory. It might be that we are nothing more than unpredictable reflexes and instincts – the moral of Jules and Jim.

Psychology, in the literal sense, study of the psyche, study of the soul, is hardly present in Truffaut, except perhaps in the beginning, in The Soft Skin, for example. It’s rather the observation of instinctive behaviours (whence The Wild Child and all the films on children and adult-children). What interests Truffaut is the sudden explosion of unusual reactions. He plays on the unusual. And, at the same time, thanks to the actor’s work and thanks also, as we have seen, to the unquestionable enormity of behaviour, he makes us believe and accept these behaviours. The difficulty of the undertaking necessarily brings him to either dazzling success or total failure. In fact, there’s only one total failure, Mississippi Mermaid, where Belmondo was happy to recite a text which aimed too high. Finally, Truffaut is able to make us overlook psychological improbability just as Hitchcock could make us accept factual improbability. We accept the relationship between Mrs. Tabard and Antoine Doinel while it doesn’t stand a considered examination.

The last storyteller

Connection, and so narration, but not traditional narration. There are some great narrators in cinema – Griffith, Ford, Pagnol, Mankiewicz, Fassbinder. After the death of Fassbinder (whom he admired), Truffaut became the last storyteller. No one’s left now. The end of an era. Comencini, Brocka, Cronenberg, Rohmer use narration well, but it’s less important in their work than the thing narrated. There’s Chabrol, in theory. But he doesn’t use his storytelling gifts in Death Rite, or in The Twist, or in Alice, or in Blood Relatives, or in The Horse of Pride

Great narrators base their art on a certain manner of taking their time and, often, on a duration that’s much longer than the average. With Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm, One Exciting Night, America, Griffith stays at around three hours. Ford gets close (Cheyenne Autumn). Pagnol crosses it (Manon of the Sources) and pegs his minimum at two hours. With Cleopatra¸ we are at four hours and Berlin Alexanderplatz eyes fifteen hours.

Truffaut, on the other hand, never takes his time. He is afraid of boring the audience. With his customary discretion, he prefers to stick to the norms, except with two films, where he marginally crosses two hours (The Last Metro, Two English Girls). He was so remorseful about the latter film that he cut a quarter hour from it to bring it under limits.

And if One Exciting Night or Sleuth took a story unfolding in a brief time interval and extended it over a long runtime (Sleuth, in this regard, has set a record), Truffaut does the reverse: twenty-five minutes of runtime for six months or a year of life narrated (Les Mistons, Love at Twenty). All these films unfold over months, years (Jules and Jim, The Wild Child, Adèle H. etc.), the shortest time interval being that of Confidentially Yours, perhaps a few days. But it’s an exception. In truth, I must say that I’m hard put to discern the time interval in which the stories unfold, except The Last Metro and Jules and Jim because they refer to the two great wars. It’s as though the exact duration was of no importance (we sense it clearly in Adèle H, or Two English Girls). The reason for it is that, rather than narrating an action, as other great storytellers do, Truffaut narrates feelings, the evolution of feelings, or an idée fixe2.

The action, even if it exists, is of little importance in Truffaut’s work. We aren’t all that eager to know if the bride gets caught by the police, or who the murderer of Confidentially Yours is: the ultimate insult for a crime movie… It doesn’t matter how it ends, what happens next to the characters, if there is a happy ending. The ending often seems to be the product of chance (Les Mistons, The Soft Skin, Piano Player, Mermaid). We are always in the present moment, we never let ourselves be anguished about the future (the opposite of Hitchcockian suspense).

The idée fixe is The Bride (a vengeance abstract in its disproportion), The Wild Child (Itard’s pedagogical obsession that ends up becoming an absolute torture by education) and, of course, The Green Room, The Man Who Loved Women, Adèle H., three consecutive films, as though by chance. Here too, the idée fixe becomes abstract: by dint of pursuing the man she loves, Adèle doesn’t even recognize him anymore. Curious premonition, two years before the Buñuel of That Obscure Object of Desire.

Feelings: Truffaut gleans ten interesting seconds one day, ten the month later; this is the principle behind the two films adapted from Roché and, less overtly, behind all his films. A survey of action, of emotions (or of the idée fixe) with numerous short stopovers at meaningful moments connected by the commentary track.

Here too, a surprising contradiction: fan of the ten-minute take in his reviews, expert of the long shot during filming, Truffaut soon manages to butcher his long shots (with the exception, right at the beginning, of Léaud’s famous interrogation by the social assistant in The 400 Blows) to retain no more than ten seconds sometimes.

Mister Post Office

You must’ve noticed a practice that’s familiar in the novel: less attached to reality than cinema, the novel can afford to flit over time. Truffaut’s cinema, as everyone has noted, is the continuation of the novel, the 19th century French novel in particular3, often quoted throughout his films whereas he ignores references to plastic arts (except, indirectly via Almendros and the “candle period” in a work that remains rather accessory to Truffaut and more conventional than his – cf. Adèle H.) and to music (except contemporary French pop music). I will consider as negligible the borrowings from Mendelssohn, Chopin, Vivaldi (Vivaldi, for Truffaut, is perhaps mostly The Golden Coach). The opposite of Godard.

Perhaps this indifference stems from the fact that painting and music are arts more foreign than French, elite and thus more distant for Truffaut the autodidact.

From the novel, he goes to the source, to letters, since the novel, at its beginnings, disguised itself as a collection of letters (Manon, La Nouvelle Héloïse, Laclos etc.). Truffaut, a famous letter writer, turns some of his films into a series of letters. It’s these letters that facilitate declarations of love. If I had to describe Truffaut in a single word, it would be Mister Post Office.

There is, in his work, two pieces of anthology. The first is the series of letter exchanges in Jules and Jim, where the camera insists more on the material circulation of mail while the soundtrack discreetly evokes the content and the evolution of emotions. The second, adapting to the evolution of time, is the exchange of telephone calls (often hung up or aborted) by the lovers of The Woman Next Door and of Confidentially Yours.

This importance of connection, through post, allows the filmmaker to summarize the contradictory evolution of minds briefly and precisely, to express in terms discreet and concrete at once a range of emotions that, shown more directly, would come across as too indecent or could be suspected of falsity: when an actor and an actress kiss, the viewer can always suppose that they are pretending. On the other hand, when these emotions are indirectly alluded to and the viewer actively participates in their discovery, they can hardly be questioned.

Postal reference will also constitute one of the strengths of Adèle H. Truffaut takes pains to show all the material circumstances of Adèle’s quest – difficulties in getting the mail, in having the money sent to her, her various wanderings – which most other filmmakers would’ve eliminated as being too trivial.

Truffaut – and it’s the secret of his critical genius – always starts from the material and the particular to arrive at the abstract and the general. An autodidact’s approach more in tune with lived facts than learned ideologies. When he becomes a militant ideologue, he falls flat (Fahrenheit).

Connections are of so much importance that they become a world in themselves, the only world that creation really exerts a hold on, that they locate their power on the exaggerated banality of the connected elements: everything is relation, everything is but relation. Everything’s been said, everything’s been shown. Maybe creation is only an art of relations. Plastic values, as we have seen, tend to be ignored, the composition of the image “within the frame” has nothing exceptional about it, the social is forgotten or disdained (whence the ire of Zhdanovian critics) and I’m tempted to say that there’s no psychology. We can wonder what remains. Disconcerting gaps, especially since this is one of the most complete bodies of work in existence.

A typical example of the neutrality of elements is the last shot of The Bride, probably the most beautiful last shot in the history of French cinema. I won’t say the most beautiful ending in the history of all cinema, since there’s the wave that drowns Matahi in Tabu, and Citizen Kane, whatever one says about it. But we’re not very far.

Generally, in cinema, we guess the ending five minutes in advance, if not earlier.  Comforted by a quick glance at the watch, we have already put on our coats, scarves or our shoes – as the case may be – to prove that we’ve not been fooled, that we are ahead of the director. All that is impossible, thankfully, in The Bride, where Truffaut manages to surprise us (like he had us with the final bridge of Jules and Jim, whose broken section was hidden in the preceding shots). Vaguely uneasy, we wonder at the beginning of the shot how Truffaut can possible conclude, since it’s time the film ended. We’re sure, at any rate, that it’s not the current shot, so trivial, that can serve as the epilogue. In a long hallway, the heroine wheels a trolley containing food for the inmates of a women’s prison. A banal shot that could’ve been shot by anyone.

It’s only in the final seconds of the shot – the hallway turns right, there’s no one in the frame, but we hear a scream off-screen – and we understand that everything’s been said. There can’t possibly be any other conclusion, nor as logical a conclusion. And just then, the external signs of the film’s end appear. The time interval between the ending and the viewer’s understanding, if there is one, isn’t more than one second one way or the other.

Nothing in the shot, everything in the relation to the context. Genius is genius precisely because it’s based on nothing.

 

1Although the stain of blood…

2There are exceptions such as The Last Metro and Day for Night. His knowledge of the entertainment world is so considerable that, along with the plot it constantly fuels, it constitutes the principal subject of his films. Ellipse and overview are very rare here. It’s perhaps due to these characteristics that they constitute Truffaut’s two biggest hits among the audience.

3Everything links Truffaut to the past, not to the present. It’s perhaps more the rejection of the present than the necessity of the past. Truffaut is at his best when he limits himself to studies of romantic relationships disregarding the period (notably Two English Girls) or when he situates himself in the past: the 19th century of Adèle H., The Wild Child, the twenties in Jules and Jim, all the more so because there’s no one to contest their veracity. Or it’s the Occupation (The Last Metro), the fifties (The 400 Blows), the isolated world of entertainment (Day for Night, The Last Metro) that he understands marvellously.

The opposite of Resnais. Resnais is the present invaded by the past. Truffaut is the past experienced in the present; that is, the search of the present moment.

It seems that, after 1959, Truffaut cut himself off from the world around him through work. That’s of no problem when the film doesn’t engage with it, hinged when it is on fantasy (Confidentially Yours), feelings (Mermaid) or abstraction of the idée fixe (The Green Room), but there’s something scholarly, and indecisive, in the presentation of provincial social reality in The Woman Next Door, thankfully very marginal to the film. This isolation destroys Love on the Run: it’s a film based solely on the relation between its elements, between various stages in the life of a man, which is right up Truffaut’s alley, but the modern element is not simply neutral here. It’s negative in that it expresses a total absence of experience, which contrasts with the elements of the past (deriving from Love at Twenty) which are infinitely more genuine. Bed and Board was limited in this regard, closer to the world of René Clair than that of 1968-70.

A filmmaker can’t film everything. It’s to the credit of Truffaut’s intelligence for having always known, expect one near-exception, what he could film and what he couldn’t.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Essai d'Ouverture

As of today, my critical activity stretches over fifty-three years, with a gap between 1969 and 1982 that can be easily explained: Cahiers du cinema had suddenly converted to the cult of Marx. Oh, Karl was a nice guy with a bunch of good ideas, but I confess having trouble working in his sole dominion.

My first texts were pinched from Rivette and Truffaut: I devoured their prose on my way to high school on Wednesday mornings (the day the Arts weekly hit the stands) at the risk of getting run over. I learnt their writing by heart. This groupie mentality, coupled with an inferiority complex, didn’t sit well with me. That’s why I revolted. I frequently reproached Truffaut for some of his texts, something which irritated him. I don’t know if he understood the painful ambiguity of my status as a conformist. Today I regret having upbraided him at a time when not everything was going easy for him.

At the same time, I multiplied my oaths of loyalty to Truffaut. He had replaced the old guard and he thought that I and Straub were going to overtake him, just like Barbara Bates was to overtake Anne Baxter who replaced Bette Davis in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. And when chatting with Straub at the entrance of a theatre, I had to hide whenever I saw Truffaut coming, who suspected me of colluding with Straub…

My other favourite critic was Georges Sadoul; I wanted to become the Sadoul of Hitchcocko-Hawsians, a daring paradox if we think that Truffaut was diametrically opposed to Sadoul… I admired the clarity of his writing, his encyclopaedic mind, his kindness, even if the content of his texts often seemed odious to me. His adherence to communism, for which he was criticized, particularly expressed his wish to belong to one family or the other (there was the Surrealist family before this). In fact, he used to snore at the CP meetings.

I too felt the need for a family. Things were a little turbulent during my adolescence. There were families that I chose myself later, that at Cahiers, the Société des réalisateurs de films, les Films d’ici etc. It was the same situation with the others, such as Godard, who came to Cahiers because it was for him an oasis of civilization, a point of reference, essential for the morale, in face of adversity or stupidity.

Why was I accepted so easily at Cahiers at the age of eighteen?

Because, the perfect bookworm that I was, I was the most well-informed cinephile in Paris.

And then it was always nice to have fans at a time when the straight-shooters of Cahiers were broke and, moreover, highly contested.

Everyone at Cahiers sensed my passion for cinema, which appeared worthy of respect.

And I was the Naïf, the innocent one, the “blue-eyed boy of Cahiers” in Rohmer’s words, the fan incapable of dirty tricks (frequent in the milieu). I was even surprised the day Lydie Doniol-Valcroze handed me my first cheque. I would’ve paid to be able to write in the “yellow magazine”.

Most of all, I made people laugh because I spoke, because I wrote. When I used to bring my papers to Rohmer, I looked forward to the moment he would blush, the moment when tears of laughter would trickle down his right cheek. If you knew Rohmer, you’d know it wasn’t easy to get to this point. For me, it was the kicker. Also, when Daney admitted to me later that the first text he rushed to whenever he opened Cahiers was mine.  

I must confess that, on the 5th of November 1955, I almost fainted when I opened Truffaut’s letter where he told me that my article on Ulmer was accepted at Cahiers. At that second, my whole life was planned out, with several pitfalls to be avoided. The hardest part was done. Now that I had my foot on the stirrup, the passage to filmmaking was like dropping a letter at the post office: I’d written the first long and serious text on Godard, so Jean-Luc, that marvellous Pygmalion of French cinema, advised his producer (who was on his knees since the success of À bout de souffle) to produce my film.

In the beginning, my texts were a little too reverential towards Rivette and Truffaut. It was ridiculous to suck up to them: it was obvious that I took their side in all matters, no matter they wrote. There were also pointless gibes in my articles against overrated directors.

But soon I tried to be more poised and, especially, to be always comprehensible. The great fad at Cahiers then was to write unreadable texts. Demonsablon was a champion of this literature. There was a snobbism of hermeticism. If the reader didn’t understand a text printed on the fine, glazed paper of the magazine, it meant that the editor was superior to him. Even Bazin gave in at times to the sirens of obscurity.

My ingenuousness brought a breath of fresh air.

Godard pointed out to me that my strong point was the art of the catchphrase, the art of finding the right title, more than of getting lost in long sentences like Faulkner, my literary god at the time. And I tried to follow this advice.

My first texts were disorderly, strings of readymade sentences already read somewhere else, sweeping, gratuitous stylistic effects, pretty pirouettes and aggressive positions to get myself noticed (the very first articles by Truffaut, from the year 1953, and Godard were of the same kind), to the point that, in the beginning of 1957, Rohmer made me completely rewrite my text on Eisenstein. He explained to me that every sentence must have an internal coherence and that each one must be organically linked to the next. The ABCs, you’d think. But no professor told me that in the high school or the university. They were too square, always dedicated to teaching stupid rules (no “I”, introduction-thesis-antithesis-synthesis). In a word, it was Rohmer who taught me to write. And it was very kind of him to not have rejected my text outright.

Bazin, too, had blocked some of my writings at Cahiers or at the Éditions du Cerf. I’m grateful to him for that today for I would’ve found myself guilty of having produced many stupidities. Bazin considered me an irresponsible, mad, young dog of nineteen. That’s why I was so moved later when he complimented me for my review of Les Tricheurs.

I have thus chosen in this collection texts defended or praised by Rohmer (A Quiet American), by Godard (Men in War and the Tarzieff) etc. Rivette told me later that my text on Les Honneurs de la guerre, the first Jean Dewever film, had made him like the film. I’d never have thought of receiving such a tribute from a man from whom I’d stolen so much.

My texts try to resume Truffaut’s principle: start from the particular (the picturesque if possible) – a detail from the film – to veer into the General. Never the opposite, as in the worst kind of criticism which stopped at the General (especially in the years 58-69).

The golden rule: every good film engenders a specific critical approach.

To make the reader laugh, to interest him, was my first concern. I’d set down the list of possible word plays before writing a text. To help inspire me, Rohmer had offered me a copy of the latest Vermot almanac.

I tried to be simple (didn’t always succeed), to narrate the story of a film in a few lines, which still remains an excellent exercise.

Before writing on an important film, I’d read the original novel end to end or skim through it – something which few did. Even Bazin, who was a serious guy, had produced five pages in Cahiers on The Red Badge of Courage without having read the book, which was as famous in the USA as Le Grand Meaulnes is in France.

I shouldn’t tell you this, but I always made sure I made a negative remark when I wrote a lot of good things about a film. I also practiced the opposite. It gives the reader the (misleading) impression that the critic is objective.

Similarly, I’d gather technical information – number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc. – which made subjective positions sound objective.

I’d manage to insert a shock sentence which could help advertise the film, thereby glorifying the film and myself. My greatest shortcoming when it came to a good film by a great director was to attribute everything that was good to my cherished auteur and everything that was bad to his collaborators. The truth is not so simple.

My first years as a critic (1959-1960) were the ones that brought me the most attention from readers, perhaps because people were then interested in criticism that was less tepid, less ecumenical and laudatory than today, perhaps also because I wrote in a flagship magazine which had all the good articles.

Texts today are more dispersed, and they get lost.

Nevertheless, my writings from that time are less pertinent than the ones I’ve written in the past few years, which are more level-headed, generally without controversy and very precise owing to my practical knowledge of filmmaking and, thanks to time, my deeper knowledge of the history of cinema: I must’ve seen eight thousand films in sixty-five years.

This manifestly positive evolution of the quality of my writing is at loggerheads with my career as a filmmaker. I don’t think my later films are any more successful than the earlier ones. My most appreciated productions belong to the midperiod of my career (from 1977, year of Genèse d’un repas, to Essai d’ouverture in 1988).

Here I want to note the similarity between criticism and documentary filmmaking: in both, one studies something which already exists, a projected film or a city, a place or a social fact.

The difference, at least for me: to be a film critic is to say good things about a film; to be a filmmaker is to say bad things about the society, about the absurdity of the world, about a city, about everything… the filmmaker criticizes, and the critic praises.

Today, as a critic, I have the advantage over other reviewers of not being dependent on current events. From 1957 to 1960, I lived on commissions as a critic and so I was subjected to weekly releases by my editors-in-chief. In 2009, I’m a freelancer and can allow myself to write on unknown filmmakers from the present or the past.

These are the days of video criticism. There’s not much difference in there for me who, in 1960, was practically doing video criticism before it even existed, with my chronometer and the light pen that Sadoul had found for me in Moscow and I used to see films twice consecutively in the theatre. But, with video, it’s nevertheless easier and it avoids silly mistakes. The essential thing, today as yesterday, is not to flit from one thing to another, but study one or two points of the film more attentively. I’ve written seven pages on James Stewart’s acting during one and a half minutes of film.

Almost all these texts were written very quickly.

This speed (which I find again during the drafting of the scripts of my films: two mornings for a short film, three to twenty-four days for a feature film) gives me the pleasure of observing the faces of my astonished sponsors when I hand them over my copy. One of them asked me for twelve pages on Bergman. It was complete three hours later, and Rivette even found it good.

This promptness is also a (completely relative) form of humility. You shouldn’t think that the Culture revolves around you.

It’s a question of personal discipline, of habit. You must be able to take the plunge, to abandon yourself. To me, it’s a question of honesty before the reader. I give him what I feel without calculation or detour.

You are deemed guiltier when you commit a crime with premeditation.

It should be the same for an article (or a script).

I think this practice stems from an opposition to my father. He used to write several letters (to Mitterrand, to Hitler and tutti quanti) which he’d start all over when he made a mistake. It’d to take him all day, a little like the hero of El. And I love doing the opposite. Many of my acts were accomplished against the father (even though, the diplomat that I am, I wasn’t on bad terms with him). My first girlfriend was Jewish while he was very anti-Semitic. And I specialized in eulogizing Jewish filmmakers (Lang, Preminger, Lubitsch, Ulmer, Gance, Truffaut, Fuller, DeMille). I made a corpse of my dad in my Billy the Kid.

I say I’m fast, but I’m boasting. My texts with writing quotations (on DeMille, Deleuze or Ellroy) took a lot of time. Moreover, what I write is the result of sixty years of cinematic experiments.  

Whenever it’s possible, I let these texts sleep in a drawer. I let them simmer for thirteen days in order to look at them with new eyes.  

It could be longer. The first version of my text on Bresson is fifteen years old. Re-reading after a long time, you correct everything very fast and with much fairness.

My articles sometimes contain a dense analysis, far too dense. They must always be aerated by humour. They fail otherwise.

What use writing on Renoir or Rossellini?

Besides, Truffaut would never have allowed me to do it: it was his private hunting ground. So, I prefer being THE FIRST. The first to extol a great filmmaker forgotten or unknown at the time: Baldi, Bava, Bernard-Deschamps, Compton, Cottafavi, Dewever, Ferroukhi, Fuller, Godard, Guiraudie, Hers, Itami, Jansco, Kumashiro, Oshima, Rudolph, Skolimowski, Ulmer, Valentin, Zurlini.

I’ve corrected certain articles (very little). For example, when I made a remark based on an wrong colour grading, or when I invoked an event from the era unknown to today’s reader, or when a piece of information turned out to be false, or when my editor in chief had changed the title, made typographical mistakes or didn’t notice that a line was skipped.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (1960) (aka Shoot The Piano Player)
French
François Truffaut

“My old man used to say: When you hear someone at your door, think it might be an assassin. This way, if it’s a thief, you’ll be glad.”
 

Shoot The Piano PlayerI’m sure many would have watched Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) or Pulp Fiction (1994) and become fascinated with the style of film making – Long conversations about…er, just conversations, dark humour, petty issues magnified, weird characters. Though Tarantino was influenced much by the works of Godard, the effect of Truffaut’s Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (1960) on his style cannot be written off. Tirez Sur Le Pianiste primarily acts as a cross between the 50’s film-noir style and Hitchcock’s troubled characters.

The film starts off with Chico, a gangster being chased by two others. He runs for refuge to his brother Charlie, a piano player in a local bar. Charlie manages to save him while the focus of the film shifts towards Charlie’s lonesome and mundane life. Charlie, a timid and tongue-tied person as is revealed by many encounters with women, has never done what he really wanted to. He has unsuccessful attempts at getting close with a young stewardess Lena at the bar, who is attracted to Charlie. “The truth about Charlie” is revealed in a flashback where he is a famous pianist Eduardo Saroyan who is very much preoccupied with himself that he neglects his wife’s individuality. Things become sour when his wife reveals certain details. Charlie’s timidity becomes a reason for his wife’s demise. He decides to change for good and takes up a new name. A parallel track runs where a pair of gangsters are forcing Charlie to reveal the whereabouts of his brother (who apparently cheated these two guys out of a deal) and kidnap his brother Fido. Charlie is pulled into violence when he inadvertently kills his boss and runs to his brothers’ hideout. In a Vertigo-esque twist in the story, Charlie loses his love for the second time, almost in a similar fashion.

The film has a constant flow of humour that ranges from pure slapstick (The conversation about the Japanese metal scarf takes the cake) to black. Charles Aznavour‘s passive performance not only gives the timid portrayal required but also acts as a facade for his past. Truffaut’s follow-up to the spectacular Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) is fresh but mellow. It is nevertheless, a critical film in the French New Wave.

La Peau Douce (1964) (aka The Soft Skin)
French
François Truffaut

“Don’t talk so loud, people are staring.”
 

The Soft SkinLa Peau Douce (1964) is perhaps François Truffaut‘s least talked about good movie. Release alongside Jacques Demy‘s big favorite Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, La Peau Douce could well be called “eclipsed” by the former. From the outside the film could be written off as a mild drama, the characters in the films have much more impact than any melodrama. At first watch, it is but natural to think of Woody Allen‘s wonderful film Match Point – An illicit affair, the secrets revealed, tensions high for protecting egos. But neither is the film as verbose or as happening as Match Point.

The screenplay of La Peau Douce is not a usual screenplay one might see. There are no sudden twists, instigating incidents or unexpected moves through most part of the film. The film is paced slowly, with a lot of emphasis on the character development, especially the central character Pierre Lachenay. Pierre is a prude middle class person who is unsuccessful in sustaining relationships primarily because of his reservedness. Professionally an author, he is attracted to a young air-hostess Nicole who he meets during a lecture in Portugal. Jean Desailly is near perfection in the portrayal of a man who is crushed under his own principles. The affair continues all the way till Paris and Pierre still is secretive about the affair to Franka, his wife. Things take a sharp turn when Franka discovers the affair. There is an expected rift in relationships divorce is decided upon. Meanwhile, Nicole is also unable to sustain the relationship and quits.

The climactic quarter hour is where the film actually changes tone and feels like a Hitchcockian suspense tale. Pierre decides to apologise to Franka, only to find that she is unavailable in house. The climax, which I am not going to give away, is much debated upon by his fans. This tale of people caught within the formalities of love and the clockwork of the world was nominated for the Palm D’or at Cannes in 1964