Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Panel Discussion on Acclaimed Filmmaker and Critic Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut (1932-1984).
After a long hiatus, we're reviving our "3 on 3 panel" this month. The concept is that we ask three experts to answer three questions on a single classic film topic. This week, the Cafe poses three questions about French film critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Our panel of three Truffaut experts consists of: Richard Finch, co-founder of the Facebook group Foreign Film Classics; Ray Keebaugh, a frequent contributor to the Foreign Film Classics group; and Sam Juliano, who writes about classic movies at his blog Wonders in the Dark.

1. What Francois Truffaut film would you recommend as an introduction to someone who has never seen any of his works?

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows.
Richard Finch: The Truffaut film I would recommend as a starting point is his very first one, The 400 Blows. It’s about a lonely and alienated boy, about 14 years old, growing up in Paris and finding solace in books and movies. If you read a biography of Truffaut, the film is clearly autobiographical and like most such first films (and novels, for that matter) heartfelt and moving. It clearly has the feeling of lived experience to it. It has one of the most haunting and enigmatic final shots in all cinema, Truffaut’s version of the last shot of Garbo in Queen Christina. In a poll at the excellent film blog site Wonders in the Dark last year for the top films about childhood (79 made the cut), it was chosen #1.

Ray Keebaugh:  If someone had never seen a movie by Truffaut, he is not likely to be acquainted with foreign films nor with movies beyond those made in America. I’d recommend The Story of Adele H., then Shoot the Piano Player or Jules and Jim. If his/her appetite was not stimulated enough to seek more Truffaut after those extremes, there's not much else I can do.

Sam Juliano: The venerated critic-director's very first film--The 400 Blows--would be my choice for the newbie approaching his work. My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 1970s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director. I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discovering critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time. In the beginning--as should be expected for one so green behind the ears--it was actor Jean-Pierre Léaud's familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin, and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased. It sent shivers down my spine and still does today. There is a universality in The 400 Blows that, while not exclusive in Truffaut's canon, is perhaps most accessible in this, a film that is easy to connect with and executed with the director's trademark aching lyricism. 

2. What do you believe was Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema?
Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock.

Richard:  Truffaut made several important contributions to world cinema. First, he was one of the original theorists and practitioners of the French New Wave, a movement that has had immense influence on subsequent filmmakers. He and others like Jean-Luc Godard first proposed what is called the auteur theory, the concept that the director of a film is its author, the same as the writer of a book is its author. They developed an informal manifesto of a new type of film typified by freedom of style and and an emphasis on personal expression. Second, because for inspiration they looked to the Hollywood directors who, even though working in the studio system, consistently left their own stamp on their films. They brought serious attention to American directors like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray. These directors had been dismissed by American critics as mere purveyors of entertainment. Third, as Truffaut’s style and choice of subject changed over his 30-year career, he made it acceptable that directors can grow and develop--not just stick with their youthful dogma and keep making the same movie again and again. In many ways, his earliest films can be quite different from those of his maturity.

Ray:  It’s something to be argued among critics and “serious” film students. A cinematographer would not provide the same answer as, say, an editor. Different directors would not necessarily agree among themselves, and you may be certain critics wouldn’t. For me, choosing e pluribus unum, I love the eerie ease with which he draws us quickly into stories--often about destroyed lovers--like an unselfconscious poet. Narrative was not something to be sacrificed for his "art." It was what his art served. How he did it so entertainingly reflects the director's youthful love for movies, which, unlike some of his characters, did not come to a shocking, destructive end (except that it was so early). Truffaut also restored dignity to adolescence by weeding out all that false Hollywood Blue Denim crap. 

The Wild Child (1970).
Sam:  Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema was his mastery of humanism, ranging from childhood to old age, and embracing various time periods and settings. His intoxicating cinematic lyricism was his manner and his foray into psychological realism. He was understandably celebrated for his ability to investigate the childhood experience. When movie fans are asked to identify the prime proponents of the cinema of childhood, the names of Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut invariably dominate the discussion. In the case of the former, the label seems more than justified all things considered, but of the Frenchman Truffaut’s twenty-one films, only three could reasonably be framed as films dealing with and populated by kids. The reason for the misrepresentation is undoubtedly the fact that the New Wave master’s debut feature, The 400 Blows, is one of the most celebrated and influential films of all-time, and the one most often named as the ultimate work on adolescent alienation. To be sure, Truffaut did chronicle the aging process of his Antoine Doniel character a series of films like Bed and Board and The Soft Skin, but at that point the youthful parameter had expired. In 1969, he explored the true-life story of a deaf and dumb boy raised in the outdoors--The Wild Child--and then seven years later, he wrote and directed what was to be his final foray into the pains and wonders of childhood with his magical Small Change. 

3. What do you think is Truffaunt's masterpiece and what is your personal favorite? Explain your choices.

Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim.
Richard:  My personal favorite of Truffaut’s films and what I consider his masterpiece is one and the same: Jules and Jim. It’s one of those films that just grab you and never leave your mind. Its centerpiece is the puzzling but hypnotic character Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau, one of the greatest of all screen actresses, in what I think is her greatest performance. She plays a woman who has an affair with two best friends at the same time--a bona fide ménage à trois, quite a daring subject for its time, even for the French! Its influence can be seen in American films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For me, it’s one of those films of which I can say without equivocation: “Once seen, never forgotten.”

Ray:  I love this question because it separates moviegoers from critics.  A critic has to regard a director's masterpiece as his favorite because what would it say about a critic's "taste" if he/she didn't? I'd say The 400 Blows is the "masterpiece." My favorite Truffaut movie would be (since I have to choose) Jules and Jim.

Sam:  The 400 Blows would also be my choice for the director's absolute masterpiece. No matter what you opt for, the landmark 1959 film remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films. Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement, it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians. Yet, the film’s preeminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood. Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing. Truffaut's legacy and contribution to world cinema doesn't only rest with his profound studies of childhood, but with the human condition, where he sits with the most renowned practitioners in the art.


  1. Well done, gentlemen, and thank you for your intelligent, elegant responses. It's hard to argue with THE 400 BLOWS as the best introduction to Truffaut. However, I fully endorse Ray's alternate choice of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER--which was my first Truffaut film. Truffaut not only helped bring new attention to many of Hollywood's greatest filmmakers, he also authored the definitive book on a single auteur: HITCHCOCK. Since it's a series of interviews, I suppose one could say that Hitch was the co-author--but it's Truffaut's probing questions that make the interviews fascinating, insightful, and informative. He seems to get inside Hitchcock's mind. Finally, speaking of Hitch, I want to heap some praise on the woefully under-appreciated THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. Typically passed over as a Hitchcock tribute, it's a thrilling "movie's movie"--from the opening near-silent sequence to the darkly humorous twist at the end.

    1. "Shoot the Piano Player" so seldom gets mentioned and it was the first Truffaut after "400 Blows." I'm with you on "Bride Wore Black." (At one time I wanted a tattoo on my back that read, "Je suis Julie Kohler," but someone else suggested "I Am Not Simone Choule" and I dropped the whole matter.)

  2. Thanks for inviting me to participate, Rick. There was so much to say that it was a real challenge to keep my thoughts focused and compact. The three questions we were asked to discuss were well framed to introduce the work of Truffaut to those unfamiliar with him. I like your suggestions of "Shoot the Piano Player" and "The Bride Wore Black" because in some ways those are less Continental than much of his work and look back to the kind of American movie always popular with viewers.

    1. I think both of these films reflect his "youthful love" for movies that Ray mentions. One is a gangster film and the other a suspense film, each owing much to their American ancestors that Truffaut loved. And yet, these are "Hollywood movies" as interpreted by Truffaut and thus reflect his own unique sensibilities (such as when a character in SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER proclaims that if he's telling a lie may his mother drop which point, we see a clip of his mother dropping dead).

  3. Wonderful conversation from three erudite indiviulals on one of cinema's great artist.

  4. I think Truffaut's great contributions are his Antoine Doinel films. The same actors, the same characters over time, the real and the unreal growing up before our eyes. Just brilliant.