Truffaut Retrospective Revisits Work of a Modern Master

The Museum of Fine Arts's 13-film festival devoted to the great French new wave director begins with The 400 Blows.

By Joe Leydon September 1, 2014

Argent de Poche

Truffaut: On Childhood
Sept. 1–Nov. 22
$9; seniors & students $7
Brown Auditorium
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 

During his salad days as a notoriously contentious critic for Cahiers du Cinema, the celebrated French film maga­zine, François Truffaut proselytized for a “cinema of the first-person singular,” encouraging the creation of movies “even more personal than an autobiographical novel, more like a confession or an intimate diary.” When he was ready to make the transition from critic to creator as a founder of the maverick nou­velle vague (new wave) movement, he took his own words to heart. And while he was at it, he made a timeless masterpiece. 

The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s profoundly affecting first feature, is a frankly autobiographical drama about growing up in 1950s Paris. At once brutally specific and brilliantly emblematic, the film focuses on Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a 12-­year-old boy whose acute sensitivity makes him tragically vulnerable to the hard knocks of an emotionally deprived child­hood. Don’t look for anything so comfort­ing as rosy-hued nostalgia here. “Adoles­cence,” Truffaut pointedly noted in a 1959 essay, “leaves pleasant memories only for adults who can’t remember.” Truffaut, who was 26 when he filmed The 400 Blows, couldn’t forget. 

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is screening 13 unforgettable movies directed by Truffaut during a two-month retrospective that kicks off Monday—with The 400 Blows, which also screens Sept. 5–7and continues through Nov. 22 with his last completed feature, the 1983 seriocomic caper Confidentially Yours (aka Vivement dimanche! or Finally, Sunday! ). The lineup runs the gamut from Hitchcockian suspense (The Bride Wore Black, Oct. 12) to lyrical sci-fi (Fahrenheit 451, Oct. 17), from a celebration of childhood as a state of grace (Small Change, Sept. 20) to a consideration of love as a kind of madness (The Story of Adele H., Nov. 7). And while it’s arguable that no other title in the series continues to loom as large in film history and in our collective pop-culture conscious as his debut effort, each is unmistakably a creation of the same artist, informed by the same sensibility.

The 400 Blows

At the time of his death 30 years ago this fall at the ridiculously young age of 52, Truffaut had already established himself as, in the words of a New York Times front-page obituary, “one of the most important film directors of the 20th century.” Amazingly, he accomplished this in the space of just 25 years, between May 4, 1959, when The 400 Blows triumphantly premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and Oct. 21, 1984, when he died as the result of a brain tumor. The rigorousness of his work ethic and the prodigiousness of his output suggest that, deep down, Truffaut felt, early on, intimations of his own mortality. Which may explain his lifelong game of beat-the-clock as a race to ensure his immortality through his art.

“I want a film I watch to express either the joy of making cinema or the anguish of making cinema,” he said in a 1975 interview. “And I am not interested in everything between the two – that is, in all the films that don’t vibrate.”

Truffaut left us with a uniquely rich and varied legacy: 21 feature films and two shorts, each of them, even the darkest, infused with fervent enthusiasm and clear-eyed compassion. He made specifically French movies that American moviegoers could love. And he spoke in a universal language that American moviemakers could understand.

Director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, The Hurricane) once admitted to me that he “didn’t necessarily want to like” The 400 Blows when it first hit screens in 1959, “because I knew he had been a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, and there were a lot of things that I disagreed with him on. And when he said he was going to make a film, I said, ‘Here you are, you asshole. Now you’ll find out that it’s not so goddamn easy.’ And he was brilliant, totally brilliant.”

So brilliant, in fact, that he served as inspiration for directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg, Robert Benton, Lasse Hallstrom—and Oliver Stone. “I suppose what he taught me is, make your film personal,” Stone said of Truffaut during a 1994 interview. “Do it about a boy, do it about your life, like The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, the Antoine Doinel pictures. Those films were very real. And he allowed us to be very real and personal. He encouraged us, as young filmmakers, to do that in our work. And that’s very important.”

The late Nora Ephron was a screenwriter (When Harry Met Sally...) and film director

(Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) whose gift for balancing the sardonic and the sentimental would likely have impressed Truffaut, a world-class master at such tricky juggling acts. (''Being sentimental myself,'' he once noted, ''I distrust overt sentimentality.'') But when I interviewed her a few years after Truffaut’s passing, Ephron indicated she was more attuned to another aspect of Truffaut's cinema. 

''To the extent that almost any movie about relationships is secretly French,'' Ephron told me, ''the French movies that they’re secretly about are Truffaut's. Those French movies that we all saw and loved—I’m not saying that he’s the only one who made them—but that spirit of his, that unbelievably generous spirit that suffused all of his movies, and that ability to not be remotely plot-driven, is something that many of us hope we’ll hit now and then. In some weird way, When Harry Met Sally... is really a French movie. And I hope Truffaut would have liked it.”

“I can actually remember the first time I saw 400 Blows,” actor-filmmaker Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas) once said. “This doesn’t happen often, but it was one of those times when you see a film, and you’re jealous. When it was over, I thought, ‘My God, I wonder if I could ever do anything that could make anyone feel the way I feel right now?’ Obviously, my childhood was a lot different—I kind of loved my childhood, as a matter of fact. But I thought, ‘To make a film that seems to so accurately depict your childhood—that would be the film I’d want to make someday.’”

The 400 Blows is the story of Antoine Doinel, a lad of average intelligence, neither a dullard nor a genius, perhaps too imaginative for his own good. He is alert but confused, quiet but inquisitive, high-spirited with friends but instinctively reserved with grownups. He has ample reason to be wary around the adults in his world. At school, Antoine is methodically bullied by teachers who have zero tolerance for disrup­tions of their dull pedantry. At home, howev­er, things are worse. “Antoine Doinel,” Truf­faut explained, “is the opposite of a mistreated child. He simply is not ‘treated’ at all.”

Antoine’s beautiful but careless mother (Claire Maurier) seems especially unsym­pathetic to his needs—largely, the movie suggests, because Antoine is the product of an unwanted pregnancy. She is affectionate, even “motherly,” but only when she fears her son will spill the beans about his having spied her in the arms of her lover. Her husband, Antoine's jovial but aloof stepfather (Albert Remy), married her long after Antoine’s birth, out of the kindness of his heart, in order to give the child a name—as he never tires of reminding his wife.

Gradually, inevitably, Antoine channels his unhappiness into rebellion. (The film’s French title -- Les Quatre Cents Coups -- comes from the idiom faire les quatre cents coups, which translates roughly as “to raise hell.”) Misbehaving leads to playing hooky: Antoine never appears happier than he does during an AWOL visit to an amusement park, where he takes a ride on a centrifuge called The Rotor. The contraption begins to spin, and he is pinned to the wall, helpless yet happy, while the floor descends beneath his feet. (Look carefully, and you'll spot a young François Truffaut among the other folks pinned alongside him.) Trouble is, truancy requires inventing alibis. It speaks volumes about Antoine’s sense of himself as an unloved son that, when pressured by his least favorite teacher to explain one of his many absences, the boy blurts out that his mother has died. Wishful thinking, perhaps? True to her nature, the very-much-alive Madame Doinel views Antoine’s lie as a personal insult: “Why couldn’t he have said you died?” she snaps at her husband.

One thing leads to another, the runaway child tries his hand at petty thievery, and, of course, he’s caught.

The achingly sad story of Antoine Doinel ends with the boy’s impulsive attempt to escape from a reformatory. This leads to one of the most famous and influential closing shots in movie history, a startling freeze-frame of Antoine alone on a wintry beach, unable to run any further—and anxious to see what new travail lurks over the horizon. Even if you know that Antoine survived­—and thrived, actually—in a short and three sequels (including Stolen Kisses, screening Oct. 5 at MFAH) directed by Truffaut and starring Leaud, you can't help worrying as you watch that final image whether you’ve witnessed the extinguishing of a soul.

Much of The 400 Blows has the raw, jumpy immediacy of a cinéma vérité documentary, particularly whenever Truffaut follows Antoine through the streets of Paris. In this, the film is very much a paradigm of nouvelle vague style: Like the Italian Neorealists of the post–World War II era, the French New Wave filmmakers made a virtue of their limi­ted resources by going beyond the sound­stage to capture life on the run, with hand­held cameras and frequent improvisation.

But what sets the late, great François Truffaut apart from most other filmmakers of his generation—from most other film­makers, period—is the deeply humanistic understanding he extends to all his char­acters, even the more unpleasant ones, and the unadulterated joy he conveys in the very act of making films.

Which is not to say, however, that those films are always joyful. “I know that people who know me or who look attentively at my films see what there is of toughness in them,” Truffaut said, “because my films are not sentimental, even if they are built on sentiments.”

Indeed, in The Green Room, loosely based on stories by Henry James, Truffaut cast himself as a writer—of obituaries!—who lives only to mourn for lost loved ones, and who notices too late the chance for spiritual redemption offered by a woman who has suffered and survived her own losses. At the moment of his death, he confesses to her that the most terrible thing that happened to them “is that nothing happened.”

The most wonderful thing that happens in François Truffaut's movies is that everything happens: Love and hate, life and death, chance and fate, fear and desire, rebellion and resignation. Women are magic, men are enchanted. And a filmmaker who is 30 years dead is grandly, gloriously immortal. Vive le cinéma.



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