Francois Truffaut - rebel of the mainstream?

Truffaut - ground-breaking film critic, iconic director of the French new wave, essential reference for cinephiles across Europe and beyond…. Truffaut remains all these things and more. However, being invited to introduce this fabulous series of his films at the Showroom made me reflect on just how long it has been since I really thought about Truffaut, or taught Truffaut or met new researchers working on Truffaut. It has been quite some time.

What might explain this apparent mismatch between his enduring status and his absence from the limelight in recent years? The same fate has not befallen some of his new wave peers - indeed, Varda’s astonishing engaged and joyful work across documentary and fiction continues to inspire new generations of researchers and Godard’s much stylised reflexivity remains much copied on our screens.

This mismatch in profiles encouraged me to take a closer look at Truffaut’s legacy through the films in this series. As the posters declare, Truffaut stands for a passion for cinema - a marker that includes his own (often mythologised) life story and his singular contribution to one of the most influential approaches to film of all time. Truffaut remains the boy who found sanctuary from educational alienation and family conflict in cinemas, reportedly watching several films a day for most of his teenage years. His cinephilia impressed men who would become the keystones of emerging film culture and institutions - Henri Langlois and André Bazin - and he was taken on as a film critic at the prestigious journal, Cahiers du cinema. There he workedalongside Rohmer, Rivette, Godard and Chabrol, all of whom, with little or no formal training, moved from the role of film critic to key film makers of the French new wave.

It was from this group, and from Truffaut specifically, that the ebullient and controversial text ‘Certain tendencies of French cinema’ emerged in 1954. The engagingly direct call for change formed the first steps in a new vision of the status of the director and of the cinema as artform. It also included scathing attacks on other filmmakers and their work, which were categorised as the ‘tradition of quality’ (‘quality’ as a label, not inherent worth) and the ‘cinéma de papa’ or ‘daddy’s films’ tagged as generationally adrift and incapable of either reading the room or speaking to younger audiences. Truffaut dismissed the adaptations of classic novels which dominated national French cinema production at the time as ‘audiences are served up their usual helping of gloom, non-conformism and facile audacity’. ‘Facile audacity’… Ouch.

The ‘politique de l’auteur’, later developed across complex reframings as ‘auteur theory’, suggested that the director of a film is equivalent to its author, the creative heart and soul of the film as artform - indeed the 7th art (le septième art). In support of this they identified recurrent themes and use of film language (type of shot, composition) in their favoured directors (Hitchcock, Sirk, Ray) and thus elevated them to the status of auteur (French for author) with a creative ‘signature’ (an emerging brand even). Such ideas remain very influential - how often do we say we saw ‘the new Campion’ or ‘the ‘new Almodovar’, as if a film were the sole creative work of the director. Such approaches play down the status of film as a creative and technical collaborative enterprise - so downplaying, for example, the brilliant cinematography of Raoul Coutard at the heart of so many new wave films, all those Oscar categories that still don’t make the televised programming…

400 blows and the new wave

Truffaut’s astounding debut film, 400 blows won best director at Cannes in 1959. It is also the first film in the Antoine Doinel series which spanned 20 years and followed the same character through to adulthood ,played by the talismanic (and often manic) Jean-Pierre Léaud from the age of 14 to 28. The possibilities that arrived with cheaper lighter cameras (and so smaller, cheaper crews) and the capacity for recording direct sound drove the new wave’s now famous sense of freedom, mobility and change. New wave is associated with the cultural capital of youth yet 400 blows shows brutal intergenerational conflict and institutional indifference, rejects sentimental nostalgia and speaks to the present as much as to the past. Truffaut both claimed that the film was not based on his biography and claimed personal experience of some of the elements of the plot - we might see it in the French tradition of autofiction - playful or strategic fictionalisation of autobiographical elements. The social marginalisation, represented in 400 blows find their echoes in the contemporary world of course and in the work of realist filmmakers films such as Ratcatcher or The selfish giant. Indeed Truffaut was also involved in championing children’s rights in later life and provides no easy narrative resolution in 400 blows. This is reflected in one of the most iconic open endings in cinema, a close-up shot which conventionally would provide psychological insight and intense empathy brings ambiguity, self-doubt and narrative and filmic suspension.

The New wave was a brief moment in French film history - (and was not, of course, the only new wave) and is usually seen as running from 1958 to 1962 (although, for my money, Varda’ 1955 La pointe courte is the first new wave film). It was also a brief moment in Truffaut’s career which continued across another 30 years. Indeed a recent retrospective at the institut français featured a whole set of chapters - the Renoir Truffaut, the literary Truffaut, the Hitchcock Truffaut,

Perhaps it is because of the contradictions inherent in his work and his profile that he remains a less-prominent figure in some ways today. A rebel who made films that are now part of the mainstream, a believer in personal freedoms whose films (as products of his time) often objectify women, a scathing critic known for his kindness on set, a figure whom we assume may dominate films studies but is hard to find. Perhaps some revisiting is in order - a new look at his films as part of the cinema of adolescence - as articulating boyhood before Boyhood, a cinema that foregrounds a crisis in masculinity as well as conventional femininity, a cinema with so much to offer us still.


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