Filmmakers You Should Know: François Truffaut

– by JD Westfall, VW’s film connoisseur –

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There have been many influential movements throughout film history, often tied closely with a specific nation. Neo-Realism (Italy), Expressionism (Germany), New Hollywood (United States) and on and on. However, one of the most important movements, and with arguably the longest lasting effect, has to be French New Wave. While many filmmakers were involved with this movement, helping to create and define and popularize it, today we’ll focus on one: François Truffaut.

Truffaut’s Two Best Films (According to JD)

Jules and Jim (1962)

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that 1962 was the greatest year for film. We were given English classics such as Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Manchurian Candidate and Lolita, to name a few. Additionally world cinema brought us Harakiri (from Japan), L’Eclisse (from Italy), Ivan’s Childhood (from Russia) and of course The Exterminating Angel (from Mexico). However, as great as these films are, Jules and Jim is a clear winner.

It tells a rather unusual story. Two men (the titular Jules and Jim) have been best friends for many years, but the relationship takes a turn when Jules begins seeing a woman named Catherine, played by legendary actress Jeanne Moreau. Jules and Catherine marry, only to eventually split up when Catherine begins falling in love with Jim. What follows is one of the most unique and enrapturing love triangles ever put to film.

With this movie, Truffaut built on the foundation laid by his own films and those of fellow filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. In the preceding three years they focused on intentionally rejecting many customs and conventions of filmmaking in order to create a new cinematic language. The crowning achievement (in the eyes of this reviewer) is Jules and Jim.

Incorporating a newly available form of lightweight camera, they were able to use an entirely new fluid form of film making (best evidenced in a scene of the three protagonists running across a bridge, with the camera always keeping pace ahead of them). Also inventive is the structuring of the film itself. It anticipates what you expect to happen, then finds a clever way to subvert it. For instance, when the film first shows us Jules and Jim meeting, we likely expect a sequence of them becoming friends, how their relationship grows. However, instead of subjecting us to a protracted scene of their friendship budding, the film simply jumps ahead to a point in the future when their friendship is established. It’s as though Truffaut acknowledges that we know what’s coming, so he saves us some time and cuts right to the important elements, the meat of the story.

Also remarkable in the film is its rejection of a common portrayal of leading actresses. Consider how women were usually portrayed in film at the time (or even, disgustingly, still today). Looking through the list I had previously mentioned of other acclaimed films from that year, how were women portrayed? Love interest, mothers or non-existent. But through her character of Catherine, Jeanne Moreau brought to the screen a new kind of leading lady, one who is not there simply to support the leading men. In fact, even though the film is named after the two men, it could be argued that Catherine is the center of everything, and in the second half she is certainly the dominant force in the plot developments. We need more women in film like this.

And speaking of François Truffaut and good use of his lead actresses, we move on to my second pick for the greatest films by Truffaut.

The Story of Adele H (1975)

So full disclosure, this is probably not the popular choice for second-best Truffaut film. If you’re already familiar with his filmography, you may be mentally screaming at me right now for excluding those other films. But don’t worry; we’ll still get around to them.

The plot of this film is much less complicated than Jules and Jim, this time around it being a fairly simple love story. The titular Adele H has fallen in love with a French soldier, but he spurns her advances and is eventually assigned to a post in Nova Scotia. Undeterred, she follows him there and seeks to track him down, letting nothing get in her way.

While this film could never be said to have revolutionized the craft of cinema as some of Truffaut’s earlier films did, it further displays his skill in an important area: effective use of the actors. Working along with lead actress Isabelle Adjani, Truffaut pulls a great performance out of her, one of the single finest ever committed to celluloid, as he lovingly follows her passionate pursuit step by step. Never content to give us easy answers, he refrains from casting her in an excessively positive way, as though she were a spurned lover seeking what’s rightfully hers. However, he also doesn’t put her in a negative light, making her seem like an obsessed psychopath. Rather, throughout the film you find yourself questioning whether she’s really doing the right thing by so determinedly pursuing the man, but also making it impossible for you to not sympathize with her.

Impressively, Isabelle Adjani’s role in this film turned out so well that she became one of the only actresses in history to garner an Academy Award nomination for a foreign language performance, and at the time was the youngest woman to ever be nominated for the Best Actress award.

Further Recommendations

OK, now we get to the ones you expected to see before.

Truffaut’s debut film is considered by many to also be his best. With 1959’s The 400 Blows, he essentially kick-started the entire French New Wave movement with his use of such camera techniques as freeze frames and rapid zooms on specific subjects. He also made good use of his lead cast, such as allowing his young lead actor to improvise numerous sequences to add to the realism of the dialogue. It also features what is possibly the most beautiful and meaningful closing shot ever.

His second feature, Shoot the Piano Player, makes extensive use of tricks Truffaut culled from a lifetime of watching Hollywood films (particularly films by Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock), but all incorporating a French New Wave twist. Particularly noteworthy is the fairly non-linear storytelling method. While the film mostly proceeds from point to point in an orderly fashion, it offers many incongruities. This is not accidental. Rather, Truffaut chose to shoot each scene as its own piece, adjusting it until he had it exactly the way we would want it. Doing this led to some scenes not necessarily matching up, but that’s half the fun.

A final recommendation has to be his 1973 comedy Day For Night, which has been repeatedly called the best film about filmmaking ever done. Not only is it jam packed with hilarious scenes, it also touches on interesting themes. Truffaut himself was quoted asking if cinema is better than life, and one can clearly see this attitude coming through in the film. To emphasize the point, this movie takes great pains to show you exactly how fake everything is in the filmmaking process. Even the French title of the film refers to the method of filming day scenes with a blue filter to make it look like night.

Once again, there are many other excellent films that François Truffaut was responsible for, but hopefully these few can inspire you to look into the rest for yourself, so you too can discover the brilliance of Truffaut.

 

J.D. became a film buff at age four after viewing his first Buster Keaton movie. Since then he’s found a passion for everything from Shakespeare to Sharknado.

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