Francois Truffaut : The Man Who Loved Cinema

By Eby, Lloyd | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Francois Truffaut : The Man Who Loved Cinema


Eby, Lloyd, The World and I


A retrospective showcases all Truffaut's films in new prints, enabling viewers to experience anew the eros of cinema as celebrated by the avatar of the French New Wave.

The camera tracks the girl on her bicycle as she moves repeatedly in and out of shadow, her body moving inside her dress as she pedals, the wind playing on the dress. She is going for a rendezvous with her boyfriend in the country. When she parks her bike by a tree, five boys, brats, come out and examine it--especially the seat--reverently, near- pruriently. The movie dwells on the boys and their attraction to and tormenting of the couple. The brats are especially in awe of the girl, and they realize, intuitively, that there is something powerful and mysterious in the couple that they are not yet old enough to know for themselves. But all is not sunny or light; the film ends with the girl walking down the street in mourning after her boyfriend has died.

The film is Les Mistons (1957), an early twenty-three-minute short by FranIois Truffaut, the avatar of the French New Wave, and it encapsulates in brief the themes and cinematic sensibility that would inform all of Truffaut's subsequent films: love for film so passionate and sensual that it could be called erotic. Intense interest in male- female relationships, focusing on the joys and pains, the pleasures and terrors, the highs and lows of erotic love. And fascination with and affinity for children. He had a kind of perfect pitch for cinema: an intuitive knowing of how to achieve--with an economy of means as well as a near-flawless control of the medium--cinematic expression and achievement of intentions.

All twenty-three of Truffaut's films, in new 35mm prints with English subtitles, were shown in Washington, D.C., throughout August at the American Film Institute at the Kennedy Center and at the National Gallery of Art, as part of a nationally touring retrospective. Seeing these pictures again confirmed what I felt from the time I saw my first Truffaut movie (Stolen Kisses) sometime in 1968 or '69: These films are gems. Truffaut's unique affection for cinema and what can be done in it comes through in every one of his movies, even the least successful of them. They have given me the greatest delight I've ever experienced in film watching, with the exception of the first time I saw Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless--which was based on an idea by Truffaut.

Using the term eros may seem odd in discussing a film director and his work, but with Truffaut this is appropriate. He himself once said, "I want a film I watch to express either the joy of making cinema or the anguish of making cinema. I am not interested in all the films that don't vibrate." That's what makes his own films so exhilarating to watch: They indeed vibrate, both intellectually and sensually.

Moreover, a large part of each of them is concerned with erotic relationships between men and women. As Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram observe in their book on the filmmaker, "One of the authorial signs that circulates from one Truffaut film to another is the question (sometimes formulated in the affirmative, as a statement): are women magic?" Countered to this is "the diffidence and emotional helplessness of the standard Truffaldian male." Although Truffaut's films may seem on the surface to exhibit the typical stereotype of man seeing woman as sexual object and conquest, this is frequently undercut by irony, turning the joke against the man. In addition, in Truffaut's later films, the female characters become stronger and more assertive.

His movies are never saccharine or sentimental. Every image and situation has behind it a shadow, and the auteur nearly always takes a self-critical approach. Truffaut films frequently depict murder, suicide, doom, and degradation brought on by love and its discontents. The protagonist's illusions--especially those of the males--are always apparent and frequently punctured.

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