Forever Young

"The Complete Truffaut" polishes the reputation of French cinema's perpetual adolescent

Monogamy is impossible, but anything else is worse.

--François Truffaut


Reeling in the years: Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in (top to bottom) The 400 Blows, "Antoine and Colette" (with director François Truffaut at right), Love on the Run, and Bed and Board
Reeling in the years: Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in (top to bottom) The 400 Blows, "Antoine and Colette" (with director François Truffaut at right), Love on the Run, and Bed and Board

Not for nothing did François Truffaut name one of his movies The Man Who Loved Women: The pioneering film critic-turned-French New Wave auteur was legendary for letting his eye wander when it wasn't pointed at a screen or a camera. Still, as much as monogamy per se, what proved "impossible" for the filmmaker was remaining faithful to a single cinematic style. Throughout a career that encompassed 21 features and two shorts, Truffaut waffled between comedies and thrillers, personal statements and commercial product, homages to Hitchcock and Renoiresque works of poetic realism, portraits of childhood mischief and laments for adult responsibility. More than anything, this promiscuous behavior explains why, some 15 years after his premature death from a brain tumor, Truffaut remains a complicated case relative to more resolute New Wavers such as Godard, Rohmer, and Chabrol. Did The Man Who Loved Movies simply relish playing the field--or did he spread himself too thin? Perhaps both are true. Indeed, just as the director's films often detail the alluring dangers of l'amour fou, there's a sense in which Truffaut's insatiable cinephilia proved to be his salvation and his shortcoming.

Of course, you may disagree with this assessment. And so it should be, since contention is one of the major tenets of the French New Wave--or at least it was for Truffaut until, in the mid-Sixties, he began to show signs of having become the sort of innocuous bourgeois crowd-pleaser he'd pilloried as a critic. But that, too, is debatable. For now, maybe the most we can agree upon is that this is the perfect time for a reconsideration of the Truffaut catalog, what with a brand-new biography (Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana's Truffaut) that impeccably reiterates the psychological foundation of his work, and a new New Wave of brilliant French auteurs (Assayas, Desplechin, Zonca, Jacquot), who've been drawing more from Truffaut's celebratedly "humanist" content than from Godard's radical form.

These days Truffaut's underattended work of the Seventies (e.g., Two English Girls, The Story of Adèle H.) may be of greater interest to buffs than his proven classics (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and Jules and Jim). But any way you slice it, the auteur's oeuvre is greater than the sum of its parts. And the benefit of Oak Street Cinema's "The Complete Truffaut" is that it is indeed complet, including as it does everything he made between 1957 and 1983, all in newly struck 35mm prints. Daring to devote three weeks to one (foreign) filmmaker in the middle of summer, the theater's founder Bob Cowgill makes his admiration plain in the program notes: "Without the inspiration of François Truffaut (1932-1984) there would be no Oak Street Cinema."

Whether there would be a French New Wave without him seems nearly as doubtful--even if, like me, one values Godard's obliteration of bourgeois cinema more than Truffaut's resurrection of it. For one thing, it was Truffaut who came up with the basic idea for Godard's lacerating Breathless in the late Fifties (admittedly, that film's basic idea is its least visionary conceit); for another, his early focus on more universal themes in his own work invested the movement with mainstream legitimacy (while his wife's movie-producer father invested in him); and in any case, The 400 Blows is a great movie, not to mention a more indelible account of Truffaut's unhappy childhood than any author could hope to offer.

In The 400 Blows, the filmmaker's 12-year-old alter ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) engages in petty thievery as a means of getting some of the attention he desperately longs for, while seeking surrogate father figures through a filial reverence toward great artists. And in keeping with the many contradictions in Truffaut's character, this debut feature (1959) is at once lyrical and unsentimental in revealing how Antoine's harsh teachers, tattletale classmates, and ineffectual parents all contribute to a poetic injustice that has the viewer rooting for the character's escape.

"This kid hit the media like a bomb" is the first printed line in the coming-attractions trailer for The 400 Blows--referring specifically to the film's explosive reception at Cannes, although it could just as well have been describing the twentysomething Truffaut's earlier detonation of journalistic etiquette. As Antoine lashes out against the oppressive rule of the older generation (symbolized in the classroom by the dreary exercise of transcribing an antiquated poem), so the film critic Truffaut railed against what he called "le cinéma du papa" in a vitriolic article called "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema." French films are boring, conventional, adapted from musty works of literature, and too tasteful by half, claimed Truffaut in the 1954 essay, attacking the old "tradition of quality" while pointing the way toward the New Wave revolution.

But would the filmmaker practice what he had preached as a critic? The haunting freeze-frame at the end of The 400 Blows catches Antoine in a rare moment of freedom, albeit with nowhere else to go--simultaneously posing the question of what would come next for the auteur. Would this wild child continue to savage the establishment by remaining rebellious and independent? Or would he come home to le cinéma du papa and learn to behave?

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