Truffaut, François (1932–1984)

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French film director and leader of France's new wave movement in cinema.

François Truffaut devoted his entire, brief life to cinema. He directed twenty-five short films and full-length features and, after founding his own production company, Les Films du Carrosse, he produced works by both new and established directors including Jean Cocteau, Jean-Luc Godard, Maurice Pialat, Georges Franju, and Eric Rohmer. Writing also played a crucial role in his career, not only in his discovery of film but in his relation to the "seventh art." Indeed, in Truffaut's view, writing and filmmaking are inseparable.

Born in Paris, he never met his biological father and was raised there by his mother and adoptive father, Roland Truffaut. From childhood, Truffaut had a passion for books and he always maintained an interest in literature. Among the major French filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, he wrote prolifically about cinema both before and during his career as director, and he even dreamed of writing novels. In the 1950s Truffaut was a severe critic and polemicist; later, after he started directing, he wrote essays and published articles about his favorite movies and filmmakers, including Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock, whom he considered his teachers. (He published a highly regarded book of interviews with the latter.) Some of these were compiled in 1975 in a beautiful volume, Les films de ma vie (The Films in My Life). Truffaut was very close to André Bazin, the critic and theorist, who was a virtual spiritual father and introduced him to the group around the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. This was the review in which the young and sensitive cineast—he had joined cinema clubs and founded one of his own at the Cluny-Palace—became famous for his audacious and insolent articles before developing his innovative concept of the "the politics of the author."

Truffaut's celebrated article "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français" ("A Certain Tendency in French Cinema") was published in January 1954. In severely criticizing so-called quality films such as the works of Claude Autant-Lara and René Clément, Truffaut inaugurated an intense polemic that established the aesthetic basis of a cinematic movement that would become known as la nouvelle vague, or new wave. Launched by young directors who wanted to move beyond the usual conventions, notably the conventional screenplay model, the new wave advocated an approach that was freer and more personal. Along with his partner and friend Jean-Luc Godard, with whom in 1958 he codirected the improvisational Une histoire d'eau (A Story of Water) and made his short Les Mistons (The Kids), Truffaut rapidly became the leader of the movement. He made his first fulllength movie, a more or less fictionalized account of his own childhood, Les quatre cents coups (1959; The 400 Blows), which won tremendous acclaim and led to a series of films based on the main character, Antoine Doinel, several of which starred Jean-Pierre Léaud; these included Antoine et Colette (1962; Love at Twenty), Baisers volés (1968; Stolen Kisses), Domicile conjugal (1970; Bed and Board), and L'amour en fuite (1979; Love on the Run).

Film adaptation was at the heart of the debate that Truffaut started with his acerbic articles and it would become, in a way, a constant theme in his work. In Truffaut's view the important matter is not to be faithful to the adapted work but rather to appropriate it in a sincere and personal cinematic interpretation. In that respect his two full-length movies Tirez sur le pianiste (1960; Shoot the Piano Player) and Jules et Jim (1962; Jules and Jim) are good examples. The first, an adaptation of a thriller by David Goodis, is a story breathless with action but also a truly innovative film, an accomplished exercise in style. It is interesting to note that his last movie, Vivement dimanche (Confidentially Yours), shot in 1983 shortly before his death, was also an adaptation of a thriller, Charles Williams's The Long Saturday Night. In some ways it was the counterpart of Shoot the Piano Player but with a formal and much more abstract treatment.

Jules and Jim, an adaptation of a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, is also modern and inventive, full of fantasy. It allowed Truffaut to approach one of his favorite themes: the intoxication of emotions, of passionate love often thwarted and tragic, that can lead his protagonists to their deaths. This was an almost romantic conception that became a constant in his films, such as La peau douce (1964; The Soft Skin), La sirène du Mississippi (1969; Mississippi Mermaid), Les deux anglaises et le continent (1971; Two English Girls), L'histoire d'Adèle H. (1975; The Story of Adele H.), L'homme qui aimait les femmes (1977; The Man Who Loved Women), La chambre verte (1978; The Green Room), and especially La Femme d'àcôté (1981; The Woman Next Door), which was certainly Truffaut's most violently dramatic and pessimistic film. Fahrenheit 451 (1966), based on the famous science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury, is an adaptation in which the passion for books plays a key role. Truffaut's attraction to texts led him to use filmmaking to rediscover the writing. Here again, telling examples are numerous, including The Soft Skin, in which the character, Pierre Lachenay—the pen name that Truffaut used to sign articles in the review Arts—is an editor who lectures on writers such as Balzac and Gide. In The Man Who Loved Woman, as in the Doinel series, the main character is writing a novel. The frequent use of voice-over narration in most of his movies lends them a succinct literary dimension.

Like Jean Renoir, Truffaut had a passion for directing actors. He had an almost filial relationship with Jean-Pierre Léaud, who became his alter ego as Antoine Doinel—the role suited the actor perfectly—profiting from his energy and inimitable and shifting acting persona to create an atypical and unforgettable character. In addition, there was his fetishism for actresses. Each of Truffaut's films seems to be created as a declaration of love, and with his sensual eye he filmed Jeanne Moreau, Delphine Seyrig, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, and Fanny Ardant.

Truffaut's cinema is both open and secret, light and tragic, accessible to a general audience by its seeming simplicity, yet subtle and complex. Above all is Truffaut's ever-renewed willingness to combine introspection and formal experimentation, pure emotion, and meditations on life.

See alsoCinema.


Primary Sources

Truffaut, François. "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema." In Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols. Vol. 1. Berkeley, Calif., 1976.

——. The Films in My Life. New York, 1979.

——. Hitchcock. Rev. ed. New York, 1984.

——. The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut. Edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon and translated by Ruth Cassel Hoffman, Sonja Kropp, and Brigitte Formentin-Humbert. Bloomington, Ind., 1993.

Secondary Sources

Baecque, Antoine de, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut. Translated by Catherine Temerson. New York, 1999.

Insdorf, Annette. François Truffaut. London, 1981.

Laurent Veray

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Truffaut, François (1932–1984)

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