PRINT May 1999


François Truffaut

BACK IN MY STUDENT DAYS I caught Jules and Jim practically every time it came around to a repertory house or college film society. I adored it, I knew it by heart, and I always walked out on a cloud, and so I wasn’t prepared, on seeing Francois Truffaut’s masterpiece several summers ago during a revival run at Film Forum, to be so blind-sided. For weeks the story of love derailed and friendship damaged wouldn’t leave me alone. I dreamed about it. I couldn’t get Georges Delerue’s tragic, lyrical music—in my book, the most perfect film score ever written—out of my head. And I puzzled over the mystery of my younger self. How could the picture have meant so much to me before I had struggled through the love and loss that it’s about? What had attracted me? And what had the smitten young me made of that dry yet ebullient ending, when Jules has lost Jim, his dearest friend, and Catherine, his great, impossible love, and the narrator tells us, “A feeling of relief swept over him”? Relief? From friendship? From passion?

Jules and Jim is exhilaratingly romantic and at the same time aghast at its romanticism, and it wasn’t until I was in my forties and had lived through my own Jims and Catherines that I could connect to the emotional horrors Jules has to endure and appreciate his exhausted embrace of middle age. What’s most startling about that embrace, though, is that Truffaut was still in his twenties when he made the movie: a middle-aged artist before his time. Viewed from this perspective—as from so many others—Truffaut and his friend Jean-Luc Godard were the opposing polestars of the Nouvelle Vague: Godard the spirit of youth, lost youth, growing more rebellious with each of his movies, until finally they became all but impenetrable to his audiences; and Truffaut, drawn to middle age even as a young director (his great second feature, Shoot the Piano Player, is about an artist so sensitive to pain that he’s sheltered himself entirely from experience), and settling, as he grew older, into the cozy comforts of genre and charm. Godard became indigestible, Truffaut so airy there was nothing left to chew on.

But that was later. The beginning was glorious. And however attracted Truffaut was, from his first films, to the security and the pleasant numbness that come with the decades, he was a love-struck teenager in his inventiveness and his exuberance. Besides, the attraction is understandable. He’d had a lousy childhood (neglect, reform school) and a difficult young manhood (dishonorable discharge from the military). His early years became the raw material of his wonderful first feature, The 400 Blows, which shows childhood as a time of powerlessness and terror but also of antic energy and hope. Youth was just as troubling and just as hopeful, and it ushered in a whole new set of sexual feelings, which were the perfect comic fuel for Jean-Pierre Léaud, the matchless actor who immortalized Truffaut’s tragicomically self-dramatizing alter ego, Antoine Doinel, in five movies over twenty years: The 400 Blows (1959), the “Antoine and Colette” episode of the 1962 omnibus effort Love at Twenty, Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and Love on the Run (1979).

In the days of rep houses, Jules and Jim was always playing somewhere, and Antoine Doinel was as familiar a figure to college kids as Quentin Compson and Emma Bovary. Now it’s hard to see Truffaut’s movies except on tape (and I can’t think of a director who would be more appalled at the notion). So Fox Lorber’s decision to strike new prints of thirteen Truffaut pictures is a lovely way to mark the fortieth anniversary of The 400 Blows and the fifteenth anniversary of the director’s death. The semi-retrospective, which tours the country beginning this spring, includes the entire Antoine Doinel series, Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1961), the period dramas Two English Girls (1971) and The Last Metro (1980), The Woman Next Door (1981), and Confidentially Yours (1983), as well as the rarely screened 1957 short Les Mistons and the equally rare 1964 melodrama The Soft Skin. (It omits some fine films, too—The Wild Child [1969], Day for Night [1973], The Story of Adele H. [1975], Small Change [1976]—though some theaters, such as Film Forum in New York, have planned a complete retrospective.) There’s also a 1993 documentary about the director, Francois Truffaut: Stolen Portraits.

I doubt that the series will provide the occasion for a reassessment—Truffaut’s strengths and his weaknesses are obvious, and not enough time has gone by for them to start to mutate—but seeing so many of his movies together at least gives you the chance to revisit his major themes. Antoine’s obsessive but inconstant passions are funny, mostly. But they’re the comic face of l’amour fou, a mad, destructive, potentially even murderous fixation that has all the dumb force of a storm. Lovers in Truffaut, when he’s being serious about it, are the victims of a soul-withering disease. Catherine’s passion for Jim, in Jules and Jim, is horrible and disfiguring. So is Mathilde’s for Bernard two decades later in The Woman Next Door, which is a kind of modern-dress Jules and Jim with no Jules.

But while Antoine declares at one point, with typical extravagance, that love is the only thing that matters, something else matters, of course: Antoine, after all, is a novelist (though evidently not a very good one), and art matters—matters profoundly. Truffaut’s passion for the movies helped him escape his miserable childhood and brought him to André Bazin’s journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, where he initially made his name as a writer. And his movies never entirely lost the intellectual stamp of the critic. The early ones, especially, are anything-goes hodgepodges of techniques and feelings that betray his uncontainable excitement with a medium he has been studying from the other side his whole life. Technique was a siren song for him, though; his tastes were more catholic than his talent. He famously admired Hitchcock, but the temperament of his homages was mostly wrong: Hitchcock was ice, Truffaut was warmth, and though there’s some wonderful stuff in The Bride Wore Black (1968), which isn’t among the new prints, Confidentially Yours, which is, is depressingly tepid and whimsical.

But this whimsy bordering on absurdity, which lightened Truffaut’s best work (and encrusted his worst), masked real emotion. It flickers, even at its lightest—in the romantic comedy Stolen Kisses—atop a layer of melancholy. There’s a remarkable scene in that film in which Antoine stands in front of his shaving mirror repeating the names of three people—the boss’s wife he has fallen for, the girl he doesn’t know he is going to marry, and himself—over and over: “Fabienne Tabard, Fabienne Tabard, Fabienne Tabard! Fabienne Tabard! . . . Christine Darbon, Christine Darbon, Christine Darbon! Christine Darbon! Christine Darbon! Christine Darbon! . . . Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel! Antoine Doinel! Antoine Doinel!”—passionately, histrionically, and, even Antoine realizes, dementedly. Somehow that inexplicable vignette captures all the absurdity, the obsessiveness, the self-obsessiveness of mad love. Impossibly, it’s both slight and monumental, ridiculous and beautiful, charming and disturbing: opposites that Truffaut had the vision and the talent and the technique to embrace all together when he was soaring, when—middle-aged in his sympathies but rapturous as a kid about his one true love, the movies—he was his best self.

Craig Seligman is an editor of Salon.

“Tout Truffaut: A Complete Retrospective” plays at Film Forum in New York. April 23–June 24.