Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the death of French film director, occasional actor and "auteur" François Truffaut. I got into Truffaut's films through teaching a few of them to my A-level students over the years. We worked on Les 400 Coups, Jules et Jim, La Nuit américaine, Le Dernier métro and La Femme d'à côté. My students and colleagues would gently rib me such was my enthusiasm for Truffaut.
Studying these films, watching all of his others, with the exception of La Chambre verte, I learned a good deal about film-making, the New Wave and about Truffaut himself. Has there has ever been a film-maker whose own life is so intimately tied to his movies?
Only a few of Truffaut's films are great. My own favourites include his first "long métrage" Les 400 Coups, made on a shoestring budget in black and white, and full of references to Truffaut's own childhood. All the clues to his later films are to be found in his portrayal of a young lad who goes off the rails, in particular his fear and idolisation of women.
My other favourite is Jules et Jim, his adaptation of Pierre-Henri Roché's brilliant and original novel which Truffaut came across by accident. I always think that the first 20 minutes of Jeunet's Amélie were strongly influenced by Jules et Jim. The speed, excitement, fluid camera work, the sheer exuberant joy of film-making shine through. Jeanne Moreau, Truffaut's lover at the time, plays the irritatingly headstrong and changeable heroin who two men love like a Goddess simultaneously over many years. Maybe Jules et Jim was Truffaut's masterpiece.
Another favourite of mine is La Nuit américaine (in English Day for Night). This is the one about the making of a film and is a pleasure for any cinephile who desires a real insight into the film-making process. Truffaut himself plays the director, so we get to see him just being himself. This movie also features Jean-Pierre Léaud who, in older age, comes across as a less convincing, more self-conscious actor than he was as Antoine Doinel in Les 400 Coups.
My last favourite is the more conventionally filmed Le Dernier métro, with one of Truffaut's leading lady lovers, Catherine Deneuve alongside Gérard Depardieu.
Truffaut made a few duds, alas. I'm thinking in particular of his Hitchcock homage La Mariée était en noir and the Hollywood-style Mississippi Mermaid. The Antoine Doinel cycle of light comedies leaves me a bit cold too.
Why do so many film watchers revere Truffaut? Part of it is that he did some great, original work when young so his reputation was quickly established. Secondly, people who worked with him and watch his movies love him as a man. His vulnerability, humble and troubled background, care for others, natural modesty, fascination with human beings, especially women, the passionate yet destructive nature of love, alongside his passion for the movies and written words.... all of this can be picked out in his films which in so many ways are about the man himself. So when you watch a Truffaut film you are getting to know the man himself more intimately. In this sense he is the archetypal "auteur".
Truffaut died of a brain tumour at the age of just 52.
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