On 6 February 2017, François Truffaut (1932–1984) would have been 85 years old. As it was, he died tragically from a brain tumor at the age of 52, thus depriving the world of cinema of one of its brightest stars. His legacy, nevertheless, continues, being particularly evident in his influence on the current generation of filmmakers. Indeed, after several decades during which Truffaut’s reputation suffered an eclipse, with his work dismissed as “bourgeois” and sentimental, especially when compared with the political and avant-garde tendencies of his fellow New Wave filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, his star appears to be once again in the ascendant.
The resurgence of interest in Truffaut was signaled by the mounting of a major exhibition, “François Truffaut,” on the 30th anniversary of his death, at the Cinémathèque française in Paris, between 8 October 2014 and 10 February 2015. This exhibition displayed screenplays annotated by Truffaut, letters to and from his acquaintances—figures such as Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Genet—photographs pertaining to all aspects of his life and work, and significant documents. It was also accompanied by a retrospective of Truffaut’s films, classified according to their type: the Doinel series, tracing the coming-of-age experiences of a character, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, between the ages of 14 and 28; the “films of passion,” such as Jules et Jim, L’Histoire d’Adèle H., and La Femme d’à côté, in which Truffaut attempts to exorcise his vision of the compulsive and destructive power of love. The five films adapted from American crime novels, comprising such films as Tirez sur le pianiste, La Sirène du Mississipi, and Vivement dimanche!; and the films on childhood, including Les 400 coups, L’Enfant sauvage, and L’Argent de poche, with their emphasis on truancy and the importance of language and inventiveness as a means of forging one’s destiny. In the words of the introduction to the exhibition, it marked “un retour complet à François Truffaut” (a full return to François Truffaut).
Apart from this significant exhibition, the revival of interest in Truffaut has also been evident in a number of significant publications: 31 scholars from a variety of countries contributed to a reappraisal of Truffaut’s works in A Companion to François Truffaut (2013), a documentary film, Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015), based on Truffaut’s interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, was released in 2015 and screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and a comprehensive edition of Truffaut’s interviews relating to his own work will be published in an English translation as Truffaut on Cinema in 2017.
What is it about Truffaut’s film-making that has motivated this resurrection after a lengthy period of underestimation? For the answer to this question, one needs to go to filmmakers themselves. Arnaud Desplechin, a prominent contemporary French filmmaker, gives us some clues in an extended interview he gave with the Truffaut scholars Anne Gillain and Dudley Andrew in A Companion to François Truffaut in June 2010. Having dismissed Truffaut earlier in his career, Desplechin tells us that, when he began to watch Truffaut’s films again from about 1990 onward, he was shocked to realize that they embodied a quality that was absent from the films of those filmmakers who had previously been his idols: “There was something, in every cut, that allowed each shot to exist of its own volition. Usually when you link two shots, you’re putting them in the service of a story, but here, on the contrary, the shots retain their integrity, their will. Every shot is a unit of thought.” To put it another way, “there is a dramaturgical thought each time. The entire screen is occupied by this dramaturgical thought—nothing is given to some vague naturalism, nothing to chance, nothing to the plot…There’s only cinema.”
This is the great gift that Truffaut has bequeathed by his example and advocacy to the filmmakers who have followed him—the idea, revealed in his practice, that meaning in cinema needs to be conveyed through the way in which a shot is composed and executed—which is why Truffaut averred that he wished he had been alive to make films in the silent era, before the invention of sound made it possible for filmmakers to take facile or lazy shortcuts.
But there is more to it than that. The object of fiction film-making for Truffaut—he hated documentary—was first and foremost to convey emotion, and the example he provided in this respect continues to exert a powerful influence on younger filmmakers. To take a characteristic example, the young Canadian director Xavier Dolan, who attracted the world’s attention when he won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for Mommy, expressed the following view when asked whether he preferred Godard or Truffaut:
Truffaut. Why? Because the former enjoys himself alone; the latter enjoys himself with us. Godard could never have made a film like La Femme d’à côté. Never. Never. Because he (Truffaut) is more moving, more human, also more aware of the need to accord importance to characters and stories, rather than merely to processes, to himself, to a vision, to freedom, to a revolution, to a play on words. You don’t find this humanity in Godard’s films.
While filmmakers admire and respect Godard, they continue to love and imitate Truffaut, as is apparent not only in their eulogies, but also their practice. To take but one example: Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed comedy-drama Frances Ha (2012), co-written with the American actress Greta Gerwig, in which the influence of Truffaut is unmistakable: in the soundtrack, which begins by citing the theme of Une Belle Fille comme moi, in the general characterization of the protagonist as an adaptive survivor, and in the wonderfully humane blend of pathos and humor that animates the whole film.
Truffaut himself, in the longer term, thus similarly emerges as a survivor in the eyes of the practitioners in his profession. More than that, it seems that he has become one of their enduring inspirations.
Featured image credit: François Truffaut in 1965 by Nijs, Jac. de/Anefo. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.