Wednesday, November 6, 2013

François Truffaut, Part I: The black and white period

The quintessence of modern French culture:  
intelligent, charming, insouciant, and tantalizingly perverse

Truffaut with Dexter Behind the Camera
     Turner Classic Movies (TCM) focused recently on François Truffaut, one of the architects of the 1960s French New Wave.  The movies will probably be in rotation over the next few months, I hope.  Here’s to TCM for continuing to remind us of
the primary creative force in film-making – the director – even though the stars receive the attention and they generally get the butts in the seats.  However, the primary pragmatic force that ensures the continuation of the industry – the producer – makes the bucks and gets short shrift in the half-life of cultural memory (including even the inestimable TCM).

     This will be a multi-part article, examining Truffaut from his black and white to his color period (sort of like Picasso’s blue and rose periods, but not really) because it grew longer than I’d expected.  Even with that timeline division, Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel, played by his discovery Jean-Pierre Léaud, who went on to become a French superstar, consistently re-appears.  

     Truffaut came to prominence as a journalist and critic for the seminal Cahiers du Cinema.  It was his father-in-law who encouraged him to make a movie instead of merely running down others who did.  His first feature was The 400 Blows (1959), an instant classic about the misunderstood and neglected twelve-year old Antoine Doinel, who bore some tantalizing similarities to Truffaut’s life experience, but not the most important one.  Antoine runs away a few times during the story and, at the end, he’s beside the sea and he looks back at the camera and the frame freezes on him.  

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows
     One greatly ironic line is when a schoolteacher looks at his insolent, misbehaving class and asks, “What will you be doing in ten years?”  Nine years later, student demonstrators practically shut down France – the Cannes Film Festival was cancelled that year, which was beyond what American students dreamed of doing.  What the movie captures metaphysically as a cultural document is the idealistic promise of late childhood/early adolescence and the potential for a world-class movie career.

     Antoine Doinel figures into five of his movies, almost a quarter of his output, but I’m going to follow a chronological path in this article.  Shoot the Piano Player (1960) snaps back and forth between the pianist’s glorious past that came to an abrupt, shocking end and his grubby present a couple of years later.  His emotional pain is spilled onto the back burner by the scenes involving the dopey gangsters with whom his brothers get involved.  There’s slapstick, crime, including manslaughter, and romance.  Charles Aznavour seems world-weary – almost burned out – until he’s suddenly shocked back into living by having to save his own life.  

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Marie France Pisier in Love at Twenty
     Love at Twenty (1962), is an international omnibus of shorts that included Truffaut’s Antoine et Colette.  Léaud returned as Doinel, who falls in love with Colette, played by Marie France Pisier.  She always seemed so delicate and tiny in her ‘70s movies, but she towers over him, well her bouffant hairdo is about two feet itself.  He adores her, she likes him as a friend, but it’s her parents who end up returning his affection.

     Jules and Jim (1962) from Henri-Pierre Roché’s 1953 novel features a provocative, gorgeous performance by Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, loved by the Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the French Jim (Henri Serre).  It was (and still is) a major statement about both Modernism and the contemporary world.  Though set in the 1913 – 1932 period, it refers both to the generation that created The Jazz Age and, again, metaphysically foreshadows the hippie era of communes, free love, and the politically charged.  

     Truffaut uses every type of old-timey editing trick to create an almost syncopated rhythm along with Georges Delerue’s evocative score.  Truffaut was probably the first movie director to capture the essence of Fitzgerald, though that was not his intention.  There’s both the desperate, youthful and intellectual excitement for romance and the quiet despair and compromises of early middle age in dealing with those relationship choices.  It’s a movie that’s both marvelous and maddening as it limns protagonists and a historical climate that are both creative and destructive.

     And then came color . . . 

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