Saturday, November 9, 2013

François Truffaut, Part II: The Color Period

Denser and deeper, Truffaut took risks

Truffaut Filming Fahrenheit 451
     François Truffaut’s last black and white movie was The Soft Skin (1964), which I haven’t seen.  He then went color in Hollywood with an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966).  It’s a movie that should have stayed a book even though it stars Oskar Werner and Julie Christie, two of the most sensitive European movie stars to visit Hollywood from time to time.  Werner seems very tentative in it and Christie’s blank in a strange double role, one of her few
miscues in a fabled career.  I hope she can be persuaded to take another major role soon.  Part of the problem was that Truffaut wasn’t comfortable working in English at that time and he couldn’t find any charm in the material.

Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Claude Brialy in The Bride Wore Black
     Back in France, he paid tribute to Hitchcock, one of his idols, in The Bride Wore Black (1968), based on a Cornell Woolrich novel.  Woolrich was one of the most prolific crime writers of the 1940s and many of his books and stories were turned into movies.  Smartly, in co-writing the movie, Truffaut did not include the last twist of the book, which undercuts pretty much everything that the heroine has tried to achieve.  Jeanne Moreau again stars, but she always looks the same even while disguising herself to pull off five murders and that’s a problem.  Julie is a chameleon in the book, which is part of the reason that her movement from outraged victim to avenging angel to monster frightens the reader.  

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Claude Jade in Stolen Kisses
     Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed and Board (1970), though the French title translates as conjugal house, pick up on the further adventures of Antoine Doinel.  Charles Trenet’s musical theme from Stolen Kisses evokes French culture as simply and profoundly as “La Marseillaise.”  Doinel gets out of the army and spends both movies trying to keep a steady job; the private detective and toy boat operator for a corporate garden are two of the most amusing. He also pursues Christine, played by Claude Jade, as a pretty, sensible bourgeoisie, who offers Antoine stability and a sounding board.  There’s a great bit in Bed and Board when Antoine, out at a restaurant with his opaque girlfriend, keeps getting up to make phone calls to his wife for advice and reassurance.  The final image shows Antoine and Christine behaving like an older couple going out earlier in the movie. 

Truffaut's Period Piece Two English Girls…and Dexter
     Truffaut then filmed Two English Girls (Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent – the continental guy was left out in the movie’s American title and that symbolically refers back to Jules and Jim, which left Catherine out of the title even though everything hinges on her).  Henri-Pierre Roché also wrote the source novel.  Two English Girls is set in the 1900 – 1920 era, before Jules and Jim.  It is the inverse of the earlier movie because it looks and feels like a conventional, almost Hollywood, period movie.  For the most part, it could have been shot in the ‘40s or ‘50s because the characters speak repeatedly of their love for one another, but they don’t really show it.  Because of its consistently languorous pace, it feels literary.  

     The two English – actually Welsh – girls are sisters and the older one sort of pushes her younger sister at Claude Roc, again played by Jean-Pierre Léaud.  He’s a model of restraint in the part and matures onscreen.  Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter are lovely as the sisters, but there isn’t the giddiness or seriousness of Jules and Jim.  I kept thinking, “Oh get on with it,” and after a number of developments, some of them tragic, there is a love scene that is jaw dropping.  Many directors wrote in sex scenes requiring actresses to bare all in the late ‘60s through the late ‘70s, but this scene has it all:  passion, miscommunication, anger, despair, and a hard-won understanding.  It’s a moment of revelation, but also an epiphany that puts it in the early Modernist tradition.
Jean-Pierre Léaud and Kika Markham in Two English Girls

     Day for Night (La Nuit Americaine 1973) won Truffaut the Best Foreign Language film Oscar and it’s about a crew making an upper-class romantic melodrama called Meet Pamela that’s nothing like his actual movies.  It may be Truffaut’s strongest statement about the emotional and physical craziness for collaborators to create art.  Truffaut plays the director and metaphysically bridges the gap between his autobiography and Antoine Doinel’s inability to find a fulfilling calling.  If Doinel had Truffaut’s artistic gifts at an early age, he would be Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character Alphone, the talented actor who’s also a spoiled brat.  

Jacqueline Bisset and Truffaut
     The cast is great with Jean-Pierre Aumont as an aging heartthrob with a trick up his sleeve (only a European can pull it off so disarmingly); Jacqueline Bisset as a bilingual star who’s recovering from a breakdown, but turns out to be about the only grown-up on the set; Nathalie Baye, before she became a star, as the young, competent continuity editor, who also helps with emergency scriptwriting; and Valentina Cortese, wonderful as the aging actress losing her lines, her stardom and, most importantly, her son.  Even Ingrid Bergman thought Cortese should have won the Oscar and said so in her acceptance speech.  Pierre-William Glenn’s cinematography subtly captures two different looks for Meet Pamela and the actual movie.  

     His great colleague as a critic and movie director, Jean-Luc Godard, thought it was a lie because Truffaut’s character doesn’t have an affair while the other characters do.  Truffaut replied with a twenty-page letter and never saw him again.  Regardless of which opinion is more compelling, I’d rather watch a couple of Truffaut’s films than a couple of Godard’s.  

     After a two-year break, Truffaut came back with The Story of Adèle H. starring a nineteen year-old Isabelle Adjani in an overwhelming performance as a desperate romantic – we’d call her a stalker nowadays – who sacrifices her sanity and even her identity in her quest for the British officer that left her.  Though a historical costume story, it is intimate and completely focused on her.  This is compelling from the first scene like Jules and Jim because of its energy, rather than displaying, the steady build-up and stateliness of Two English Girls.  It feels like a fever dream and, although Adèle is Victor Hugo’s daughter, the character and story feel more like the crazy passion of Emily Brontë than the other movies based on her work.  At multiple points in the plot, it’s almost as if Adèle can’t fall any further, but she does.  

     And after that hat trick of emotional laceration, but polished surfaces, Truffaut re-examined the conventional . . . 

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