Sunday, November 10, 2013

François Truffaut, Part III: A Conventional Brand

Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
     Small Change (L’Argent de Poche, 1976, which is properly called Pocket Money everywhere but the U.S. because of a minor Paul Newman movie.  It would be more evocative as Small Fry) presents a group of schoolchildren in Thiers.  Rather than presenting only one child and his friend as in The 400 Blows, there are about ten children representing a range of stories and family backgrounds.  Truffaut displays discretion in the plot strand about the boy
being physically abused at home.  The children are delightful in approaching life and one another with budding curiosity and hope, but it doesn’t break new ground in his career.  However, it was the first of his films that I saw when I was in high school and it was an invitation to see more.

Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Deparadieu in The Last Metro
     The Last Metro (1980), set during the Nazi occupation of France, tells of a theatre company trying to survive artistically with the Jewish Artistic Director hiding in the basement, while his wife keeps the production running.  This was Truffaut’s biggest commercial hit and it won 10 Césars, but there are no surprises.  Take out the lesbian character and it pretty much could have been made in the ‘50s either in France, England, or the U.S.  There’s tension between the theatre folk, the collaborators, and the German occupiers.  However, only the husband seems to be in danger, but the Germans never find him.  Catherine Deneuve, outwardly icy yet desperately passionate behind closed doors (she’d have been a great leading lady for Hitchcock) carries the movie as the director’s wife and comes across like the soul of France during World War II.  There is, of course, a romance between her and a young actor, who’s also in the Resistance.  Gérard Deparadieu has both the theatrical control and the emotional looseness of a young Brando.  Depardieu is callow, upstanding, tough, and tender in this part.  He’s the linchpin to the real tension both in the movie, but also with Truffaut.  He’s the anti-Léaud in both his bearish looks and greater, expressive emotional range.  

Truffaut as the French Scientist
in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

     Americans probably know Truffaut best as the French scientist researching the UFO activity in the U.S. in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  He was conscientious, intense, and completely connected to Richard Dreyfuss even with the language barrier.  He makes sense in a Spielberg movie because Spielberg is almost a later American version of Truffaut.  After all, he also has a light touch, a sense of charm, and is great with child actors.  He’s moved between genres, but Truffaut’s artistic root is literature, whereas Spielbergs artisitic root is the genre movie.  

Spielberg and Truffaut
     Spielberg may achieve greater heft in his historical epics Empire of the Sun (1987) and Lincoln (2012), but except for the Lincolns, he’s never presented a complex adult heterosexual relationship (though he came very close in the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug in The Color Purple) and has certainly never displayed any deep sense of sexuality. He’s had a much longer career than Truffaut and directed more movies (and produced and/or financed many, many more), but Truffaut created as many necessary movies during his twenty-five years of directing as Spielberg did in his first twenty-five years.

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