Heart of the Nouvelle Vague

By Michael Roberts

"Taste is a result of a thousand distastes."
~ François Truffaut

Truffaut burst on the international scene with his remarkable and assured debut The 400 Blows in 1959 and quickly became a successful and feted director. Part of a group of ex cinema critics like Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, who moved into making their own films, fed up with the type of cinema mainstream France was producing. Unlike the others Truffaut's debut is virtually autobiographical, himself a neglected and lonely child who became obsessed with cinema. Apart from his second feature, the playful and experimental Shoot The Piano Player, Truffaut avoided the kind of deconstructionist ethic of many of his peers, and instead favoured a classical style of direction, in the mould of his heroes like Hitchcock and Renoir, and with perspectives that resonated with his own life. Truffaut found his feet again with his masterful third feature, the romantic and stunning Jules et Jim, and never looked back.

François Roland Truffaut was born to a disinterested mother, father unknown, in Paris in 1932. His childhood was a succession of being handed around to other relatives, mostly his Grandmother before she died, and he took up permanent residence with his parents around the age of 10. He understood he was an unwelcome presence in the household and spend as much time away from it as he could, escaping in his love for movies and books that had been encouraged by his Grandmother. As a 16-year-old he already had written up detailed files on movies he’d seen and was joining as many film clubs as he could find, eventually establishing his own. Truffaut got into trouble with the authorities by stealing a typewriter after his film club became pressed for funds and was taken to the authorities by his Step-father and sentenced to 3 months in a juvenile delinquents’ facility. André Bazin stepped in, the influential French cinema critic and offered the young man a lifeline, employing him as an assistant and eventually giving him a room in his house. After another disastrous episode with a girl he obsessed over, Truffaut attempted suicide and then entered the army. Realising his mistake, and not keen to be shipped off to the war in Indochina, he deserted and Bazin again intervened and bailed him out.

Truffaut finally joined the group of critics at Bazin’s magazine, Cahier Du Cinema, mostly consisting of passionate film club brats like him, and eventually their number would include the majority of the next generation of French film directors, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Claude Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut, the much vaunted Nouvelle Vague. Truffaut distinguished himself with his ‘take-no-prisoners’ style of criticism, lambasting what he identified as a “certain tendency in French cinema” and attacking the “tradition of quality” that he despised. This tendency lent towards artificial products, too literary in their style of dialogue and removed from reality. The Cahiers group quickly determined who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ and distilled their verdict through the prism of the Auteur Theory, a critical trope that posits the only true ‘author’ of a film is the director. They lionised American directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray and some veterans like Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir, but hated French directors like Marcel Carné, Henri-George Clouzot, Julien Duvivier or Claude Autant-Lara, and as a result those ‘proscribed’ directors saw their audience and job prospects diminish. Ironically Bazin valued directors who were “invisible”, like Hawks in his opinion was, whereas his Les enfant terribles named Hawks as a premier auteur, the opposite of invisible! Such is the exacting science of film criticism.

Having fulfilled his ambitions as a writer Truffaut entertained the possibility of making his own films and attempted to learn the process via an amateur project with Jacque Rivette acting as his cameraman, but it was never released. Truffaut was next able to shoot a 20-minute short film in 1957 called Les Mistons, because his then girlfriend had a father in film distribution who agreed to finance the venture. Ignace Morganstern also insisted that Truffaut form a company to handle the project and so he established Les Films Du Carrosse, the company he would run for the rest of his life and named after a Jean Renoir film. In 1958 Truffaut was refused journalist accreditation to the Cannes festival because of his scathing articles on the state of the French film industry (but attended anyway) and came back the next year to present his first feature film, again financed by his father-in-law, the immortal The 400 Blows, which promptly won the award for Best Director. 

“The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure.” ~  François Truffaut

Truffaut may be the personal of all filmmakers and, like many confessional singer-songwriters, is readily understood through his art, and never more so than with The 400 Blows. The film is a semi-documentary of his own childhood, touching and devastating at the same time, and landed like a ticking bomb on the cinematic landscape. The central character, Antoine Doinel, was beautifully played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Truffaut would re-visit his story repeatedly over the next decades. Truffaut also used his success to help stimulate the cinema of his friends and colleagues and soon an entire movement seemed to hit French Film like a tide, the Nouvelle Vague. Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard joined the push and soon Alain Renais and Agnes Varda also produced debut features. Truffaut helped Godard get financing on his debut, A Bout de Souffle, a film based on an idea Truffaut had given Godard a couple of years earlier. The more political and intellectual Godard proceeded to make the definitive film of the Nouvelle Vague with his first film, a deconstructionist piece that seemed to ignore all the rules, whereas Truffaut’s film was a poetic, humanist hymn with roots in Renoir, Bresson or even the Rene Clement of Forbidden Games. Truffaut seemed to take up the challenge of Godard’s work and turned to his love of American Film Noir in making his second film, the quirky crime thriller, Shoot The Piano Player, with Charles Aznavour. The public were not ready for such a leap away from the terrain of his debut and the film did poorly, but Truffaut returned to public favour with his tender and tragic masterpiece, Jules et Jim, with Jeanne Moreau.

Within 3 films a pattern emerged that would be seen time and again with the director, in that Truffaut’s career is a cycle of alternately producing a very personal film and then a film from a genre he’s passionate about as a cinephile. Jules et Jim was a personal film on a topic that he handled with stunning maturity, that of a three-sided relationship. It was, of course, something he’d had experience with when both he and Godard were in love with the same girl. He’d immortalise that phase of his life in the next instalment of the Antoine Doinel cycle, but until then he engaged in an affair with his leading lady, a situation he’d repeat several times over his career. The luminous Jeanne Moreau was propelled into European stardom by Louis Malle, a director seemingly just outside the New Wave, with the late 50’s masterworks The Lift To The Scaffold and The Lovers (Les Amants), but it was Jules et Jim that ensured international stardom.

In 1962 Truffaut embarked on a week-long series of in-depth conversations with his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, that he would eventually turn into a book, Hitchcock-Truffaut in 1966. In 1964 he directed the very Hitchcock-ian, Le Peau Douce, an atmospheric examination of marital infidelity and murder that failed to ignite at the box-office. The film nevertheless is a genuine classic, assured at every level with fine central performances from Jean Desailly and Franciose Dorleac, with whom Truffaut would have an affair that led to the dissolution of his already strained marriage. Truffaut’s next film broke the cycle somewhat as it was an English language piece filmed in the UK with an English crew and starring Julie Christie. Fahrenheit 451 was an oddity in the director’s career, the language barrier was an issue and he had to find a male star at the last minute after Terrence Stamp dropped out, sadly no “Terry meets Julie” this time, but Oskar Werner meets Julie and the Jules et Jim actor and director proceeded to butt heads continually on the shoot. Werner refused to go near flames, which frustrated Truffaut who replied, "But you took the role of a fireman?"

In 1967 Truffaut suffered depression brought on by the premature death of his former lover, Franciose Dorleac, but he turned to another Hitchcock-ian project to take his mind off it, The Bride Wore Black, and to another ex-lover Jeanne Moreau who starred in it. Again, the film proved to be an unhappy affair and a long relationship he’d enjoyed with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who’d shot all Truffaut’s features except his debut (shot by Henri Decaë) was ended due to strenuous artistic differences. Truffaut struggled in the toxic and challenging political environment in France in 1968, whereas his erstwhile friend Jean-Luc Godard seemed to come in to his own. 

Notwithstanding Truffaut’s disappointment, The Bride Wore Black did well, but he had a surprise hit with the more modest and biographical Stolen Kisses, another instalment in the Antoine Doinel cycle with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego again. Truffaut was also raised from his funk by The Langlois Affair, where he and hundreds of his colleagues fought for the career of Henri Langlois, the founder and director of the influential  Cinématheque Française, an early supporter of Truffaut’s. Stolen Kisses also resulted in his typical director/leading lady affair, this time with the young Claude Jade, and surprisingly he proposed marriage before he thought better of it, possibly because of their age difference.

In typical style, coming off the modest, personal film, Truffaut went big and cast the two biggest names in French cinema, Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in an adaptation of a colonial thriller, Mississippi Mermaid. The shoot was a happy one and Truffaut fell in love with his leading lady (quelle surprise) and he maintained a discreet relationship with La Deneuve for over a year. The film was not well received at the time but has been somewhat restored in critical estimation in the years since. Truffaut quickly moved on to a personal project, a story of a boy found in the wild in the late 1700’s and tutored in the ways of the ‘civilised’ world by a Doctor. Truffaut himself played the doctor, mostly because he didn't want an actor to be an intermediary between him and the child actor, but although he wasn’t particularly happy with the final film, The Wild Child became another unexpected hit. On the back of that film he quickly put together another fine Antoine Doinel film, Bed and Board, with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Claude Jade as an older and married couple.

Truffaut was in danger of burning out given his output and activities in a relatively short time, 4 films in quick succession, and his health issues came to a head as he fell into a deep depression when he and Deneuve spilt up in 1970. Deciding to work his way out he tapped Jean-Pierre Léaud again and filmed Two English Girls, an adaptation of a Henri-Pierre Roché novel, the writer of Jules et Jim. The film was a combination of arch-romanticism and earthy, physical reality and it did well in the overseas market, but not in Paris. Truffaut next made an adaptation of an American novel by Henry Farrell, A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, a darkly comic crime film full of murder and exaggerated plot twists and starring Bernadette Lafont. The film was much misunderstood upon release and is a worthy inheritor of Hitchcock’s arch, black wit.

Truffaut had long planned a ‘film on a film’ and finally produced his passion project with Day for Night, a brilliant, loving and meticulous look at the process of making a feature film. During the editing of Two English Girls in Nice he’d noticed an old set and knew he could build his fictional piece, Meet Pamela, around it, he said “incredible things happen when you shoot a film, funny, odd, curious things which the public don’t get to know about because they happen off-screen.”  Truffaut makes a valentine, not only to film but to the dreamers who make films, and he uses several techniques (including a flashback to his own childhood) to frame the intricacies and dedication required to create cinematic art. He cast Jean-Pierre Léaud (of course), Jaqueline Bisset, Stephanie Alexandra, Valentina Cortese and he played the fictional film’s director himself. The film was a triumph winning Truffaut a Best Director with the New York Film Critic’s Awards and a Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Truffaut finally took a break of a couple of years before financial pressure lured him back to work, and he produced The Story of Adele H, a story about Victor Hugo’s second daughter. He cast newcomer Isabelle Adjani in the lead as the young woman obsessed with a military man, a passion that brings her to a mental breakdown. The film was a hit and Adjani went on to international stardom and Truffaut to his next project, Small Change, another project focusing on children and their resilience. The film is episodic, almost impressionistic in its tone and affirms Truffaut’s oft-quoted lines about children, having learned the hard way what it took to survive a loveless childhood

“I wonder if the most important thing in life is not the moment when we start to believe that our children are more important to us than our parents.” ~ François Truffaut

Having worked himself into poor health again, he defied doctor’s orders to take a job with Stephen Spielberg as an actor in Close Encounters of The Third Kind. The experience invigorated him again and he turned out a couple of very different films in quick succession, The Man Who Loved Women, about a lonely serial seducer and unreconstructed chauvinist and The Green Room, a film based on a Henry James novel about a man obsessed with death. Both projects spoke to Truffaut’s own life and preoccupations and Truffaut again starred in the latter film, but both projects failed to do well financially and once again he turned to his cinematic alter-ego to replenish the bank balance of his company.

Love on the Run was the fifth and final instalment in the Antoine Doinel cycle, and Jean-Pierre Léaud again took the part of Truffaut’s cinematic alter-ego, negotiating the minefield of male-female relationships while addressing Truffaut’s understandable mother issues. The film leaves the character in an upbeat situation whereas the end of filming (a short 28-day shoot) left Truffaut in a characteristic depression, before he threw himself headlong into a late career masterpiece, The Last Metro. Truffaut had long wanted to do a project on the theatre and on WWII resistance in the Paris of his youth and engaged Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu to star in a film set in the world of the theatre. The project was also significant for Truffaut connecting in a small way to his late found Jewish heritage, as he’d discovered via a private investigator in the late 1960's that his biological father was a Jewish dentist.

The film was the biggest commercial success of Truffaut’s career and it duly won 10 César Awards, the French equivalent to the Oscars. The director was at the top of his form, and leisurely approached what would be his final two films, typically with his new paramour, Fanny Ardent. Truffaut was true to his own passions in examining another l’amour fou, casting Depardieu opposite Ardent in The Woman Next Door, a disavowal of the notion of cohabitation between couples with a chequered relationship history and in Confidentially Yours he returns to a film noir territory, making an atmospheric whodunnit with Ardent and Jean-Louis Trintignant. 

In late 1983 Truffaut experienced severe head pain and was diagnosed as having a brain tumour. Ardent gave birth to Truffaut’s third daughter in what would be his final year and he died in October 1984. François Truffaut was no ‘civil servant’ of cinema, he lived and breathed the art form, being as it was his life-raft from childhood into adulthood and the one thing that he relied on above all else, even above women, his other obsession. He was passionate in his art and in his relationships, but obviously cinema’s primacy and his singular devotion to it made him a doubled-edged proposition as a life-partner. He made some 23 feature films, and all have something to recommend them, and several are classics that will stand for all-time. His love of every aspect of cinema permeates every frame he delivered, as if he knew he was making films for the ages and not for any trend or fashion, and so he exists eternally in the silver-nitrate universe alongside his friends Alfred Hitchcock and his ‘real’ father, Jean Renoir. C'est formidable.


Also Recommended;

The Bride Wore Black
The Wild Child
Day For Night
Two English Girls
Mississippi Mermaid
The Green Room
The Story of Adele H
Confidentially Yours
The Woman Next Door
Fahrenheit 451
Bed and Board
Stolen Kisses


For Fans Only;

The Man Who Loved Women