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François Truffaut

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For François Truffaut, the lost secret of cinematic art is in the ability to generate emotion and reveal repressed fantasies through cinematic representation. Available in English for the first time, Anne Gillain's François Truffaut: The Lost Secret is considered by many to be the best book on the interpretation of Truffaut's films. Taking a psycho-biographical approach, Gillain shows how Truffaut's creative impulse was anchored in his personal experience of a traumatic childhood that left him lonely and emotionally deprived. In a series of brilliant, nuanced readings of each of his films, she demonstrates how involuntary memories arising from Truffaut's childhood not only furnish a succession of motifs that are repeated from film to film, but also govern every aspect of his mise en scène and cinematic technique.

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Introduction: The Secret of the Art

ePub

 

FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT BELIEVED THAT FILMMAKERS FROM THE past were the guardians of a lost secret, a nostalgia which haunted him. His achievement, having studied the art of his predecessors, was to know how to replicate this secret in his films. Since the appearance of his first film, The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s work has moved audiences of all nationalities, ages, and cultures around the world. Thirty years after its creation, however, his oeuvre remains mysterious in terms of its dynamics, strategies, and aims. The qualities for which he is generally known (clarity, intelligence, sensitivity, humor), unremarkable in themselves, are not sufficient to explain fully the strange hold that his films have exercised over the imagination of spectators. The aim of this book, therefore, is to explore this phenomenon and respond to the three main questions that it prompts: What does Truffaut say in his films? How does he say it? Why do people everywhere listen to it?

 

1 Family Secrets: The 400 Blows (1959), The Woman Next Door (1981)

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TRUFFAUTS FILMS ARE PARTICULARLY SUSCEPTIBLE TO PSYCHO-analytical interpretation. It would be a mistake to view this as merely accidental. Emanating from the unconscious experience of the filmmaker, they manifest, as naturally as a patient on an analyst’s couch, the grand Freudian scenarios – in particular, the fundamental Oedipal one.

One can compare this scenario to a play in three acts. The first begins with the birth of the infant who enjoys, for a certain length of time, a state of symbiotic fusion with the mother. During this stage, if it is experienced harmoniously, all of the child’s desires are gratified. For the infant, who as yet has no awareness of having a separate identity, the mother represents the only reality and meets all of his or her needs. The second act marks the intervention of the father into this Eden-like tableau, and the child’s movement out of a dyadic relationship into a triadic one. By demanding a separation of mother and child, the father imposes a limitation on the desires of the latter. At this stage, the infant displays feelings of hostility and jealousy toward the father and feelings of love for the mother, who has now assumed an autonomous reality. If they were to be pushed to the limit, the logic of these drives would require, as in the myth, that the child kill his father and marry his mother. The resolution of the Oedipus complex occurs in the third act, when the child, acknowledging the law of the father, identifies himself with it and thus becomes integrated into the world of culture that regulates social behavior. Renouncing the possibility of a limitless desire, he accepts that words replace things – the learning of language – and that woman replaces the mother – the institution of marriage, which sanctions the integration of desire within the law. The fundamental role that this scenario plays in shaping personality, together with the dynamic of desire, constitutes a psychic reality that is never brought to a definitive conclusion.

 

2 Deceptions: Shoot the Piano Player (1960), The Soft Skin (1964)

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AN ARTIST, AN UPPER-MIDDLE-CLASS PROFESSIONAL MAN, TWO men who are uncomfortable with who they are; a meeting with a new woman, the hope of renewal . . . and, at the end of each story, two gunshots that echo one another. With Shoot the Piano Player and The Soft Skin, separated by only three years, the filmmaker anatomizes both the faking of success and the faking of a couple’s relationship. There is little doubt that autobiography played a role in the genesis of these two works. Each of them was made in the wake of moments of exhilaration that Truffaut, by his own admission, found hard to bear: “I have experienced periods of emptiness and sadness more often after successes than failures: I had violent bouts of depression after The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim, for example.”1 Shoot the Piano Player and The Soft Skin are the works that followed, respectively, each of those two films. More specifically, what Truffaut was analyzing through their twin protagonists was the loneliness of men who live a hidden life, closed in upon themselves, and whose deeply concealed self only reveals itself through the interior monologues of Charlie Kohler or the secret activity of Pierre Lachenay: stolen glances, furtive telephone calls, secret rendezvous. The former lives in silence, the latter lives a lie. The first looks for places to hide; the second prepares himself for flight in advance. The dissociation between appearance and reality, both as it pertains to the individual and to the environment, superficial and deep, is conveyed in the case of Shoot the Piano Player through narrative fragmentation, and in the case of The Soft Skin through visual fragmentation. Both the atomization of the story and that of the images reflect, in this instance, the splitting up of the self, experienced as internal self-mockery or externalized drama, by masculine heroes who are unable to bear their need and desire for women.

 

3 Queen-Women: Jules and Jim (1962), The Last Metro (1980)

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JULES AND JIM AND THE LAST METRO WOULD SEEM TO HAVE little in common apart from an adulterous schema involving one woman and two men. While it is central in the first film, this situation remains marginal in the second one, which depicts the activities of a theater under the Nazi Occupation. Moreover, there is a contrast between black-and-white and color, between the adaptation of a novel and an original screenplay, between the outdoors and an enclosed space, and between the study of a trio as against a polyphonic construction that brings together 15 characters. Nevertheless, both films were made to celebrate Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve, both of whom played an important role in Truffaut’s personal life. Jules and Jim and The Last Metro are works inspired by the idealization of a female figure. Their autobiographical dimension, however, extends beyond the recent past; each film, like a palimpsest, reveals several different layers of memories in Truffaut that are joined together through a play of analogies. Speaking about Jules and Jim in 1975, he made the following admission:

 

4 Sentimental Educations: Stolen Kisses (1968), Two English Girls (1971)

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TRUFFAUT WAS NOT EXPECTING THE SUCCESS OF STOLEN KISSES any more than he anticipated the failure of Two English Girls. He thought that the former movie was too frivolous:

I nearly abandoned Stolen Kisses a fortnight before shooting began, I was so ashamed of it, and felt so uncomfortable. I already had the scripts for The Wild Child and Mississippi Mermaid. I said to myself: really, I have two good scripts to shoot; there are magnificent novels to tackle, and in two weeks I am going to shoot a film in which nothing at all is said! I was consternated.1

In contrast, on the eve of the screening of Two English Girls, he seemed optimistic and wrote to Nestor Almendros, the film’s cinematographer: “The eight or ten people who have already seen it . . . think that it’s the best of my films, owing to the cinematography. I’m of the same opinion . . . The final version, almost complete, is 2 hours 13 minutes long, and it seems that no one is bored by it.”2 After disastrous reviews, he decided to cut 14 minutes from the screening. Truffaut, who ordinarily accepted the judgment of the press and the audience with good grace, displayed an uncharacteristic bitterness in response to the reception of his film. His final act before his death was to restore cut scenes in preparation for a new release of Two English Girls in 1985. The film has scarcely enjoyed any greater success than it had in 1971. However, in 1990, twenty years after its creation, a survey of filmmakers worldwide revealed that the two works most often cited as Truffaut’s best are The 400 Blows and Two English Girls.

 

5 Criminal Women: The Bride Wore Black (1967), A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972)

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THE BRIDE WORE BLACK ENDS AT THE POINT WHERE A GORGEOUS Girl Like Me begins: namely, in a prison. Julie Kohler and Camille Bliss have both burned their bridges with society and have taken the plunge that tips them from marginality into criminality. Their respective fates are as different as the tone of the films they inhabit, but whether virgin or prostitute, silent or loquacious, they both pursue the impulse of an obsession that imparts a strength to them no one can resist. They move like a hurricane across the lives of five men who are transformed into marionettes in their hands. The Bride Wore Black and A Gorgeous Girl Like Me share, in fact, a narrative pattern that picks up the schema of Truffaut’s first short film, Les Mistons (1957). In The Bride Wore Black, the woman in mourning who has lost the man she loves is a counterpart to Bernadette in the earlier film: as Truffaut said, “The men whom Jeanne Moreau meets are the mistons [mischief makers] who have grown up.”1 Moreover, in A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, it is Bernadette Lafont who plays the female character, just as she did in Les Mistons. Both of these films display a similar tension that constantly operates between images and words, as well as an extensive use of flashbacks as a device for the truth. These bitter women hide a secret, and the links that tie them to their creator are worth exploring.

 

6 In Search of the Father: Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Day for Night (1973)

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FAHRENHEIT 451 AND DAY FOR NIGHT BOTH PRESENT AN IMAGE of a small human community, the function and organization of which are clearly delimited. The team of firemen and the film crew both have their head (captain/director), their base (fire station/hotel), their equipment (cranes and trucks), their work-instruments (flame-thrower/camera), and their goal (to achieve their respective missions). The first burns books; the second is shooting a film. In these two works, lyrical shots – “magical,” as Truffaut called them – rather than depicting human exchanges, dwell on moments of speechless ecstasy when fire is consuming pages or when film is coiling at the foot of the editing table. In these microcosms, in which human activity more than ever takes on the appearance of play, destruction and construction confirm the status of two cultural objects: the book and the film. “Confirm” is a term that is too weak to describe the veritable cult devoted to these two objects. Both reign supreme in human affairs; in Fahrenheit 451, as in Day for Night, we find that the economy of desire is entirely subordinate to their power. These films are peculiarly complementary because they raise the question of cultural experience, and of its roots in an affective experience that is dominated by parental figures. But these works – and their power resides in this – lead one into a larger reflection on the transmission of knowledge, on communication, and on death. In studying them, we come to appreciate the filmmaker’s gift in being able to invest autobiographical specificities with a universal relevance, in which everyone can find elements of his or her own experience.

 

7 Marriages: Mississippi Mermaid (1969), Bed and Board (1970)

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AT THE TIME WHEN BED AND BOARD WAS RELEASED, TRUFFAUT made the following observation:

I class myself among the group of directors for whom cinema is an extension of youth, who, just like children who have been sent to play in a corner and remake the world with toys, continue to play as adults by making films. This is what I call “cinema from the room at the back,” involving a refusal to accept life as it is, or the world in its real state and, in reaction, an acceptance of the need to re-create something that has a bit of the quality of fairy stories about it, rather like the American cinema that made us dream when we were young.1

This declaration, while it applies to all his works, reflects more than anything else the degree to which Truffaut remained distanced from his own times during the years following May 1968. Mississippi Mermaid and Bed and Board are both characterized by unreality. Removed from ideological commitments, Truffaut cultivated the style of the masters. In the first of these movies, he adopts the formula of a melodrama that combines the influences of Renoir and Hitchcock, and in the second one, those of Lubitsch’s comedies seasoned with a dash of Guitry. Being the works of a cinephile that were aimed at a mass audience, these films were not very successful when they were released. Nevertheless, their experimental nature does not mean that they are devoid of emotion. The sincerity of the representation of love in Mississippi Mermaid, and a degree of awkwardness in the handling of certain aspects of its structure, turn it into what one could describe as “a little sick film” that appeals to those who love Truffaut’s works. The power of the film derives from its melodic line, from the continuity of its interior vision, which follows the course of a metaphorical journey that is not spatially interrupted. In contrast, Bed and Board, a static film that centers on an apartment building, exploits discontinuity. Gags, improvisation, and wordplay are uppermost in a story in which the scene forms the narrative unit. Although one is a film-river and the other is a film-mosaic, these two works both have as their subject the early stages of the life of a married couple, describing the pitfalls that threaten its precarious harmony. Both end on a note that is full of ambiguity. But their deep subject remains the eternal dialectic between solitude and intimacy, which is at the very heart of the experience of the spectator who is watching cinema.

 

8 Words and Things: The Wild Child (1970), The Story of Adèle H. (1975)

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AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WILD CHILD, THE YOUNG BOY, who still does not have a name, is placed in an institution for deaf-mutes. That night, in the dormitory, being unable to bear the sheets and mattress, he hides under the bed to sleep. At the end of The Story of Adèle H., Victor Hugo’s daughter, who no longer knows who she is, takes refuge in an asylum for the night and, terrified that someone might steal from her, goes to sleep under her bed to protect her suitcase. These paired images mark the link between these two characters, one of whom is condemned to live on this side, and the other on the other side, of the world of exchanges and communication. Even the way in which they sleep is marked with the sign of exclusion. Their narrative destinies reflect one another like an image in a mirror. Referring to the life of Adèle Hugo, Truffaut said: “This biography moved me greatly. Perhaps because it displays the other side of the coin as far as The Wild Child is concerned. Like the child of l’Aveyron, Adèle has a problem of identity, but here it is of the opposite kind, given that she is the daughter of the most famous man in the world.”1

 

9 The Child King: Small Change (1976), Love on the Run (1979)

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SMALL CHANGE AND LOVE ON THE RUN, IN VERY DIFFERENT ways, both deal with the past, reassembling fragments of a childhood, a time of life, an experience. Of the sketches that make up Small Change, only the final one (the summer camp) is directly autobiographical. The others are snippets of stories found in newspapers, invented, or borrowed from others. Nevertheless, this film seems in many respects to be like a rereading of The 400 Blows, with all the young heroes being a composite of Antoine Doinel. Love on the Run picks up the story of Antoine through flashbacks of the series that bears his name, and also of Day for Night, The Man Who Loved Women, and even A Gorgeous Girl Like Me. Small Change disperses memory across the space of a town that owes more to one of Trenet’s songs than to the actual reality of France in 1976; Love on the Run looks for images of a lost time in the memory of cinema, in this way definitively consummating the divorce between myth and life. Both films reflect a wish to exorcize the past by subjecting it to the gaze of an appeased maturity. The way they are edited transforms the story into a puzzle in which the key piece is that of inscribing a new vision of the relationship between the son and his mother.

 

10 Fetishism and Mourning: The Man Who Loved Women (1977), The Green Room (1978)

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BEING IMPRISONED OR DEAD, MOTHERS WERE SIDELINED IN Small Change and Love on the Run. The two films that frame them, however, The Man Who Loved Women and The Green Room, are among the films in Truffaut’s oeuvre that most powerfully and tragically address the problem of the relationship between the son and the mother, and the oppressive constraints that its failure imposes on the mature adult. They also represent, fairly explicitly, an allegorical projection of the very process of creation. As The 400 Blows announced, the maternal figure is inseparable from cultural accomplishments. The Man Who Loved Women and The Green Room explore the modalities of this interaction, which is underlain by a piercing anxiety about time and death. Whereas abundance and scarcity, anachronism and linear temporality, and the search for pleasure as against privation seem to be opposed to one another, we find a meticulous diptych that identifies a series of formal similarities. The triadic structure of these films includes a lonely man who has been shocked by death (Morane/Davenne), a woman who is destined to survive him (Geneviève, the editor/Cécilia the guardian of the temple), and an obsession1 (a multitude of living women/a single dead woman). An obsessive fear of the past also appears in the form of flashbacks and photos, narcissistic fusion with a female figure who has disappeared, the benevolent mediation of a male mentor (played in both cases by Jean Dasté), behaviors verging on the psychopathological, and especially in the celebration of an object that is over-valued, a fetish and a relic, that impregnates these works with the aura of what Freud calls “the uncanny.” Maurice Jaubert’s music accompanies both films, which together complete, in an unconventional mode of black humor, the reflection on creative activity begun in Day for Night and The Last Metro.

 

11 The Role of Play: Confidentially Yours (1983)

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A MISTY MARSH IN THE EARLY MORNING, A HUNTER RETURNING from his hide; a rifle shot, the hunter collapses, his face covered in blood. This is how Confidentially Yours begins. Massoulier is dead. Those who are familiar with Truffaut’s films know him without ever having seen him: his name appears recurrently from the time of The Bride Wore Black – Massoulier is Corey’s friend, from whose dialogue we learn that Massoulier “did” the hostess on the Montreal-Paris flight. In Two English Girls, the female photographer tells Claude Roc that she could meet him as a soirée at Massoulier’s place – where he waits in vain for her; in The Last Metro, Nadine makes the same remark to Bernard Granger. We also encounter, once again, the detective agency from Stolen Kisses, and the perverse fetishist from The Man Who Loved Women. As in The Soft Skin, the heroine, Barbara (Fanny Ardant), occupies room number 813 in the hotel, as a tribute to Maurice Leblanc;1 her surname is Becker, in homage to the director.2 At the beginning of the film, while the wife of Barbara’s boss lies murdered, one shot alludes to a phrase by Cocteau by framing a watch on the corpse’s wrist that continues ticking away the seconds;3 at the end, to unmask the murderer, the police inspector gives a recipe for potato salad over the phone that comes straight out of The Rules of the Game. The declaration of the lawyer – “Life is not a novel” – plays on the title of Resnais’s film.4 The Green Room points to cinema as a celebration of memory; Confidentially Yours illustrates this affirmation in a playful mode. The film is packed with internal references to Truffaut’s other works and citations of the master filmmakers. There is practically no shot, no phrase that does not involve a cinematic memory of one sort or another. Even the use of black and white is meant to evoke images from the past: “Confidentially Yours attempts to restore the mysterious, brilliant, nocturnal atmosphere of the American crime comedies that delighted us in years gone by. I think that the use of black and white will help us to recover that vanished charm.”5

 

Conclusion: The Art of the Secret

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TEN MINUS FOUR = A HEXAGON. AS I HAVE SAID, THIS FORMULA can serve as a paradigm for understanding Truffaut’s narrative procedure. Instead of explicit and abstract information, we find an indirect response formulated in a metaphoric, figurative language. Puzzling at first sight, it can be exposed through an imaginative and ingenious analysis. It requires the interlocutor to engage in mental gymnastics that disobey conventional channels of communication. I will now study the details of these gymnastics because they produce the emotion and constitute the foundation of the psychic well-being that is procured by fiction.

We know that at the very first screening of moving images, organized by the Lumière brothers, the audience, seeing a train arrive at a station, was seized with panic. This was emotion in its raw state. Silent cinema played on this extraordinary power of the image and harnessed it in order to create very refined forms of expression. Fifty years later, emotion had become dulled. “The golden age is behind us,” said Truffaut in 1982 to journalists from Cahiers du cinéma, adding: “. . . in the work of directors who began making films in the silent era, there is an authoritative aspect that subsequently has been irremediably lost.”1 What he envied in these pioneers was their direct impact on the imagination of the spectator. Being the inventors of cinematic language, they were able to adopt “the most radical solution,”2 when faced with a problem, without fearing that they would appear naive. With them, the effect of surprise was assured from the outset. Truffaut knew that he no longer enjoyed the same privilege. The guilty party responsible for this was “French quality” cinema, with its commonplaces and clichés, as he observed in his first critical article published in March 1953, titled “Les Extrêmes me touchent”: “Twenty years of contrived grand subjects, twenty years of Adorable Creatures, Return to Life, Don Camillo, and others like Moment of Truth have created a blasé audience whose sensibility and judgment have been alienated by the ugly and contemptible “fear of being duped” that Radiguet had already denounced.”3 In the post-classical era, in order to achieve the same effect as the great filmmakers of the past, it was necessary to use a new type of coding to give the film power over the imagination. In an age of wariness, Truffaut put in place a narrative system that was meant to elude the perceptual predispositions of the spectator. It depends upon the principle of “clandestine persuasion.” Instead of the direct style of early cinema, he used an indirect style, as in “the raw and the cooked.”4

 

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