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

Gillain, Anne Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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Conclusion: The Art of the Secret

Gillain, Anne Indiana University Press ePub

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

Gillain, Anne Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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Introduction: The Secret of the Art

Gillain, Anne Indiana University Press 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?

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

Gillain, Anne Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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