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

Gillain, Anne Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

Gillain, Anne Indiana University Press ePub

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:

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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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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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