Recently, a film studies graduate asked me life advice for when he acquires his Master's Degree. I'd just finished Antoine De Baecque and Serge Toubiana's Truffaut: a Biography (Knopf), so I overwhelmed him by proposing filmmaker Francois Truffaut's schedule of self-improvement: three movies a day, three books a week. Truffaut, an auto-didact school dropout, stuck to his rigorous plan. He claimed to have seen 4,000 movies, and he read voraciously, from devouring American detective novels to studying James and Proust.
Years before this first biography, I knew enough details about the filmmaker's early life that he was someone I had much related to. He was my Salinger/Kerouac. As I did, Francois loathed school, provoked his dullard teachers, made terrible grades, but passionately loved books and movies (especially American genre films), and could never get enough of each. Also,underneath the rudeness and anarchy was a good kid, who could be unleashed and tamed if someone in authority just understood. As an adolescent, that's the way I felt too.
After that, resemblances end. Who would want to repeat Truffaut's wounded, dispirited Dickensian childhood? Much of it was spent living on the dole in Paris with a friend, Robert Lachenay, instead of with his parents, who barely cared that he existed. His terrible story was put on screen in Truffaut's famous first feature, The 400 Blows, in which the filmmaker's autobiographical alter ego, Antoine Doinel, ends up (his parents sign him in) at a no-way-out reform school. All true, and there were days in jail, and in solitary confinement, and several suicide attempts.
Oh, but Truffaut's love life! At age 14, he had a mistress. Later, he did the impossible: as a film critic in the 1950s, he got laid regularly. He wrote movie reviews, and he also got chicks! (Am I envious? You bet. In the 1990s, any teen drummer in a garage band gets more action in a night than the whole National Society of Film Critics in a year in the dark.)
And when he became a film director? Truffaut fell in love while picking actresses, consummated his amour while filming. Truffaut is an amazing record of casting-couch cinema, movie after movie after movie, with Truffaut inevitably bedding down his leading lady. Among his conquests: Jeanne Moreau for Jules and Jim, Francoise Dorleac for The Soft Skin, Julie Christie for Farenheit 451, Catherine Deneuve for Mississippi Mermaid, Jacqueline Bisset for Day For Night, Fanny Ardant for The Woman Next Door. He slept with 17-year-old Marie-France Pissier, the star of Love at Twenty, and almost wed 19-year-old Claude Jade, co-star of Stolen Kisses. (He was already married at the time, to Madeleine Morgenstern, mother of his two daughters.)
Truffaut's nocturnal philosophy: "I wouldn't consider having dinner with a man. I have this in common with Hitler and Sartre. I can't stand male companionship in the evening. For me, the evening means private life, if a private place."
Truffaut offers the production circumstances of the director's film making, movie by movie, but stays away from critiquing or analyzing. (The best critical study in English remains Annette Insdorf's Francois Truffaut.) Instead, the book speeds through Truffaut's life in an interesting, well-researched, if not particularily profound way. While excellent at describing Truffaut's political shift from a kind of anarchist right to a suspicious-of-politicians liberalism, a lukewarm supporter of Mitterand, Truffaut fails mightily at placing the filmmaker among his Cahiers du Cinema pals: Andre Bazin, Rohmer, Rivette, Chabrol, Godard. This group made a revolution, the French New Wave, and you don't feel it in this book. I especially missed an obviously important chapter just about the friendship, and its long unraveling, of Truffaut and Godard, with all its aesthetic, political, cultural, implications.
How important a filmmaker is Truffaut? Again, Truffaut the bio doesn't get involved in this issue. My feeling is that the jury is out a bit. Everyone loves Day for Night and The Wild Child. However, reseeing the beloved early features - The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim - never can feel quite as fresh as when they were released. Nobody except Welles in film history seemed to have been so exuberant about making movies, clutching a camera and swinging it to and fro to tell stories. But we most need to revisit the unpopular, melancholic movies, The Soft Skin and Mississippi Mermaid, and also those which seemed tired, stilted, mordant the first time around: The Green Room, Bed and Board, Two English Girls.
What I suspect: the complete Truffaut (he died in 1984 of a brain tumor) will reveal the most essential, versatile French filmmaker since World War II.
(Boston Phoenix - October, 1999)