In defence of the less radical

Published

Lee Roden

Aside from a three day period where people relentlessly set off explosives during the night, November tends to be a boring month. It was much to my delight then that I discovered the GFT was taking part in a month-long French cinema festival, mixing both the old and the contemporary. Yet, to my dismay, as I scanned down the list of films being shown, I was hit with a now familiar sense of disappointment: they weren’t going to screen any films by François Truffaut.

It has occurred to me recently that, amongst my peers at least, Monsieur Truffaut has been largely forgotten, in favour of the more radical Jean-Luc Godard. I can understand why people are drawn to Godard: his constant defiance of traditional film form and narrative structure is nothing short of mind-blowing when first witnessed.

I would suggest however that Truffaut, despite abandoning most of his radical tendencies after his first three films, was as equally great an auteur, whose mastery of the film language was second to none.

I would like to nominate three films by Truffaut which any film buff must see before they finally keel over. A mini-film festival, if you will. It won’t cost much either: all of them are available at a scandalously low price in a certain Byres Road DVD store…

Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows)
Truffaut’s first feature film marked the start of the transition from critic to director amongst the Paris elite. Whilst Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut himself had already made short films, it was Les Quatre Cents Coups which announced the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague on the world stage. The film is the first in the semi-autobiographical Antoine Doinel series (played exceptionally well by a young Jean-Pierre Léaud), following the fourteen year-old delinquent through his everyday life in an episodic structure. Truffaut’s treatment of children was considered groundbreaking at the time, using Doinel as a narrative focal point and serious character, as opposed to the standard use of children as supporting roles of little importance in films prior — one notable exception to this being Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles. The score is one of the most memorable I can recall, and will be stuck in your head for weeks after first hearing it. Shot beautifully on the streets of the 9th and 18th arrondisements of Paris, Truffaut follows Doinel’s struggle with everyday life as a young teenager.

Tirez Sur La Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player)
After Les Quatre Cents Coups’ global success Truffaut was wary of repeating himself. He made a startling turn away from the minimalism of The 400 Blows for his next film, Tirez Sur La Pianiste. Truffaut’s most New Wave-esque in terms of its form, the film features the use of jump cuts, non-linear narrative and intrusive voice-overs. It follows the story of Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour), a piano player in a run-down bar who was once a well-known concert pianist, but has since fallen out of the public spotlight. Originally panned by critics and a relative commercial failure compared to its predecessor, the film has since become a textbook of New Wave traits and a cult classic.

Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses)
The third Antoine Doinel film sees Truffaut opt for a comedic approach, with little of the social realism of the Les Quatre Cents Coupes. In light of the crisis of May ’68 which was the backdrop to the film’s production, this was a bold move on Truffaut’s behalf. Whilst Godard had became a Maoist almost overnight, and was trying to change the world with increasingly pretentious works like La Chinoise, Truffaut instead decided to focus on the comedic and often farcical aspects of young love. Doinel is discharged from the army due to being “unfit” (an incident which is lifted directly from Truffaut’s own experience), after which he begins a relationship with his Christine (Claude Jade).

Clumsy as ever, Antoine soon falls for an older woman, who also happens to be the wife of his boss. Directed with subtlety and care, the film appears to be straightforward but is actually exceptionally well crafted, with no unnecessary scenes, cuts or dialogue. Léaud has, by this point, became completely absorbed in the role of Doinel, inserting aspects of his own personality combined with Truffaut’s into the character. The film was a much-needed commercial success and universally well received by critics (even landing an Oscar nomination for “Best Foreign Language Film”). Note the quick reference to May ’68 in the opening shot — blink and you might miss it!

Thus concludes my defence of François Truffaut. I must also reiterate, there are some great films being shown at the GFT this month too, including Claude Chabrol’s new picture. I would also pay particular attention to The Mother & the Whore, supposedly the last great triumph of the New Wave. It does star Jean-Pierre Leaud though, so I might be biased.