Francois Truffaut: A Winter Portrait
Tuesdays through December 22 at the French Institute Alliance Française
An anxious François Truffaut unloaded to a France-Soir journalist: “I must hurry. I’m forty-six, I’m enjoying my last years of good health. I want to make as many films as possible so I won’t have any regrets later on.” He said that in November of 1977; he still had three or four great films ahead of him. The only one of those at FIAF’s pleasant early winter retro of mid-to-late Truffaut is his most box-office successful picture, The Last Metro, but that sentiment of eagerness and impatience to create had been a defining feature of Truffaut’s production house, Les Films du Carrosse, during the 70s. The “efficiency” of his output during the decade could be cause for quality-control concerns. Nearly always using the same small crew, the same cinematographer (the great Nestor Almendros), and making his own Hitchcockian cameos, Truffaut produced a run of films that have an unsurprisingly similar tenor, even as he seesawed from melodrama (The Story of Adele H.) to a lighthearted kids romp (Small Change). It’s because all is nuance in them. Elements like the relentlessness of Adele H.’s devotion to love itself (not the man), which led Pauline Kael to consider it a half-comedy, or the horrifying windowsill leap by a kid in Small Change, pull the movies back from the edge of genre to a middle (not mediocre) ground that makes them simply “Truffaut films.”
It’s understandable that groundfloor Truffaut fans, disdainful of the idea of maturation or mellowing, would turn against ambitious and glamorous later productions like Mississippi Mermaid, with its attractive international celebrity stars, or the large and self-reflexive Day for Night. The essayist and novelist Philip Lopate wrote of his moment of “disenchantment” with 1968’s Stolen Kisses, the third film in the Antoine Doinel series, which he found vapid and prevented him from walking into future Truffaut screenings with no qualms. Godard, Truffaut’s most entertaining epistolary sparring partner, said in 1968: “I don’t think Francois knows how to make films at all. He made one film that truly expressed him, The 400 Blows, and that was it: afterward, he merely told stories.” This common “I like the early stuff better” complaint finds the late-60s and 70s work either too lightweight or too staid, lacking something like the New Wave electricity of the director’s run from The Mischief Makers in 1957 to The Soft Skin in 1964.
When not using his own films against him, the Truffaut-disenchanted have gone back to the director’s bombthrowing, polemical early film criticism from magazines like Cahiers du Cinema and Arts, and applied that rigid, angry morality to the complacent Celebrity Director they feel he had become. In his writing, Truffaut had helped dethrone the “quality French cinema”—with its arrogant polish and disdain for youth—of the Cannes Festival and directors like Clouzot and Claude Autant-Lara, while favoring adventurous American auteurs and French up-and-comers. The Last Metro, especially, led to these “back at cha” accusations from French critics, who saw Truffaut, with his shelves full of Cesar Awards, an Oscar, impressive box office receipts, and the international reputation of a Kurosawa or Bergman, as the new standard-bearer for riskless “French quality.”