Of the eight films in FIAF’s program, only The Last Metro strikes me as having anything of this caramelized complacency. Gerard Depardieu was actually hesitant to take the lead male role as the actor (and part-time Resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of France) Bernard, because he felt Truffaut had become passé. But he’s a great Truffaut stand-in, physically very different but with the same fieriness and skirt-chasing proclivities. As the stubborn manager of the Theatre Montmartre, Catherine Deneuve stays fiercely committed to keeping her theatre open in the face of German pressure and her actors’ unpredictability, as her Jewish husband, thought to have escaped the country, co-directs “The Disappearance” from a basement hideaway. Truffaut had always had seriously conflicted thoughts about the Occupation, hating the treatment of Jews but criticizing the common gentile Frenchman’s exaggeration of his plight, and those looking for Army of Shadows‘ righteous excitement won’t find it here. The ninth-inning revelation of a simmering romance between two main characters feels a bit grafted on, but a final sight gag twist is brilliant, with accompanying dialogue lifted wholesale from Mississippi Mermaid‘s finale.
The latter film, which FIAF screened on November 3 but is available on DVD, is a shouldn’t-miss for the way it ingeniously defies expectations in its casting and characterizations. You won’t see a more vulnerable, at times even pathetic, Jean-Paul Belmondo, a cigarette factory scion living alone on the overseas island region Réunion, who gets fleeced by the wife (Deneuve) he met through a personal ad. A fool for love, like Adele H., the Belmondo character incredibly forgives the unstable woman, kills to protect her, and even tacitly accepts her poisoning of him. It avoids farce thanks to the gracefulness of the performances and dialogue, some of Truffaut’s finest (particularly an unforgettable monologue exchange in front of a fireplace).
Never political in the aggressive, sometimes fashionable and reactionary manner of Godard, Truffaut was selective in the causes he went to bat for, including supporting the insubordination of French soldiers in Algeria, and protecting Henri Langlois from an eventually failed coup at the French Cinematheque in 1968. But his longest-lasting fight was for the increased awareness of the mistreatment of children, a passion with roots in his own at-times savage, Doinel-esque adolescence. From FIAF’s program, both The Wild Child and Small Change reflect this concern. In The Wild Child, Truffaut himself plays the doctor who tries to civilize a naked and illiterate eleven or twelve year-old found in the woods near Aveyron in southern France. Measured and sober, The Wild Child is the closest Truffaut came to making a “message” movie, but the delivery is never dogmatic (and admittedly child welfare is an easy cause to champion). The more swiftly made and partially improvised Small Change balances it out nicely—it’s cute kids in a series of nostalgic vignettes, but never as cloying as that potentially sounds because it’s truly funny and felt, “one from the heart” in the best way. Just as indelible as the windowsill scene, and a girl megaphoning “I’m hungry!” from her window, are the conversations between the teachers and a passionate speech by Jean-François Stévenin about how children, who can’t vote, “rate a bad deal” with politicians.