MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

24 Years Without Truffaut

When people ask me who my favorite filmmaker of all-time is, I usually answer by telling them, “Stanley Kubrick, closely followed by Francois Truffaut.” But on the days on which I’ve just re-watched Shoot the Piano Player or Stolen Kisses, I often reverse the names. It’s impossible for me to watch the mastery at work in a film like Mississippi Mermaid and not say to anybody who would listen, “There has simply never been a director like him and he is the greatest.”

Truffaut died tragically young at 52 years old on October 21, 1984 – of a brain tumor – and it pains me to think of all the wonderful pictures that he was unable to make. I actually physically ache when I think about how we never got to witness how advancing age would have affected his filmmaking style and the subjects he chose. I wonder if he would have faded like so many older filmmakers, using an antiquated style in a modern world, or if he would have evolved like Luis Bunuel or Robert Altman. Maybe he’d be shooting digitally and hand-held like David Lynch or perhaps he’d prefer to stick with celluloid. The fact that we’ll never know is truly saddening.

I first fell in love with Truffaut when I watched The 400 Blows in a film class in high school. The story of young Antoine Doinel struggling with heightened versions of my own pubescent problems was revelatory to me as a cinephile. It astounded me that despite being made in France in 1959, it spoke to me as a kid on Long Island in the late ’90s. What Truffaut understood so well is the alienation that every kid feels and the slow realization that it is impossible to make everyone in your life happy while simultaneously making yourself content. Antoine’s parents are hard-working enough and they bond when they go to the movies, but they struggle to understand or sympathize with this child. The ending is both nightmare and liberation as Antoine is paralyzed by his own freedom.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out that Antoine’s story continued in four more films; but when I did learn of this, I watched each film, one after the other, and then re-watched them immediately after. I was in cinematic heaven, following a flawed-but-wonderful lead character navigate through the realities of everyday life and relationships – love, marriage, adultery – and it hit me that with each successive film, made over the course of twenty years, Truffaut was changing in step with his lead character (and lead actor, for that matter, as credit must also be given to Jean-Pierre Leaud). I was, and still am, in awe of the fact that a filmmaker thought to make sequels to films that were not blockbusters. Truffaut had found a character whose life was worth exploring as an avatar for his own, and the only modern equivalent we have would be something like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (and I seriously hope that Linklater continues this wonderful series). I was so moved by the Antoine Doinel series of films that I sought out everything else Truffaut directed.

From Shoot the Piano Player to The Wild Child, from the Hitchcock homage Mississippi Mermaid to the majestic and altogether wonderful Day for Night, Truffaut imbues his films with a vitality and romanticism that speaks to both head and heart. There are many great films that hit us square in the chest and others that give our mind a wild trip, but for a filmmaker to have crafted so many films that work on both levels is a remarkable achievement. For someone who was raised in an era where romance was inextricably linked to comedy or saccharine, it was an incredible rush to see relationships portrayed on screen in a realistic and heartfelt way that didn’t try to tug at my heartstrings, but tugged anyway.

It’s impossible not to sound cheesy when I say this, but if there was one theme that Truffaut worked in consistently – although he shifted genres often – it was love. Love plays such an important part in each and every one of his films, whether it’s the love for the same woman inJules and Jim, the love of all women in The Man Who Loved Women, or the love of a man for a savage boy in The Wild One. There is a love of the arts on display in both The Last Metro and Day for Night, but within the framework of both of those films is a love of one person for another that inspires that art.

One of my very favorite of Truffaut’s films is Small Change, which is really no more than a collection of vignettes about childhood during one summer in a small French town. Kids have their first love, first kisses, first brushes with danger and while lesser filmmakers might have made this a film about “the loss of innocence” of so many children, Truffaut focuses on the wonderment and joy of those landmark “firsts” in all of our lives. Truffaut looked back on his own childhood – and all of ours as well – not with a mournful or somber eye, but with a beautifully nostalgic one.

There were many filmmakers who became popular in the ’60s during the French New Wave, but there were three who stood above all others (not counting Claude Berri, who may or may not belong in this group): Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard. Many cineastes will tell you that Godard is the true master of the three because he was constantly subverting what cinema was supposed to be. And I’ll have to agree that there is some merit in that, but it’s also worth nothing that Godard’s best work were his linear films like Breathless, Band of Outsiders and Contempt. And the main argument that a lot of very smart film lovers make when comparing them is that they prefer Godard’s cynicism to Truffaut’s perpetual optimism. Godard was certainly pushing the envelope of what film was supposed to do, but for me Truffaut did a better job of making films that were the embodiment of the best cinema could offer.

I don’t usually like to devote column space to anything other than current films and filmmaking because the movies are constantly moving forward like a shark; if we stop to take a breath and look back for too long, we risk allowing something great to pass over us. But in the case of Francois Truffaut, there is a very small chance that anything you might see in a theater today could equal even the worst of Truffaut’s efforts. For this reason alone, it’s always a good time to look back and appreciate the wealth of riches that this brilliant man has left behind.

So for anybody out there who only knows Truffaut for his acting role in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or his heavily compromised adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, I urge you to take a gander at some of the films mentioned above. We haven’t had Francois Truffaut making films in over 24 years, but there’s no reason you need to go another 24 years without a little Truffaut in your life.

– Noah Forrest
November 5, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Frenzy On Column

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon