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The Essentials: Francois Truffaut

The Essentials: Francois Truffaut

This week sees Francois Truffaut‘s seminal love-triangle “Jules Et Jim,” one of the French filmmaker’s best-loved and most seminal works, get an upgrade to Blu-Ray on the The Criterion Collection. And with New York City’s Film Forum staging a significant retrospective of his work beginning in March, and “The 400 Blows” also being reissued on Criterion in April, it feels like the perfect opportunity to do something we’ve been dying to do for ages: put the spotlight on the filmmaker’s work.

Truffaut went from runaway schoolboy to bad-boy Cahiers du cinema critic to wildly acclaimed filmmaker before the age of 27, and sadly, passed away of a brain tumor aged only 52, and the result is that his career can sometimes seem like a brief, if brilliant one, especially in contrast to that of friend and colleague Jean Luc-Godard, who’s still working today. But Truffaut packed a lot into his quarter-century of work, dancing between autobiography (his Antoine Doinel series), crime drama, period fare, sly comedy, and sometimes all of the above.

He’s one of our favorite filmmakers, and has one of the more fascinating resumes out there, so as “Jules Et Jim” makes the 1080p upgrade, we’ve picked out ten of our very favorite Truffaut pictures (limiting ourselves to those he directed, rather than wrote, like “Breathless,” or just appeared in, like “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind“). Most people have the same favorite top few Truffaut films, but beyond that, it gets a little more subjective — you can take our choices to task, and offer up your own, in the comments section below.

“The 400 Blows” (1959)
“The only way to criticize a movie as to make another movie,” Truffaut’s great friend, rival and colleague Jean-Luc Godard once said. And to be fair to them, the two put their money where their mouths were: after upending the critical establishment with his work at Cahiers du cinema across the 1950s, Truffaut moved into shorts with 1955’s “Une Visite,” and after being inspired by Orson Welles‘ “Touch Of Evil” in 1958, made his feature debut with the autobiographical “The 400 Blows.” And while the knives must have been out for it when it premiered at Cannes, Truffaut had the best possible response: he’d made a glorious movie, one that turned the director from firebrand critic to one of cinema’s brightest hopes. Drawing on his own delinquent adolescence, the film is the first of five Truffaut made to focus on his surrogate Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who met the director through a casting call in a newspaper, then aged only 14), who here, faces the worst trouble of his young life so far, as difficulties at home and school lead to him attempting to steal a typewriter from his stepfather, which leads to him being arrested and sent to a center for troubled young boys. A sort of Gallic answer to the Angry Young Man narrative that was emerging at almost exactly the same time across the Channel and the Atlantic with “Look Back In Anger” and “Rebel Without A Cause,” it’s a deeply moving and humane picture that captures about as accurately as anything that’s ever been made the swirling mass of hormones that you suffer from when you’re fourteen and hate your parents, your teachers, and well, pretty much everyone, thanks principally to its laser-tight focus on Antoine. And by Antoine, that means Truffaut: this is cinema in the first-person, to all intents and purposes, with the filmmaker demonstrating in practice what he’d been talking about for so long in terms of the auteur theory. With distance, it’s easy to forget what a technical firecracker it must have been — even on a limited budget, the black-and-white Cinemascope looks thoroughly gorgeous, and his command of where his camera looks, and where he cuts, is immensely confident. The film, which won Truffaut Best Director at Cannes (a festival from which he was banned as a critic the year before), is dedicated to Andre Bazin, the great critic who’d passed just as the director was preparing to make the film, and who’d been both a mentor and something of a saviour to him. We all have a reason to be thankful to Bazin, then.

“Shoot The Piano Player” (1960)
Godard followed his friend’s footsteps into feature films with 1960’s “Breathless” (which the pair wrote together), but the same year saw Truffaut follow up his debut with his own playful noir picture, an adaptation of David Goodis‘ novel “Down There.” “Shoot The Piano Player” is a definite reaction against “The 400 Blows” — Truffaut considered the latter film very French, and wanted to showcase his love of American cinema, and kick against expectations, saying at the time “I wanted to please the real film buffs and only them, even if meant confusing most of the people who liked ‘The 400 Blows.’ In the end, ‘Shoot The Piano Player,’ may confuse everyone, but so what.” True to that statement, the film probably stands as the director’s most experimental work, though experimental might be the wrong word for it — it’s a playful film, mischievous and restless, and more comic than you might expect. The plot nominally focuses on singing star Charles Aznavour as the musician of the title, drawn into the underworld to protect his brother, but Truffaut couldn’t really be less interested in the story — there’s a loose, freewheeling energy closer to “Hellzapoppin‘” than, say, Nicholas Ray, grabbing on to whatever transgressions and sidebars take the director’s fancy. It probably says something that the entire second half of the film is made up mostly for a flashback. It should feel like classic second album syndrome, indulgent and self-involved, but there’s something deeply infectious and enjoyable about the picture — having got to grips with the medium first time around, this is now a director taking Orson Welles‘ proverbial best-train-set-a-boy-could-ask-for, and building it into loop-the-loops and corkscrews. It’s probably Truffaut’s most Godardian picture in some ways, but if Godard had grown up on the Marx Brothers and Ernst Lubitsch, and while it’s critical and commercial failure meant that the director never really repeated his experiment, the film’s DNA is present in so much of what follows.

“Jules Et Jim” (1962)
1962’s “Jules et Jim” is the film that launched a thousand rom-coms, and a million study-abroad years in Paris, with its loose lyrical story of a love triangle between two friends (Henri Serre and Oskar Werner) and a freewheeling Bohemian girl (Jeanne Moreau). Probably Truffaut’s most popular and accessible film today, several scenes — the race across the railway bridge, the leap in the lake, the musical refrain of “On s’est connus” — are obvious sources for the montages of delirious capering that pass for romantic storylines in much of current cinema.  But in truth, “Jules et Jim” is a remarkably adventurous and complex film, technically and narratively, and it’s one which Truffaut arguably never bettered. “Jules et Jim” was shot by Raoul Coutard, Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematographer throughout the ’60s, as well as Costa-Gavras‘ on “Z”, and it’s watching this film that you realize it was Coutard, more than any of the New Wave directors (and in spite of their allegiance to auteur theory), who liberated the camera and transformed the whole feeling of cinema in the early ’60s, shooting parts of “Jules et Jim” from a vantage point on a moving bicycle. But while the style was hyper-modern and the rebellious vibe feels very 1960s, the underappreciated heart of “Jules et Jim” is historical. Jules et Jim’s friendship founders partly on the issue of Catherine, but just as much on the face that Jim is Austrian, Jules is French, and the movie takes place before, during and after the First World War: it’s amazing how easily this is forgotten by people who think of Moreau’s outfits as the last word in ’60s cool. “Jules et Jim”, although it only features a few moments of newsreel from the trenches, is one of the great war and anti-war movies, up there with Renoir’s “La Grande Illusion” and Powell and Pressburger’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (from which it borrows the basics of its plot) as a statement on the pity and futility of European war. And in that sense it’s a strangely old-fashioned film that sits uncomfortably next to the rest of the New Wave’s fantasies of revolutionary violence. But it’s from that background of history and personal tragedy that “Jules et Jim” gets its deep emotional depth, which keeps it a fascinating film long after its technical innovations have been absorbed into the mainstream.

“Stolen Kisses” (1968)
Truffaut had picked up Antoine Doinel’s story with the 1962 short “Antoine and Colette,” his swoony, featherlight contribution to the anthology picture “Love At Twelve,” but the director’s alter ego got his next real feature-length showcase almost a decade on from “The 400 Blows” with 1968’s “Stolen Kisses,” and it might just be the finest of the Doinel pictures. After flirting with the idea of putting Jean-Pierre Leaud and his character in a script like “Shoot The Piano Player” or Godard’s ‘Bande A Part,” and beginning work on a discarded screenplay based on his early days in journalism, Truffaut instead makes our hero a drifting twentysomething, dishonorably discharged from the army, floating between a number of jobs he’s swiftly fired from (including, memorably, being a private detective), and circling round his sweetheart Christine (a delightful Claude Jade, who’d go on to star in Hitchcock’s “Topaz“), while also lusting after his boss’s wife (Delphine Seyrig). It’s a looser and less focused film than ‘Blows’ or “Antoine & Colette,” with a structure that’s something close to farce (again Lubitsch, and even Preston Sturges, feel present under the surface, and rewatching it now reveals it to be an obvious influence on “Frances Ha“). It helps that Leaud, now 24, has grown into a hugely impressive performer, with some deft coming timing, but also an ability to make the audience identify just as much as Truffaut clearly did. While it’s a direct sequel to “The 400 Blows,” it spiritually has as much in common with “Shoot The Piano Player,” from the light noir trappings of the detective scenes to the abrupt, but entirely effective, shifts in tone. The following Doinel pictures, 1970’s “Bed And Board” and 1979’s “Love On The Run,” are absolutely worth watching as well, but the character is at his most fleshed-out and fully realized in the centerpiece of the sequence here.

“The Wild Child” (1970)
Leaving behind the genre concerns of his late 1960s work (the thrillers of “The Bride Wore Black” and “Missisippi Mermaid,” the science-fiction of “Fahrenheit 451” ) to return to the theme of childhood, “The Wild Child” marks Truffaut’s first period piece since “Jules Et Jim”  and something of a spiritual follow-up to “The 400 Blows.” The idea of an uncontrollable child is one that had interested Truffaut for some time (he’d tried to obtain the rights to “The Miracle Worker,” about Helen Keller, in the early 1960s, but was beaten to the punch by Arthur Penn) and inspired by an article in Le Monde, happened upon the story of Victor of Aveyron (Jean-Pierre Cargol),  who emerged at the start of the 19th century, aged eleven or twelve, having seemingly spent his childhood without any human contact. And the result is something quite remarkable, a quiet, intimate picture quite different from anything the filmmaker had made before. Eschewing most of the techniques he popularized with the coming of the French New Wave, there’s instead a sparse, almost documentary feel to proceedings that seems closer to Bresson than to Godard, and there’s a real richness to the themes that marks it as the obvious riposte to those who find the director lightweight; it’s a film that, among other things, is about the beauty of education, but also one that questions the cost at which that education might come. Which makes it sound more punishing than it is, because it’s also filled with beauty and warmth and humor as much as the director’s other films. And he also manages to make it feel personal, in part because, in his first major acting role, he casts himself as Dr. Itard, the doctor who takes in the boy, and whose narration (often derived from the real-life inspiration’s notes) relates the story. It’s not an egotistical touch, however. Though he’s a compassionate and good soul, Truffaut’s film remains a touch skeptical of Truffaut’s character, but the casting clearly shows how to dear to his heart the film, one of his very best, must have been.

“Two English Girls” (1971)
Given that “Jules Et Jim” was one of his greatest successes, you can’t blame Truffaut for returning to the author of that film’s source material, Henri-Pierre Roche (who was famously 74 when he started writing), and adapting the second of his two major novels to the screen. But it’s still surprising that, despite “Two English Girls” also revolving around a love triangle, it feels wildly different from its predecessor, while just as essential in the Truffaut canon. As the title might suggest, this time around, the story revolves around a young man and his romances with two British woman — in this case Claude (Jean-Pierre Leaud, coming up with a creation quite distinct from Antoine Doinel), who falls for the virginal, sickly Muriel Brown (Stacey Tendeter), only for an enforced separation to lead to a relationship with her older sister Ann. Despite its relationship with “Jules Et Jim,” it actually comes across as much more of a companion piece to the recent “The Wild Child,” also taking advantage of a period setting, and a quieter, more literary feel, thanks in part to the heavy use of narration and letters. “Jules Et Jim” felt like a movie about being in the heart of a love affair, but “Two English Girls” is a more wistful and melancholic piece, looking back long after the fact. Not that it’s lacking in passion — the scene where Claude and Muriel finally sleep together is one of the most memorable and heart-pumping things Truffaut ever shot. And, for all its melancholy, it’s also very funny in places. Along with “The Wild Child,” “Two English Girls” marks the end of Truffaut’s wild-young-man period, but proved that his entrance into middle-age could lead to work just as rewarding as anything that came before.

“Day For Night” (1972)
Arguably the greatest ever movie about the making of movies, “Day For Night” is Truffaut’s love/poison pen letter to his chosen profession, and the medium which dominated his adult life. Appropriately enough, it’s also one of his solid-gold masterpieces. Rich and almost novelistic, it details the making of a rather dire looking period drama called “Meet Pamela,” a shoot so full of drama and disaster that it would make even Terry Gilliam a little terrified, as the director (played wryly by Truffaut himself) wrestles with problems both minor and major, and the cast and crew make out, break up and make up with each other. Loosely structured without being fatty (it’s something of a forerunner to the style that Robert Altman was developing around the same time), it’s really something closer to a decade-plus worth of anecdotes than a definitive memoir, but all the more enjoyable for it, with an all-star cast (including Jean-Pierre Leaud, in a rare and somewhat meta non-Antoine Doinel performance as a young actor, a career-best Jacqueline Bisset and, in a curious cameo, Graham Greene) clearly relishing the chance to send up themselves, and their colleagues. Few films have captured the tedium, infighting, soapy drama and low-key panic of actually making a movie better, and even fewer have displayed the magic and trickery involved in shooting a film even as hacky and mediocre as “Meet Pamela” — Truffaut highlights the artifice of his own technique even as he dwells on that of the movie-within-the-movie. The film’s bafflingly fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years, or maybe just gone underseen, but it really is one of Truffaut’s best, and most enjoyable achievements. The score, by frequent collaborator Georges Delerue, is also a delight, by the way.

“Small Change ” (1976)
The closing section of an unofficial trilogy about childhood begun with “The 400 Blows” and concluded with “The Wild Child,” “Small Change” is the culmination of nearly twenty years work — Truffaut had begun making notes for a project that would combine a number of stories about childhood in the mid-1950s (his ’57 short “Les Mistons” came out of those notes). Without much need to shoehorn it into narrative, the film isn’t made up so much of episodes as it is snippets or slices of the lives of a group of children, and in lesser hands, could have easily threatened to slip into a sort of highbrow version of “Kids Say The Funniest Things.” But that would be to wildly underestimate Truffaut’s skill. Leaning even more into docudrama than “The Wild Child,” it has a sort of improvised feel suggesting that these aren’t actors (which, really, they weren’t), but real kids hopping onto the screen for a few minutes at a time. And fortunately, the kids are wonderful, from the heartbreaking, Antoine Doinel-like Julien to the almost silent-comedy-esque interplay between a 2-year-old and a kitten near a dangerously open window. Rarely for a film entirely about children (a few parents or teachers do appear, but they really are supporting players), there’s little sentimentalization or sanctification of childhood — this is just kids being kids, from telling dirty stories you don’t really understand to learning to fend for themselves. Letting his child cast be themselves on screen is a tricky proposition, but it works like magic — indeed, Steven Spielberg, who worked with the director soon after on “Close Encounters Of A Third Kind,” claims he learned how to direct children thanks to Truffaut’s advice.

“The Green Room” (1978)
Truffaut’s biggest financial disaster, and a film much bleaker and darker than most of his work, is also one of his very best, and certainly one of his most underrated. Adapting two Henry James short stories, “The Altar of the Dead” and “The Beast In The Jungle,” it stars Truffaut himself as  a death-obsessed journalist and traumatized World War One survivor who omes across Cecilia (Nathalie Baye), a younger woman who hangs out at the same cemetery. Truffaut (who was only six years away from his own passing) had become increasingly preoccupied by death, particularly after the passing of Cinematheque Francaise director Henri Langlois and friend Roberto Rossellini, and after watching “Shoot The Piano Player” and realizing that half of those on screen were no longer alive. The question of how we, as a society, honor the dead, became a major interest of the filmmaker, which culminated in this low-key, haunted and haunting picture that seems, in the best way, to come from a different filmmaker entirely. For a fairly committed atheist, it’s a remarkably soulful and thoughtful picture in its treatment of death and grief, but his trademark humanity is never far from the surface, and the slow, gradual bond between Truffaut’s Julien and Baye’s Cecilia, and their building of a shrine together, is one of the most moving parts of the director’s whole oeuvre. Nodding to Bergman in theme, and Tarkovsky in form (the photography, by frequent collaborator Nestor Almendros, who was Truffaut’s go-to for his more “serious” fare, could be the most striking of any of his films), it’s a definite outiler in his career, and probably his least accessible film, but all the more rewarding when you spend a little time with it.

“Confidentially Yours” (1983)
This is probably a controversial choice in some quarters, but we’ll stand by it: Truffaut’s final film is undeniably something of a minor work, but in retrospect feels terminally underrated (including by Truffaut, who dismissed it), and perhaps his mostly fully-achieved and enjoyable experiment in crime noir. Based on “The Long Saturday Night” by Charles WIlliams (who also wrote the book that “Dead Calm” was based on), it’s a sly upending of the mystery-thriller, which sees Barbara (Fanny Ardant), the secretary of estate-agent Julien (Jean-Louis Trintignant), step in to clear her boss’s name when he’s accused of killing his wife’s lover. Nodding more to something like “The Thin Man” and even screwball comedy (Truffaut asked Ardant to perform her lines at top speed), it’s also a return to the Hitchcock influence that had taken a back seat. But whereas something like “The Bride Wore Black” sometimes felt like imitation rather than homage, here, “Confidentially Yours” feels like its own beast, and 100% a Truffaut picture. The black-and-white photography gives it all the more authenticity, too — it sometimes seems like it could be a lost gem from an earlier era that’s somehow only just been unearthed. It’s perhaps all the more touching as the film is clearly a deeply felt love letter to Ardant. Truffaut had relationships with many of his leading ladies, but none are more glowingly paid tribute to than Ardant (who was in a relationship with the director from the early 1980s until his death). And as such, while it’s tempting to wish that Truffaut had ended his career on more of a note of summing-up, it’d be hard to deny him this one, even if it wasn’t so much damn fun.

Honorable Mentions: There’s certainly an argument to be made that Truffaut never made a truly bad film, and narrowing this list down proved to be more than a little tricky. But to name some of the ones that came closest to cracking the final ten, there’s 1964’s “The Soft Skin,” 1968’s ‘The Bride Wore Black,” 1969’s “Mississippi Mermaid,” 1975’s “The Story Of Adele H” and 1980’s “The Last Metro.” Any others you think deserve promotion or recognition? Any on the list that you think we’re crackers for including? Let us know in the usual place below. — Oliver Lyttelton, Ben Brock

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