“Is cinema more important than life?”
That question was once asked by Francois Truffaut, the former Cahiers du cinema critic and pioneering member of the French New Wave who directed over twenty-three feature films over the course of his long and fruitful career. His pictures range from coming-of-age dramas (the immortal “400 Blows”), jazzy gangster noirs (“Shoot the Piano Player!”), evocative slices of 1960’s Bohemian life (“Jules and Jim”), light comedy (“Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board”), fantastical childhood yarns (“Small Change,” “The Wild Child”) and many more. His understanding of the language of cinema and how genre could ultimately be utilized to service a story that addressed universal concerns was eclipsed only by his deep and unrelenting love for his characters. Truffaut was, above all, a consummate humanist and his devotion to sincerity above all things has put him at a point of contrast with many of his contemporaries from the golden age of French cinema —the furious intellectualism of Jean-Luc Godard and the cool remove of Jean-Pierre Melville, for instance.
A two-part documentary from 1996 —titled “The Man Who Loved Cinema”— has made its way online, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into Truffaut’s creative process and how his life informed his art, told from the perspectives of those who knew him best. The doc opens with the jubilant notes of Georges Delerue’s “Le Grand Chorale” and some B-roll footage from his great movie-within-a-movie “Day for Night” – in which Truffaut himself plays a beleaguered film director overseeing production of a high-profile melodrama that is all but falling apart. Several critics and friends speak of the “warmth” and “humanity” that can be found in all of Truffaut’s films, and it’s interesting to note that his sympathy is the one constant trait that runs through his early, more rough-hewn and autobiographical pictures all the way to his more colorful and accessible films of the late 70s and early 80s. Also worth noting is the social and political reflection of Paris evident in his early work— particularly “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim,” this writer’s favorite— that is more subdued and less incendiary then contemporaries like Godard, who made films that were equally brilliant in their own right.
Truffaut’s childhood was marred by drama, both at home and at school: he speaks of having to “fight for things” at the age of 15 and 16, how he had no one to trust or rely on, and how the movies were his primary form of escape. Robert Lachenay —one of Truffaut’s oldest friends, and the primary inspiration for Antoine Doinel’s best friend Rene in “The 400 Blows”— says the two “bonded like brothers” against the “hostile environment of school and home” and that the pair mutually used literature as a means of “discovering life.” He also tells stories of how he and Truffaut snuck in through the emergency exits of the local cinema, often seeing multiple films in one day so they could “study” and obsess over them. It was a practice that continued later in Truffaut’s life, when he abandoned a life of military service (skewered beautifully in the opening scenes of his hilarious “Stolen Kisses“) to write unforgiving film criticism for the then-newly-founded film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which also featured young up-and-coming French cineastes Andre Bazin, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Godard —the latter of whom was a close friend and collaborator of Truffaut’s until their nasty falling out in the early 1980s.
The documentary is gripping for a number of reasons: mostly because we see how a man whose life was largely shaped by his earliest movie-going experiences ended up creating classic cinema that has endured through the virtue of its nuanced and often shattering insight into the human condition. We tend to think of movies as mere fantasy, escapism – and Truffaut knew these were not dirty words; one of his best friends and mentors throughout his life was Alfred Hitchcock. He knew that cinema was a vehicle for big moments, chase sequences, epic romantic moments and edge-of-your-seat suspense: these things were not always possible in the same way through other artistic mediums. And yet he also understood how movies can illuminate our personal hopes, dreams and desires —how watching a great movie for the first time can point us in a new direction, or how the magic of film culture can help us to transcend the banality of the day-to-day. He may have left us (sadly), but not without a great legacy of over twenty-five year’s worth of classic pictures that are filled with warmth, humor and most of all, hope. Merci, Francois.