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Francois Truffaut’s 15 Greatest Films

Francois Truffaut's 15 Greatest Films

Any day bringing a new Francois Truffaut film to the Criterion Collection is a good one, so it follows that today is a good day. Though every cinephile’s favorite label already includes a smattering from the French New Wave legend, most notably “Jules Et Jim” and the Antoine Doinel series, today sees the release of a new edition of “The Soft Skin,” an early, often-undervalued film by the filmmaker. So even though we ran an Essentials feature last year to celebrate the Blu-Ray re-release of “Jules et Jim,” we tend to jump at any chance to write about Truffaut. We’ve expanded that feature herein to 15 titles, listed chronologically (yes, we are shaping up for a full retrospective at some point).

Truffaut went from runaway schoolboy to bad-boy Cahiers du Cinema critic to wildly acclaimed filmmaker before the age of 27, and passed away of a brain tumor aged only 52 —consequently, his career can sometimes seem brief if brilliant one. 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. So take a look through our fifteen favorite Truffaut pictures: if just one reader is inspired to discover just one of these films, today will have been a very good day.

“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, 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.” 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 Leaudthen aged only 14 and who met the director
through a casting call in a newspaper), here facing 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 effects of rampant hormones when you’re fourteen and hate your
parents, your teachers, and pretty much everyone, principally thanks to its laser-tight focus on Antoine. By which we mean Truffaut: this is essentially cinema in the first-person, 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.

“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 by a flashback. It should feel like the classic
second album syndrome —indulgent and self-involved— but there’s
something deeply infectious and enjoyable about the picture. Having come 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 as if Godard had grown up on the Marx Brothers and Ernst Lubitsch. While it’s critical and commercial failure meant that the director
never really repeated his experiment, the film’s DNA is present in 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 “Jules et Jim” is,  technically and narratively-speaking, a remarkably
adventurous and complex film which Truffaut arguably never bettered. “Jules et Jim” was shot by Raoul Coutard, Godard’s cinematographer throughout the ’60s as well as Costa-Gavras‘ on “Z”,
and it’s when watching this film that you realize that more than
any of the New Wave directors (and in spite of their allegiance to
auteur theory) it was Coutard 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 is
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 fact 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. Although it only features a few
moments of newsreel from the trenches, “Jules et Jim” 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. As such, 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.

“The Soft Skin” (1964)

The eighth film of Truffaut’s to receive the Criterion treatment, “The Soft Skin” is the perfect choice for reappraisal, especially as it divided critical
opinion on release. It didn’t help that it followed one of the most
spectacular runs in cinema history with Truffaut’s last three
solo-directed features being “Jules et Jim,” “Shoot the Piano Player”
and “The 400 Blows.” But in contrast with the ebullience and
experimentation of ‘Jules,’ “The Soft Skin” feels classical, almost dour
at times, a meticulous, quasi-procedural take on melodrama remarkable
for its cool, level gaze at its characters’ morality. Following Pierre
(Jean Desailly), a married, late-middle-aged, celebrated Balzac scholar
as he embarks on an affair with air hostess Nicole (Francois Dorleac),
Truffaut seems in absolute control, somehow imbuing humdrum
episodes with the tension of a thriller and the most banal exchanges
with diamond-cut flashes of insight. Pierre and Nicole (who incidentally
is the subject of the line “Tu dors Nicole?” which was borrowed as the
title for Stephane Lafleur‘s wonderful 2014 film which we reviewed out of Cannes)
reconnect in Paris, and if the beats of this relationship drama are
marked as though it were a murder mystery, the central “setpiece” is
undoubtedly their abortive trip to Reims during which the darkly comic
consequences, the sheer inconveniences and the humiliations that their
situation visit on them are brought home in force. As so often, it’s
domestic details like a pair of stockings or the inability to be rude to
an irritating acquaintance that scuppers their plans and leads to the
unmistakable emasculation of the lightly pompous Pierre. But then in the
final third, a most unexpected bait-and-switch occurs as Pierre’s wife
Franca comes into focus —catching his lies, plotting revenge,
screaming at a creep on the street in a brilliant callback to Nicole
being propositioned earlier. Suddenly, it feels like this not-very
experimental film is in fact very much so, just on a meta, narrative
level as it’s only late on that Franca emerges as possibly the real main
character. And it’s only at the point of death that the film
comes roaring full-blooded to life, in a climax built on impatient
cross-cutting that would do Alfred Hitchcock proud. Elegant, imperfect
and deeply absorbing.

“The Bride Wore Black” (1968)

Based like the following year’s “Mississippi Mermaid” on a novel by
crime writer Cornell Woolrich, “The Bride Wore Black” is ostensibly one of Truffaut’s pulpier offerings: a pure revenge tale with an
iconic lead that many have pointed to as an inspiration for “Kill Bill
(though Quentin Tarantino denied ever having seen it). The picture certainly has
one foot in the genre world, but in Truffaut’s hands it turns into
something altogether stranger and more haunting, and though it’s not
entirely successful, it’s fascinating all the same. The film opens with
grief-stricken, black-clad widow Julie (Jeanne Moreau, reunited with
Truffaut for the first time since “Jules et Jim”) attempting to kill
herself, only being prevented from doing so her by mother. Instead she
channels her grief into a roaring rampage of revenge against the five
men (who include character actor faves like Michael Lonsdale and Charles
who killed her husband on their wedding day. It could be simple
exploitation fare and was sold somewhat as such, but Truffaut
complicates things, introducing a welcome element of moral ambivalence:
the five men weren’t targeting the late Mr. Julie but shot him
accidentally when dicking around with a loaded rifle, making Moreau’s
quest distinctly shadier than the average revenge saga (the scene in
which she seals Lonsdale’s family man into a cupboard under the stairs
and leaves him to suffocate is positively horrifying). There’s also some
cunning if hardly oblique use of metaphor at play, with each man
representing a different way in which men can oppress, manipulate, or
condescend to women, with Moreau using her sexuality to cause their
undoing. More than any of his other early films, “The Soft Skin”
included, this is Truffaut paying tribute to the style of his idol
Hitchcock (right down to a Bernard Herrmann score), but he’s a very
different filmmaker, and the dichotomy doesn’t quite work: Truffaut’s got a
looser style and here at least he isn’t
as interested in creating the precision-tooled suspense of his hero.
Perhaps as a result, Truffaut mostly agreed with the negative reaction
of the French critics, feeling that the film was at best a compromised effort
(it was his first in color and he clashed with longtime DoP Raoul
reportedly feeling that he didn’t give the actors and tone
enough attention as a result). But while it’s undoubtedly a little more
disposable than some of his work, it’s still a beguiling, rich
picture with much more to unpack than your average revenge thriller.

“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 Twenty” 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 a memorable stint as 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, at the time 24, has grown into a hugely impressive
performer, possessing deft comic timing as well as 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, Truffaut’s “The Wild Child
marks his first period piece since “Jules Et Jim”  and something
of a spiritual follow-up to “The 400 Blows.” The idea of an
uncontrollable child 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, he developed the story of Victor of Aveyron (Jean-Pierre Cargol), who emerged at the start of the 19th century having seemingly spent his childhood without any human contact. The
result is 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 a richness to
the themes that marks it as the obvious riposte to those who find the
director lightweight; it’s a film about the
beauty of education, yet also one questioning the cost at which that
education might come. Which makes the film 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 his character is compassionate, Truffaut’s film remains a touch skeptical as such,
but the casting clearly shows how to dear to his heart the film, one of
his very best, must have been.

“Bed and Board” (1970)

The fourth film (including one short) in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel
series (which did the “Boyhood“-esque trick of casting lead actor
Jean-Pierre Leaud as Doinel at various stages of his life from youth to
to his early thirties), “Bed and Board” continues in the fizzy, frothy
vein of “Stolen Kisses,” and is pretty much bursting at the seams with
infectious good humor and a very similar joie de vivre, even when the
vivre-ing isn’t easy. Here we pick up with Doinel after his marriage to
Christine (Claude Jade), whom he’d spent the last film courting in his
haphazard shambolic way, and here he goes about marriage in a similar
fashion, both clattering around happily as she teaches violin
and he has a nonsense job dyeing flowers for a corner shop. Small and big events occur: Christine gets pregnant (a revelation delivered
in three simple scenes that are a masterclass in economical,
serio-comic storytelling); Antoine accidentally lands a new job; a
sinister neighbor turns out to be a TV star; Antoine falls for a
Japanese woman (Hiroku Berghauer) and starts an affair; and Christine
discovers it. Yet these soap opera antics are delivered with heart, wit and Truffaut’s trademark influences: the apartment
block is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window“; the way the
chattering neighbors fall silent when the sinister man walks by is
straight out of Lubitsch‘s “Ninotchka.” But a great deal of the
film’s irrepressible optimism springs from the charm of Doinel himself: he’s so whimsical and so unrepentantly childlike at times that he’s impossible
to dislike even when he’s being thoughtlessly cruel to his lovely,
sunshine-y wife. The key to Doinel in the films after “The 400 Blows” is
always just that: he can be self-centered and petulant but he’s
almost entirely without malice, which is perfectly summed up in the scene where
he leaves his mistress’ table repeatedly to go complain about her by
phone to his estranged wife. There’s so much wit here, but also wisdom, which gives “Bed and Board” some hopeful substance
beneath its giddy surface: last time out Doinel was negotiating the
pitfalls of youthful passion, but here Truffaut has an equally sweetheart view
of the kind of relationship evoked by the image of Antoine and Christine simply
reading side by side in bed before lights out —although they’re each reading books
pertaining to their secret lust objects, naturally.

“Two English Girls” (1971)
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 his proper writing career), 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 women —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 (Kika Markham). Despite its relationship with “Jules Et Jim,” this film comes across as much more of a companion piece to “The Wild Child,” 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 scenes 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 proves that his entrance into
middle-age could lead to work just as rewarding as anything that came

“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 the
medium which dominated his adult life. Appropriately enough, it’s also
one of his solid-gold masterpieces. Rich and almost novelistic, the film 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 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 closer to a
decade-plus worth of anecdotes than a definitive memoir but is 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 still 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, but it is
one of Truffaut’s best and most enjoyable achievements. The score by
frequent collaborator Georges Delerue is also a delight, by the way.

“The Story of Adele H” (1975)

“A musical composition for one instrument” was how Truffaut described
“The Story of Adele H,” and it’s no understatement as to the centrality
of the luminous, then 19-year-old Isabelle Adjani in the title role.
But based on the real diaries of the Adele Hugo, the youngest daughter
of the famed Victor Hugo who suffered from an acute form of erotomania (and possibly schizophrenia), which drove her to madness when the object
of her obsession rejected her following their brief fling, Truffaut’s
film is a lot less austere than that description might suggest. In fact, it’s a wildly, grandly passionate period saga deriving its jaw-dropping loveliness from “Days of Heaven” DP Nestor Almendros
immaculate camerawork and the exceptional set and costume design as well as from Adjani’s remarkable face: both glowingly youthful and
expressively tormented throughout. While
there’s no supernatural activity, ‘Adele H’ feels like a ghost story,
with Adele behaving like a woman possessed, as she trails her lover Lieutenant
Pinson (the equally stunning Bruce Robinson —yes, that Bruce Robinson who
would later direct “Withnail and I“) from continent to continent,  assuming false identities before finally leaving her senses entirely
and being consigned to an asylum for forty years (13 years later, Adjani
would also play Camille Claudel, another famously unstable French
heroine who lived for decades in a mental institution). ‘Adele H’ may
seem atypical for Truffaut, with its corseted, overtly expressive
performances running counter to the modern, heightened naturalism he was
better known for. And yet it’s a similar false comparison that claims “The Age of Innocence” is not a real Scorsese film —Truffaut’s
homagistic style is evident even here (though maybe he references the
Hitchcock of “Rebecca” or “Jamaica Inn” rather than any others) and the
effortless grace with which he renders this sumptuous, highly strung
melodrama so compulsively watchable is unmistakable. It’s known now
largely for Adjani’s powerhouse turn: it’s the first of many crazy women
she would play in her distinguished career, but “The Story of Adele H”
deserves another look as it pertains to Truffaut’s canon. It’s
probably the closest he ever came to an all-out “women’s picture” and it
practically heaves with emotional drama.

“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 of 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 of
the lives of a group of children, and in lesser hands this could have easily
threatened to slip into a sort of highbrow version of “Kids Say The Darndest Things.”
But any conclusion along those lines would be to wildly underestimate Truffaut’s skill. Leaning
even more into docudrama than “The Wild Child,” this film has a sort of
improvised feel, suggesting that these aren’t actors (which 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 as 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 —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)
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,” this film stars Truffaut himself as a death-obsessed journalist and traumatized World War One survivor who comes 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 haunting picture that seems to come from a different filmmaker entirely. As the work of 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 aspects of the director’s whole oeuvre. Nodding to
Bergman in theme and to 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 is all the more rewarding when you spend a little time with it.

“The Woman Next Door” (1981)

Truffaut began the 1980s with one of his greatest successes, the
Oscar-nominated, multi-Cesar-winning box office smash “The Last Metro.”
Some Truffaut fans will think it blasphemy, but we’re actually
more fond of the director’s follow-up, his second collaboration with
star Gerard Depardieu, the taut, low-key Hitchcockian relationship
tragedy “The Woman Next Door.” Developed from an unmade project from the
early 1970s called “Sur Les Rails” that would have teamed Jeanne Moreau
and Charles Denner and loosely riffing on the myth of “Tristan &
,” the film stars Depardieu as Bernard, whose existence with his
wife (Michele Baumgartner) and children is interrupted when a couple
move next door: the new bride of Philippe (Henri Garcin) is Mathilde
(Fanny Ardant in her first big-screen performance: she and Truffaut
became romantically involved during production and were together
until his death), his ex-lover from a decade or so earlier. It was
clearly an unstable, passionate affair, and the two attempt to avoid
each other initially, but it’s clear from the way that neither mentions
their history to their respective spouses that
they’ll end up being drawn back to each other with terrible
consequences for all involved. Told in almost mythic manner by disabled
tennis-club owner Madame Jouve (Veronique Silver), who bears the
scars of an ill-fated romance (Truffaut added the framing device in
post-production, and it’s hard to imagine the film without it), it’s one
of the director’s darkest pictures, reminiscent of late-period
Hitchcock and a much more successful attempt at capturing the master’s
style than, say, “The Bride Wore Black,” complete with an elegantly tragic and
taut screenplay, and controlled, careful framing aided by terrific
photography by William Lubtchansky (“Shoah”). And in Depardieu
(around whom Truffaut wanted to build a film after his smaller part in
“The Last Metro”) and Ardant, Truffaut had two of the finest
performances he ever received: the former a friendly lug
who keeps his passionate side locked away, the latter steering helplessly into
something she knows will be a disaster. The
film finds its perfect metaphor as Depardieu and his wife overhear a
pair of screaming cats: are they fighting or are they fucking? It’s a
fine line at the center of one of the more
undervalued films in the Truffaut canon.

“Confidentially Yours” (1983)
is probably a controversial choice in some quarters, but we’ll stand by
it: Truffaut’s final film is undeniably a minor work, but
in retrospect feels terminally underrated (including by Truffaut, who
dismissed it) and is 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 genre, 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 at that point. But whereas “The Bride Wore Black
sometimes felt like imitation rather than homage, “Confidentially
Yours” feels like 100% a Truffaut picture. The
black-and-white photography imbuess more authenticity —it often 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. While
it’s tempting to wish that Truffaut had ended his career on a valedictory note, it’d be hard to deny him this, even if it wasn’t very fun.

Honorable Mentions: You could make the argument that Truffaut never
made a truly bad film, but we didn’t have the time to cover everything
here (though watch this space for that full retrospective sometime
soon). But in brief, there are also early shorts “A Visit,” “The
Mischief Makers
” and “A Story Of Water” (the latter co-directed with
Godard), along with 1961’s “The Army Game” co-directed with Claude de
, and 1962’s “Antoine and Colette,” his segment of the “Love At
” portmanteau film and the second film in the Antoine Doinel

1966’s Ray Bradbury adaptation and Truffaut’s English-language debut Fahrenheit 451” has a reputation as a misfire, but it’s still an
interesting and powerful picture that’s gained in critical respect over
the years. 1969’s “Mississippi Mermaid,” isn’t
as effective as “The Bride Wore Black” and is definitely one of the
director’s least successful ventures, though it still has elements that
sing, especially the lead turns by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine

Comparatively speaking, 1979’s “Love On The Run” feels like the minor,
clip-show-esque closer to the Doinel series, but 1972’s “Such A Gorgeous
Kid Like Me
” might be his least worthy film, an uneven mix of crime
film and farce that has strong moments but doesn’t work as a whole.
1977’s “The Man Who Loved Women” works much better as comedy but has
aged less well than some of the director’s films, while 1980’s “The Last
” is for some one of his greatest masterpieces, but for us, is
rather more self-important and self-consciously prestige-y than the
director’s other output. Anything you think should have made our list?
Let us know in the comments, ’cause we could talk Truffaut all day long. –Oli Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Ben Brock

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