Truffaut On Screen and Page and in the Audience, Always

Truffaut: A Biography , by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, translated by Catherine Temerson. Alfred A. Knopf, 462 pages, $30.

A cinephile who became a film critic who became a filmmaker, François Truffaut remained always a cinephile at heart. He made 21 films in 24 years, a long celluloid love letter to the movies. His passion for film was matched by an unending adoration of women. But since Truffaut only fell for actresses, his romances seem like a subset of his cinephilia, as if each woman in his life were a starlet from a favorite Hollywood picture, or a doomed heroine from one of his own loving creations.

Truffaut loved America, too, and this month America is returning his affection. On April 23, Film Forum begins its complete, two-month retrospective of Truffaut’s films. By total coincidence, Knopf has just published the translation of Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana’s much-acclaimed Truffaut biography. Those two events fit together even more perfectly than you might think. On the one hand, we have films of an intensely autobiographical nature: To see Truffaut’s films is, in effect, to read his biography. On the other hand, we have a book whose central message about François Truffaut is that his life had the intrigue, symmetry and despair of his best movies. Whether on the screen or on the page, Truffaut’s story is mesmerizing.

Born in 1932 to an unwed Catholic mother and (as he would find out much later) a Jewish father, who promptly disappeared, Truffaut spent a mostly miserable childhood in Paris. Resentful of his mother, bored at school, an iconoclast by age 8, François fell into petty thievery and street mischief. But soon he found a more enduring, though no less stealthy, hobby. “I saw my first 200 films on the sly,” Truffaut wrote, “playing hooky and slipping into the movie house without paying … I paid for these great pleasures with stomachaches, cramps, nervous headaches and guilty feelings, which only heightened the emotions evoked by the films.” As his biographers note, “love of cinema represented a pocket of resistance in the culture of the period.” When he was sent to juvenile hall for theft and debt at age 16, “he asked his parents only for a bit of jam, and his files on Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.”

His cinephilia bordered on madness. Between 1940 and 1955, he saw 4,000 films.

Then came his evolution into the François Truffaut of legend–the street ruffian movie-lover who became the hoodlum of the Parisian film criticism scene. He was short, with dark brown eyes, but it was his fearlessness that earned him the nickname “Napoleon.” With the help of the famous critic André Bazin, he began to write for the influential journal Cahiers du cinéma . (Messrs. de Baecque and Toubiana are the current editors.) Along with other young critics–and future New Wave filmmakers–Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, Truffaut rose to prominence by attacking the stodgy French cinema of his day. His writing was the critical equivalent of a Molotov cocktail. To Claude Autant-Lara, one of the most popular directors of the 50′s, Truffaut was “that young thug of journalism.” Another director, Jean Delannoy, was so dumbfounded by one of Truffaut’s blitzes that he sent him a letter: “What you wrote … is so low that I have never encountered anything like it in my 20 years in the profession. You’ve just broken a record.”

His notoriety aside, Truffaut’s most enduring contribution as a critic was his articulation of a deceptively simple notion: the auteur theory. We throw the term around so carelessly today that it’s easy to forget Truffaut’s original vision. Inspired by the work of Roberto Rossellini, Fritz Lang and most of all Alfred Hitchcock, Truffaut appealed to moviegoers to concentrate on a filmmaker’s entire body of work when watching any one film. From that vantage point, the auteur theory insists that “bad” movies be considered fundamental to an auteur’s special genius. As Messrs. de Baecque and Toubiana explain, “Every auteur film becomes the story of a failure, of perfection sacrificed; and only the whole body of his work, retracing a personal, unique journey, can allow us to understand an auteur.” Truffaut’s theory was a canny strategy. Before he had shot a roll of film, he had written a brilliant apologia for himself–for he himself would make plenty of mediocre and bad movies in his career. Do you think Jules and Jim is a terrible film? That’s Truffaut’s genius: Only an auteur could make such an epic stinker!

Truffaut had his work cut out for him when he laid down his pen to enter the profession he had terrorized for a decade. He didn’t disappoint. His first two features, The 400 Blows (1959) and Shoot the Piano Player (1960) are hypnotic visions, confessional in tone but as elusive as the American masterpieces Truffaut revered. They marked something unprecedented in the history of movies: a cinema born from within a society of critics. By 1965, the major documents of the New Wave had been unleashed: Truffaut’s early films, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows , Mr. Rivette’s Paris nous appartient , Mr. Godard’s Breathless , Pierrot le fou and Alphaville .

The most fascinating relationship in this book–one that lurks under the surface of much of the narrative–is the friendship between Truffaut and Mr. Godard. The two began as New Wave comrades struggling for a new method of filmmaking; Truffaut wrote the screenplay for Breathless , Mr. Godard’s first feature. They fought together on the 1968 barricades, which provide some of the most extraordinary passages in the book: “Truffaut, severely shaken, was cared for in the entranceway to a building. Godard, stunned, looked for his lost sunglasses; [Bernard] Tavernier had blood dripping down his face; Yves Boisset’s wife had been thrown to the ground.” Two months later, in the heat of the May ’68 fury, “Godard was slapped in the face and once again lost his glasses; Truffaut was tackled at the waist and thrown to the floor by an angry audience member.” Reading such anecdotes, you begin to wonder: Where are the independent filmmakers shedding blood today?

It was not long before the friendship with Mr. Godard soured. Messrs. de Baecque and Toubiana use the rift to trace Truffaut’s tilt toward the bourgeoisie: While Mr. Godard grew more and more political, Truffaut’s films showed his gradual surrender to Hollywood: squeaky-clean production, traditional narrative and sexy actresses (a true pantheon of French beauties, all of whom he slept with: Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Françoise Dorléac, Claude Jade, Fanny Ardant and the half-French Jacqueline Bisset).

Before long, Mr. Godard was deriding Truffaut as the kind of complacent director they used to scorn together. Truffaut was “a businessman in the morning and a poet in the afternoon”; “he made one film that truly expressed him, The 400 Blows , and that was it: Afterward, he merely told stories.” By the 1973 release of Truffaut’s Day for Night , his movie most reverential of movies, Mr. Godard declared that Truffaut had sold out for good. His cinephilia, according to Mr. Godard, had killed his urgency; he had become a “liar.” Truffaut responded: “I’ve always felt that true militants are like cleaning women, performing a thankless, daily, necessary task. But you, you’re like Ursula Andress, you make a four-minute appearance, just enough time for the cameras to flash … and then you disappear.” Years later, he imagined Mr. Godard’s “next autobiographical film, whose title I think I know: Once a Shit Always a Shit .”

Much to Mr. Godard’s dismay, Truffaut had become what he had in fact always been: a cinephile through and through. His days of thuggery were over. As an ambassador from the nation of Cinema, Truffaut became in 1970′s France (and until 1984, when a brain tumor killed him at age 52) what Martin Scorsese is in America today: reverent and diplomatic, an encyclopedia of the cinema’s history, customs and society. This remarkable, thorough, but coolly composed biography makes you wonder whether Truffaut’s ultimate legacy will be not as a filmmaker, or even as a brilliant critic, but rather as someone who loved the movies. Perhaps a bit too much.