Francois Truffaut
Francois Truffaut; drawing by David Levine

Near the start of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste there is a deft moment of authorial cheek. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) returns from the piano bar to his rented room and climbs wearily into bed, cuddling an ashtray the size of a salad bowl. Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), the jolly tart who lives next door, sidles in with an offer. Charlie says he lacks the money; she offers him credit; he declines; she nonetheless stays. She undresses and sits up in bed, her breasts fully visible, talking about a movie she’s just seen. He interrupts her: “In the cinema, it’s always like this,” he says, pulling the bedclothes up around her into a parody of the starlet-sitting-respectably-up-in-bed shot. It is lightly done, and fits the jokey, tumbling relationship between Charlie and Clarisse. Still, it has its echo. In the cinema, it’s always like this: but it isn’t like this in life, and from now on it won’t be like this in the cinema either.

I first started going properly to movies in Paris during the early Sixties, when the nouvelle vague was a surfer’s paradise. Godard’s A Bout de souffle, with a script by Truffaut, seemed the ultimate modern film: brave, nose-thumbing, hip, stylish, sexy, anti-authoritarian, above all true to the jagged inconsequentiality and moral vacuum of life as Godard and I (plus Truffaut and a few more initiates) perceived it to be. Like Tirez sur le pianiste it thrilled to loucheness and the rough touch of the modern city (“The Underpass in Modern French Film” is a thesis waiting to be written). If the theme of both films was Man on the Run, the technique was Camera on the Run: the lens probed and wandered, scuttled and hopped. Godard and Truffaut were exultantly picking apart the grammar of film and risking new combinations; together they were seeing afresh both life and the possibilities of art, in a joyful collaborative rivalry reminiscent of, well, Braque and Picasso perhaps.

Watching A Bout de souffle again the other week after a gap of twenty or so years, my first reaction was to lament the way things seem unquenchably new at eighteen because of an incapacity to put them in context. In the present case: tone from American film noir, moral stance from L’Etranger (much watered), pretentiousness and fake aperçus from avant-garde café life. Today the shooting of the policeman in the opening minutes no longer seems a moment of liberating, even charming anarchy, but a calculated wasting by both antihero and director/writer (kill a cop to give your film a gallon of plot-gas). What still grips, however, is the panache of Godard’s direction. Here is someone in immediate control of the medium, confident enough to try anything (how long can that sequence of Belmondo and Seberg not going to bed together possibly last? Well, about as long as the parallel sequence in Tirez sur le pianiste where Thérésa confesses her “vileness” with the impresario). The zest, the cockiness, the sheer ardor of film making remain as infectious as ever, and almost cover up the melancholy truth: that A Bout de souffle is a tremendous display of style desperately searching for content. The closeness of Truffaut and Godard at the time of these two films was deceptive. A Bout de souffle still looks more accomplished than Tirez sur le pianiste. But Truffaut was, as it were, just trying on the bell-bottoms; Godard was laying in a lifetime’s supply.

The nouvelle vague was a revolt against the cinéma de papa, but it was less a matter of mass parricide than of selective culling. The wisest innovators are aware that the history of art may appear linear and progressive but is in fact circular, cross-referential, and back-tracking. The practitioners of the nouvelle vague were immersed (some, like Truffaut, as critics) in what had preceded them, and their films acknowledged with many a wink and nod their favored masters: thus in La Nuit américaine the film crew set off for a location shoot down the Rue Jean Vigo. Such hat tipping was returned: Jean Renoir (Truffaut’s French hero as opposed to his American hero, Hitchcock) dedicated My Life and Films to “those film-makers who are known to the public as the ‘New Wave’ and whose preoccupations are also mine.” The nouvelle vague was denunciatory and iconoclastic; but while knocking the heads off a few statues it nonetheless carried on building the cathedral. It developed and promoted the auteur theory, while also retrospectively applying it to American cinéastes like Howard Hawks; it loosened the financial garrote with which film backer had long held film maker; it confirmed a move away from studio shooting to a sort of plein-airisme; and it turned its back on the established star system, while inevitably producing stars of its own, some of whom duly behaved with traditional egotism.


In 1982 Truffaut looked back on the Cahiers du cinéma row of the 1950s. Now that the matter had turned into history, he wrote to the American critic Jim Paris, he watched out for examples of the cinéma de papa when they were shown again on TV, and regularly hoped for a pleasant surprise. But the distinguished film maker of fifty found that his objections were still the same as those of the feisty young critic: “These relate mainly to the representation of love, the female characters, the anti-bourgeois statements, the absence of children and above all the falseness of the dialogue.” He concludes:

The revolt, to use a very grand word, of Cahiers du cinéma was more moral than aesthetic. What we were arguing for was an equality of observation on the part of the artist vis-à-vis his characters instead of a distribution of sympathy and antipathy which in most cases betrayed the servility of artists with regard to the stars of their films and, on the other hand, their demagoguery with regard to the public.

To each his own revolt: for Godard it was chiefly aesthetic and political, for Truffaut financial and moral. “Why don’t you make political films?” the tiresome German fan demands of Ferrand the film director (played by Truffaut himself) in La Nuit américaine. “Why don’t you make erotic films?” Ferrand doesn’t reply; he is too busy getting on with the job. And in Truffaut’s case, too, the main answer must come from the work itself. The character of that work was settled early, by cinematic instinct rather than ideological decision. “A film-maker shows what his career will be in his first 150 feet of film,” Truffaut wrote of Jean Vigo. Apply this test to his own first feature, Les Mistons, and what sort of film maker do we discover? One attracted to the love story that ends badly, and with a singular empathy for the child on the nervous edge of adolescence; one with a taste for cinematic quotation, borrowed gags, and surprise cameo moments, plus a reliance on the rather literary device of voice-over narration; someone with charm, lyricism, aigre-doux humor, and a predilection for sunlit woodlands. (Is there a danger of sentimentality? Perhaps. But we might recall Alain-Fournier’s reply to this charge: “Sentimentality is when it doesn’t come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life’s sorrow.”) And if we look behind the film, we discover an equally vital element: Les Mistons was largely financed by Truffaut’s wife. This is one of the key lessons of the nouvelle vague (and one on which Truffaut and Godard could agree): that in an essentially collaborative medium, collaboration with the wrong money destroys individualism.

“When I was a child…I hated my family, I was bored by my family.” The young Truffaut diversified into petty theft and minor vagabondage; he dropped out of school at fourteen, was sent to an observation center for delinquents, joined the army only to spend his time there in a constant state of near desertion. These experiences feed directly into the Antoine Doinel cycle of films, with the febrile, burning-eyed Jean-Pierre Léaud as Truffaut’s half-lost, half-damaged alter ego. This rich theme of fractured childhood and the search for a salvaging parent figure climaxes in Truffaut’s painful and pessimistic masterpiece, L’Enfant sauvage, the tale of Victor the Wild Boy of Aveyron and Dr. Itard, his potential savior. But if Truffaut’s own story was that of a wild boy tamed and helped by a surrogate father (the film critic André Bazin), one finally consoled and fulfilled by learning to speak the language of film, L’Enfant sauvage is a bleak example of the story not working out. For all Itard’s patience, inventiveness, and occasional exasperated toughness, small breakthroughs fail to lead to larger ones. Victor cannot finally be helped, the damage being too great for more than superficial remedy: he manages to pick up a few words and a few tricks but fails to master language in such a way as to bring true communication and possible consolation.

Truffaut was lucky to find the right language himself. He was, in the phrase he applied to Vigo, “a spectator who fell in love with films.” At fifteen he founded a ciné-club; at eighteen he started as a film critic. His life thereafter was utterly in and of the cinema, that place of light and warmth as the rain falls outside. He was writer, director, actor, coproducer, critic, historian, interviewer, and activist. “Films are smoother than life,” Truffaut explains to Léaud on celluloid in La Nuit américaine. “For people like you and me, our happiness lies in films.” His private life also unreeled much within the surrogate family of the cinema: he married the daughter of a leading French distributor and producer; many of his affairs seem to have been with actresses.


“Films resemble the people who make them,” he wrote; in these letters, as in his films, Truffaut is genial, accessible, humorous, and melancholy. He is affectionate, playful, stylish, and not averse to luxury (“Better to weep in a Jaguar than in the Métro”); instinctive rather than intellectual, an autodidact with some of that breed’s hectoring propensities. He is wary of theory, just as he is wary of those who claim to love humanity in the abstract: he prefers the specific instance and the particular individual. The only shocking thing to emerge from these letters is that he was a small man who had a fetishistic collection of Eiffel Towers. And the only strikingly un-French thing is a complete lack of interest in food. Lapsing for a moment into theory, he comes up with a surprising, and surprisingly pat, reason: “Bruno Bettelheim explains that, with food, one has the same relationship as with one’s mother, and I really believe that that’s the case with me. The fact remains that an hour after a meal I am incapable of saying what I ate.” In these letters Truffaut’s mother is as scarce as a menu: she pops up only to comment acerbically that La Peau douce is “a little less vulgar” than Jules et Jim.

“Good films are ones that are made in ordinary rooms, with one’s backside on a chair.” And the professional problems that dog Truffaut through these pages are ordinary, familiar ones: the nouvelle vague could not vaporize the old frustrations. There is the slipperiness of finance; the complaints of writers whose work has been adapted and therefore traduced (Maurice Pons disapproved of Bernadette’s bicycle in Les Mistons, while David Goodis liked Tirez sur le pianiste much less when he saw it with subtitles: his ignorance of French had previously allowed him to believe that the film had been more faithful to his book); the uppitiness of some actors; the cecity of critics; the poor aim of fans (Truffaut once met some Alabaman film buffs who congratulated him on a variety of movies, none of which he had actually made). Occasionally, such trials have their ironies. When making La Peau douce, Truffaut discovered that the restaurant where Franca goes to kill Pierre remained open every day of the week, so he would have to film the scene (which takes place in daylight) after closing time. Thus the future maker of Day For Night found himself shooting Night For Day.

Truffaut’s evident lovability and his professional cheerfulness enclosed an undertow of gloom (he makes Jules et Jim “under the impression that it’s going to be amusing and discovering as I go along that the only thing that saves it is its melancholy”); while his affability often gives way to touchiness. “Every artist,” he wrote in 1965, “must dream of reaching…the point at which ‘opinions’ [about his or her work] are meaningless”; but like most artists Truffaut didn’t know he’d reached that point, and to the end of his life is writing letters of rebuke and correction to journalists who misrepresent him. This lack of final confidence might also explain the diligence with which he encourages Truffaut Studies wherever they appear. Alternative explanations would include natural courtesy and natural ambition. There is also a toughness and aggression that stay with him long after his rumbustious apprenticeship as a critic. When an agent tries to push an actress on to him, he replies: “If I may judge from your letter, from the way it is typed and laid out, and the condition in which it arrived, complete with documents, I should say that Mademoiselle X might best be offered the role of an illiterate slut.” When hustled for his signature on a petition, he does more than merely decline:

Dear Madame,

Since you charmingly insist that I add my signature to the list of those who have signed the Manifesto for Survival, I find myself obliged, other than by silent abstention, to inform you of my disagreement with its text which is, in my opinion, completely woolly, vague and insipid and bristling with too many capital letters.

The taste for literary street fighting is most fully deployed in the key exchange of these letters, that with Godard over Day For Night. It consists, in fact, of a single attack by Godard in 1973 and a single reply from Truffaut, but even so strolls into any future anthology of artistic quarrels. “Yesterday I saw La Nuit américaine,” Godard begins. “Probably no one else will call you a liar, so I will.” Truffaut is “a liar” because of the absence of “criticism” in the film, because he fails to tell the truth about film making, its processes, personnel, and off-screen entanglements. “Liar, because the shot of you and Jacqueline Bisset the other evening at Chez Francis is not in your film, and one can’t help wondering why the director [Ferrand, played by Truffaut] is the only one who doesn’t screw in La Nuit américaine.” If Godard were to make a comparable movie, it would include such truths as “how the old man from Publidécor paints Maria Schneider’s backside in Last Tango, how Rassam’s switchboard operator telephones and how Malle’s accountant balances the books.” Having established Truffaut’s bad faith and his own moral superiority, Godard then seeks to touch his former friend and collaborator for money. It is, after all, because Truffaut’s films—and those of Malle and Rassam—are so expensive that there isn’t enough cash around to fund Godard’s latest. So why doesn’t Truffaut come in as coproducer: “for 10 million? for 5 million? Considering La Nuit américaine, you ought to help me, so that the public doesn’t get the idea we all make films like you.”

Godard’s contempt can hardly be untainted by envy. Since 1959 moviegoers had, on the one hand, been arguing the various merits of Les 400 Coups, Jules et Jim, L’Enfant sauvage, and La Nuit américaine (backed up by Tirez sur le pianiste, La Peau douce, and Fahrenheit 451), while on the other hand they had observed the grim decline of the maker of A Bout de souffle into smug sloganeering. Happily, Truffaut does not allow his greater success to prevent a precise and ferocious settling of accounts. His six-page letter is the more violent for having been bottled up so long: Truffaut had not previously replied to Godard’s sneers. Now he does. Godard thinks the truth should be told about the cinema and sex?

You cast Catherine Ribeiro, whom I had sent to you, in Les Carabiniers, and then threw yourself on her the way Chaplin throws himself on his secretary in The Great Dictator (it wasn’t I who made the comparison)…. With every shot of X—in Week-End it was as though you were tipping a wink at your pals: this whore wants to make a film with me, take a good look at how I treat her: there are whores and there are poetic young women.

Funding difficulties?

I need have no worries on your account, in Paris there are still enough wealthy young men, with a chip on their shoulder because they had their first car at 18, who will be delighted to pay their dues by announcing: “I’m the producer of Godard’s next film.”

Bad faith?

I’ve felt nothing but contempt for you [since 1968]—as when I saw the scene in Vent d’est showing how to make a Molotov cocktail and, a year later, you got cold feet the first time were asked to distribute La Cause du peuple [Sartre’s newspaper] in the street. The notion that all men are equal is theoretical with you, it isn’t deeply felt, which is why you have never succeeded in loving anyone or helping anyone, other than by shoving a few banknotes at them.

Godard is not just a liar, but a phony, a poseur, an elitist, a narcissist, “a shit…secure on your pedestal,” an assiduous cultivator of his own subversive image. He treats individuals contemptuously while fawning before an abstract concept of “the masses.” Even his militancy is false:

You need to play a role and the role needs to be a prestigious one; I’ve always had the impression that real militants are like cleaning women, doing a thankless, daily but necessary job. But you, you’re the Ursula Andress of militancy, you make a brief appearance, just enough time for the cameras to flash, you make two or three duly startling remarks and then you disappear again, trailing clouds of self-serving mystery.

This thorough trashing of Godard’s character and by extension his work (“Films resemble the people who make them”) ends with a well-aimed quote from Bernanos: “If I had, like you, failed to keep the promises of my ordination, I would prefer it to have been for a woman’s love rather than for what you call your intellectual development.”

The spectacle is exciting (particularly if we declare our man the winner), but finally depressing. Co-ordinees and collaborators in their youth, Truffaut and Godard have now diverged totally. Their quarrel is also part of the old one between head and heart, the aesthetic and the moral, theory and individualism; the strategy of offense versus the strategy of charm. Whereas Truffaut was good at customer relations, being civil and helpful to those genuinely interested in his work, Godard was famously cavalier and confrontational. Invited to London some years ago to lecture, he accepted, then changed his mind at the last minute and sent a jaunty telegram: “Choose anyone from the audience at random, and they will be able to tell you as much about the cinema as I can.” When this message was read out to the expectant crowd, many applauded, either from sycophancy or aesthetic agreement. One man stood up and shouted, understandably if perhaps too all-encompassingly, “Sod the Frogs!”

On October 21, 1984, Truffaut died from a brain tumor. His last letter collected here (of January 1984) is characteristic:

On 12 September last, I was operated on for an aneurism of the brain, but film criticism was 20 years ahead of conventional medicine, since, when my 2nd film, Tirez sur le pianiste, came out, it declared that such a film could only have been made by someone whose brain wasn’t functioning normally!

Godard’s introduction to these letters ends with a posturing flourish that would not have surprised Truffaut: “François is perhaps dead. I am perhaps alive. But then, is there a difference?” Another error of category from Jean-Luc. There is a difference, sad and enormous, not least for those of us who now feel cheated out of the remainder of the Truffaut canon.

This Issue

October 11, 1990