The Saturday Auteur

François Truffaut: the uncompromising critic of French cinema and founder of the auteur theory
By Arijana Zeric | Film+TV | 18 December 2021

The 400 blows by François Truffaut, 1959

This article is part of The Saturday Auteur


Text by Arijana Zeric

“I never understood the meaning of a film. I am very concrete. I only understand what is on the screen. In my whole life, I have never understood a single symbol.”
― François Truffaut

Born an unwanted child in 1932 in Paris, François Truffaut grew up roaming the Parisian streets and developed an obsessive interest in literature and cinema. He started a film club and befriended André Bazin, one of France’s most renowned film critics and theorists, who even housed the young outcast. With his help, Truffaut started a career at the Cahier du Cinéma and became the title’s youngest editor.

Truffaut was a ruthless and sometimes insulting critic, ripping relentlessly into the “vile” French cinema of the time. In 1954 he published his essay A certain tendency in French cinema continuing his tirade, which lead to him being banned from the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. All of this was highly controversial and he became much in demand.

Jules and Jim directed by François Truffaut, 1962

Together with Bazin, Truffaut formed the theory d’auteur; a type of cinema in which the director is perceived as the sole author of their film, translating their own experiences within their work and exercising a level of authorship that runs through the filmmaker’s oeuvre. He fiercely defended the auteur theory as opposed to commercial cinema. Aged 27, he directed his sensational debut The 400 blows, considered one of the best films ever made.

The dramatic events that occurred prior to his success shaped the way Truffaut viewed society and would significantly set the tone for his scripts and characters. Opinionated, unloved and fearless, Truffaut suffered many humiliations. Imprisoned by the military for desertion, he was labelled with “character instability”. Obsessive love affairs, frequenting prostitutes, constant rejections and suicide attempts laced his path before Bazin got him out of prison and opened the door for him to the office of the Cahier du Cinéma.

The experiences of these denunciations made him look at cinema differently. The acts of condemnation he saw on screen had nothing to do with the way he experienced it. It all seemed false and unrelated. Instead, Truffaut dismantles the complexity of everyday misconceptions and circumstances that form a person’s life and influence their actions. To him, things aren’t quite as visible and straightforward in real life, so why pretend there is a big red stop sign when there is none? The auteur theory fully justified his artistry.

Truffaut died aged 52 due to a brain tumour, five films short of completing his goal to make 30 films.

Day for Night (La Nuit américaine) directed by François Truffaut, 1973

The 400 blows by François Truffaut, 1959

In Truffaut’s 1959 debut, we follow young, unloved schoolboy Antoine Doinel and witness him experience everyday cruelty at school, at home, on the streets, and wherever the adult world pushes him. Although he lives with his parents, the boy’s constant absence is met with indifference. Generally, he is perceived as a troublemaker, even if he is passionately and innocently engaged in his hobbies of film and literature. Truffaut has said that he would never feel as deeply about a film again: it’s a cathartic observation into his own childhood in Paris.

Jean-Pierre Léaud delivers a spectacular performance as the young Doinel, but it is the puzzling freeze-frame that marks one of the most striking moments in the history of cinema. Doinel is roaming the beach, a place he has never been before. He then starts walking towards us while looking straight into the camera. Suddenly the image freezes. Truffaut stops him mid-movement. Not only does Doinel almost break the third wall, Truffaut goes a step further: he zooms right into his face. This had never been done in such a dramatic manner, and it is still unusual even today. Inspired by Guitry’s Le Roman d’un Tricheur, Doinel is forced to protect himself from the morals of others. It is precisely that attitude that keeps him on the run and leads him to the beach. Truffaut’s famous freeze-frame is an ambush that forces us to think about him and, inadvertently, about ourselves.

The film became a box office success and is considered one of the most defining coming-of-age films ever made.

The 400 blows by Francois Truffaut 1959

Jules and Jim directed by François Truffaut, 1962

Set before WWI in Paris, Austrian writer Jules befriends the eccentric Frenchman Jim,  sharing hobbies such as literature, poetry, sport and travel. They meet Catherine and the duo becomes a trio when Catherine marries Jules.

During the war, the men are temporarily separated until they meet again in Austria where Jules lives with his family. Catherine and Jim start an affair and the household soon becomes a ménage-a-trois. However, the friendship between the men ranks above all else and Catherine feels a constant unrest and boredom in her life that all her escapades cannot help her escape.

Jules and Jim was an instant hit and remains an indisputable 60s milestone. The whirlwind relationships between our protagonists are reflected in the film’s themes and their visual representations, all conforming to Nouvelle Vague aesthetics. We’re watching a cultural collage of spliced newsreel footage, handheld cameras, shots on location and an off voice narrator who provides insights into people’s feelings in documentary style.

Picasso paintings adorn the settings, interrupted by a trip to an unknown Adriatic Island exhibiting marble sculptures the men can’t help but admire. A fire ritual in which Catherine is casually “burning lies” is followed by a meditative game of domino, a visit to the theatre and a philosophical discourse citing Baudelaire along the Seine at 3am. And this is only the beginning, as the times change, so do the books, clothes and values.

Jules and Jim is as much a celebration of the French Joie de Vivre as it is a tragedy. Whatever it is that is feeding the souls of these three, is also destroying them. Completely driven by desire, passion and moral weakness, the three wander through life in the hope of finding… well, what is it they are looking for? Money or social status are of no interest to them. Jules and Jim are as self-centred as they are eloquently whimsical, guided by any distractions that present themselves and most importantly, guided by Catherine. This overbearing, overdramatic queen-like figure became an emblem of 60s feminism: a liberated woman who does whatever she pleases. But it is exactly that freedom that contributes to her frustration – once she doesn’t get what she wants, there’s only one way out.

Jules et Jim directed by Francois Truffaut, 1962

La Peau Douce (The Soft Skin) directed by François Truffaut, 1964

Pierre Lachenay is an accomplished writer who lives with his family in Paris. On his way to a conference in Lisbon, he meets young air hostess Nicole. They spend a passionate night together and their affair begins. We follow the two as they try to escape Pierre’s Parisian everyday life. When the situation takes a toll on his nerves, things take a turn.

Despite not doing well at the box office, La Peau Douce was much acclaimed by critics. The film depicts a story that thrives on an accumulation of details, unfolding the story in intricate reveals. After Pierre almost misses his flight by a second, his interest is initially sparked by the look of Nicole’s kitten heels. The next day, she passes him a little matchbox that contains her phone number. As charming as the puzzle pieces are at first, as silly and insignificant it all turns out to be in the end.

La Peau Douce (The Soft Skin) directed by Francois Truffaut, 1964

Celebrate François Truffaut’s work via BFI’s upcoming retrospective on the auteur, running from January to February.

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