Friday, 9 November 2012

Francois Truffaut: Autobiography and Alter Ego

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
A cinephile from a young age, François Truffaut first made his cinematic mark as an outspoken critic for Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, opposing the French film industry’s established form and techniques and urging for the director to be regarded as the ‘auteur’, or author, of the film. Truffaut then became an auteur himself, beginning  with The 400 Blows, which won him the best director award at Cannes and introduced the French new-wave to an international audience. The 400 Blows remains one of Truffaut’s most popular and seminal works. It was followed by two key films of the French new wave, Shoot the Piano Player – adapted from the David Goodis’ thriller Down There – and Jules and Jim – the story of a love triangle set in pre-war Paris. Truffaut also continued to follow the exploits of The 400 Blows main character Antoine Doinel — played by Jean-Pierre Léaud — through the 1970s (Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run), while directing such classics as Day for Night and The Last Metro, which displayed his passion for art and life. Shortly before his untimely death in 1983 Truffaut was interviewed by Bert Cardullo. The discussion mainly centered around the making of The 400 Blows. In this extract Truffaut talks about his early career and how his filmmaking process was influenced by his work as a film critic and his lifelong obsession with watching movies. 

We know you were a film critic before you became a director. What film was your first article about?

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times [1936], an old print of which I saw in a film club. It was seized afterwards by the police because it was a stolen copy! Then I started writing for Cahiers du cinéma, thanks to André Bazin. I did an incendiary piece in Cahiers against French films as typified by the screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, the fossils of French cinema. That article got me a job at the weekly Arts and Entertainments, where I wrote the film column for four years.

I think being a critic helped me because it’s not enough to love films or see lots of films. Having to write about films helps you to understand them better. It forces you to exercise your intellect. When you summarize a script in ten sentences, you see both its strengths and its weaknesses. Criticism is a good exercise, but you shouldn’t do it for too long. In retrospect, my reviews seem more negative than not, as I found it more stimulating to damn rather than praise; I was better at attacking than defending. And I regret that. I’m much less dogmatic now, and I prefer critical nuance.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
You were a film critic for four years, but all the while you were looking for an opportunity to make a film, right?

Oh yes, absolutely. I started making little movies in 16mm that weren’t worth showing. They had all the same flaws as most amateur films: they were extremely pretentious; and they didn’t even have a storyline, which is the height of conceit for an amateur. I probably learned something from this work, like how to suggest rather than show. But in the first of these shorts, there was nothing but doors opening and closing – what a waste!

My first real film, in 1957, was Les Mistons – ‘The Mischief Makers’ in English. It had the advantage of telling a story, which was not common practice for short films in those days! It also gave me the opportunity to start working with actors. But Les Mistons also had commentary interspersed with its dialogue, so that made making it much simpler…

Is it awkward for a writer-director to have been a critic first? When you start a scene, does the critic in you tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘I don’t think so!’

It is indeed rather awkward, because not only was I a critic, I have also seen nearly three thousand films. So I always tend to think, ‘But that was done in such-and-such a film,’ ‘Compared to X’s movie, this is no good,’ etc. Plus, however necessary they may be, I’m very skeptical of storylines. So much so that I turn a script’s narrative over in my head endlessly, to the point that often, at the last minute, I want to cancel the filming of it.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
How, then, do you ever manage to complete a film?

Because the advantage of cinema over novels, for instance, is that you can’t just drop it. The machine’s in gear, contracts are signed. And besides, I like actors a lot, at least some of them –those I choose! There are promises to be kept, there is motivation to keep your word. But once you’ve begun, that type of problem falls away, that doubt of a general nature. Then there are just the daily problems of moviemaking, which are strictly technical and can be solved amid all the noise and laughter – it’s really quite exhilarating. When the filming is over, though, the doubts come back.

What was the provenance of ‘The 400 Blows’?

When I was shooting Les Mistons, The 400 Blows already existed in my mind in the form of a short film, which was titled ‘Antoine Runs Away.’

What caused you to lengthen Antoine’s story and make ‘The 400 Blows’ longer?

It was because I was disappointed by Les Mistons, or at least by its brevity. You see, I had come to reject the sort of film made up of several skits or sketches. So I preferred to leave Les Mistons as a short and to take my chances with a full-length film by spinning out the story of ‘Antoine Runs Away.’ ‘Antoine Runs Away’ was a twenty-minute sketch about a boy who plays hooky and, having no note to hand in as an excuse, makes up the story that his mother has died. His lie having been discovered, he does not dare go home and spends the night outdoors. I decided to develop this story with the help of Marcel Moussy, at the time a television writer whose shows dealt with family or social problems. Moussy and I added to the beginning and the end of Antoine’s story until it became a kind of chronicle of a boy’s thirteenth year – of the awkward early teenaged years.

In fact, The 400 Blows became a rather pessimistic film. I can’t really say what the theme is – there is none, perhaps – but one central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about ‘the good old days,’ the salad days of youth. Because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories...

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
Does the screenplay of ‘The 400 Blows’ constitute in some ways your autobiography?

Yes, but only partially. All I can say is that nothing in it is invented. What didn’t happen to me personally happened to people I know, to boys my age and even to people that I had read about in the papers. Nothing in The 400 Blows is pure fiction, then, but neither is the film a wholly autobiographical work.

Let me put my question another way: it has often been said that Antoine Doinel was you, a sort of projection of yourself. Could you define that projection, that character?

There is indeed something anachronistic or composite-like about Antoine Doinel, but it’s difficult for me to define. I don’t really know who he is, except that he is a kind of mixture of Jean-Pierre Léaud and myself. He is a solitary type, a kind of loner who can make you laugh or smile about his misfortunes, and that allows me, through him, to touch on sad matters – but always with a light hand, without melodrama or sentimentality, because Doinel has a kind of courage about him. Yet he is the opposite of an exceptional or extraordinary character; what does differentiate him from average people, however, is that he never settles down into average situations. Doinel is only at ease in extreme situations: of profound disappointment and misery on the one hand, and total exhilaration and enthusiasm on the other. He also preserves a great deal of the childlike in his character, which means that you forget his real age. If he is twenty-eight, as Léaud was in 1972, you look at Doinel as if he were eighteen: a naïf, as it were, but a well-meaning one for all that.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
A related question: Is it because Montmartre holds personal childhood memories for you that you came back to it in at least two of your Antoine Doinel films – the first two, as a matter of fact – ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Love at Twenty’ (1962)?

Yes, most likely. It’s easier to orient myself when I shoot on familiar streets. Also, when you’re writing, you tend to think of people and places you know. So you wind up coming back to these familiar places and people for my method of writing, I started making ‘script sheets’ when I began work on The 400 Blows. School: various gags at school. Home: some gags at home. Street: a few gags in the street. I think everyone works in this way, at least on some films. You certainly do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, in my case, was often based on memories. I realized that you can really exercise your memory where the past is concerned. I had found a class photo, for example, one in the classic pose with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could remember the names of only two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning over a period of several days, I remembered all my classmates’ names, their parents’ jobs, and where everybody lived.

It was around this time that I met Moussy and asked him if he’d like to work with me on the script of The 400 Blows. Since I myself had played hooky quite a bit, all of Antoine’s problems with fake notes, forged signatures, bad report cards – all of these I knew by heart, of course. The movies to which we truants went started at around ten in the morning; there were several theaters in Paris that opened at such an early hour. And their clientele was made up almost exclusively of schoolchildren!

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
As a former critic, if you had had to talk about ‘The 400 Blows’, would you have spoken about it in the glowing terms used by most critics?

No, I don’t think so. I honestly think I’d have liked it, because I like the ideas in the picture – they’re good ideas – but I wouldn’t have gone so far in praising The 400 Blows as the critics did. I couldn’t have called it a masterpiece or a great work of art, because I can see too clearly what’s experimental or clumsy about it.

Could you say something about the relationship, in your career, of ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ to ‘The 400 Blows’?

Shoot the Piano Player, my second feature film, was made in reaction to The 400 Blows, which was so French. I felt that I needed to show that I had also been influenced by the American cinema. Also, after the exaggerated reception and publicity for The 400 Blows its disproportionate success – became quite agitated. So I touched on the notions of celebrity and obscurity in Shoot the Piano Player – reversed them, in fact, since here it is a famous person who becomes unknown. There are glimpses in this film, then, of the feeling that troubled me at the time.

Shoot the Piano Player (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
I had made The 400 Blows, in a state of anxiety, because I was afraid that the film would never be released and that, if it did come out, people would say, ‘After having insulted everyone as a critic, Truffaut should have stayed home!’ Shoot the Piano Player, by contrast, was made in a state of euphoria, thanks to the success of The 400 Blows. I took great pleasure in filming it, far more than in The 400 Blows, where I was concerned about Jean-Pierre Léaud. I was wondering whether he would show up each day, or, if he did, whether he had had a fight the night before and would appear on the set with marks all over his face. With children, we directors worry more, because they do not have the same self-interest or self-regard as adults.

Léaud’s work gave birth not only to ‘The 400 Blows’, but to the whole Antoine Doinel saga, which I think is unique in the history of cinema: starting in 1959, to follow a character for twenty years, watching him grow older over the course of five films. Let’s talk now about the other films in the cycle: ‘Love at Twenty’, ‘Stolen Kisses’ [1968], ‘Bed and Board’ [1970], and ‘Love on the Run’ [1979]. At the end of ‘The 400 Blows’, we left Jean-Pierre Léaud on the beach. He had just escaped from a reform school, where he had been up to some mischief and had suffered various misfortunes.

When I brought him back, in Love at Twenty – which was really just a sketch, called ‘Antoine and Colette,’ as part of an anthology film – he was eighteen and perhaps living on his own. In any case, you no longer see his family in this film. Antoine is starting his professional life, working in a record company, and we see his first love affairs a few months before he must go into the army. Stolen Kisses is simply the continuation of the adventures of Antoine Doinel. It is the same character: like me but not me; like Jean-Pierre Léaud but not Léaud.

Stolen Kisses (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
I must say that I like to start with more solid material than this. I like having two or three reasons to make a movie: say, the coming together of a book I want to adapt or an atmosphere I want to depict with an actor that I want to film. In Stolen Kisses, I admit, I just wanted to work with Jean-Pierre Léaud again; I more or less set a specific date by which I wanted to begin making a film with him. And with my screenwriters Claude de Givray and Bernanrd Revon, I sat down and said, ‘What are we going to do with Léaud?’ For his professional life, we adopted a perfectly simple solution. Leafing through a phone book, we found an ad for private detectives. We thought, ‘Here’s a job you don’t see in French films, usually only in American movies about a famous detective named Marlowe.’ But it should prove funny in France. For Doinel’s romantic life, I suggested putting him opposite a girl his own age, even younger. We’d even suppose that he wrote her when he was in the army and therefore already knows her. We would then have him live what I think is every young man’s fantasy: an affair with a married woman. I thought right away of Delphine Seyrig for the part of the married woman, because I didn’t want this affair to be sordid but instead a bit dreamlike or idealized.

In ‘Bed and Board’ you were examining the problems of romantic relationships. How did you approach them?

Not really as problems. More as a chronicle, with some happy scenes and some serious or dramatic scenes.

Bed and Board  (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
‘Shoot the Piano Player’ has similar changes of tone.

It does. They were planned in that film, since they were also in the American David Goodis’s source novel – but the changes of tone were reinforced during the shooting because I realized I was faced with a film without a theme. The same thing happened spontaneously in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, themselves movies without clear subjects: some days during the shooting I stressed the comical side, other days the dramatic side. Compared to what I did in Stolen Kisses, though, in Bed and Board I tried to be much funnier when something was funny, and much more dramatic when something was dramatic. It’s the same mixture in both films, but in Bed and Board I just tried, so to speak, to increase the dosage. And I did this in part by showing Antoine Doinel as a married man.

It was around ten years later that I made Love on the Run, which included flashback sequences from the earlier Doinel films and had the feeling of a conclusion for me. When the characters in Love on the Run talk about a memory, I was able to show that memory, while still telling a story happening in the present and with new characters. There is a summing up in this film, since I had already decided that, once it was finished, I would no longer use the character of Antoine Doinel.

Bed and Board  (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
So, in the end, you were happy with this film?

To tell the truth, I wasn’t happy with Love on the Run. This picture was, and still is, troubling for me. People may well enjoy it, but I’m not happy with it. It didn’t seem like a real film to me. For one thing, the experimental elements in it are too pronounced. A movie often has an experimental feel in the beginning, but by the end you hope it feels like a real object, a real film, so that you forget it’s an experiment.

But in defense of your own movie, it’s a kind of diary on film. You watch a character through his evolution.

Yes, but did he really evolve? I felt that the cycle as a whole wasn’t successful in making him evolve. The character started out somewhat autobiographical, but over time it drew further and further away from me. I never wanted to give him ambition, for example. I wonder if he’s not too frozen in the end, like a cartoon character. You know, Mickey Mouse can’t grow old. Perhaps the Doinel cycle is the story of a failure, even if each film on its own is enjoyable and a lot of fun to watch.

That said, Antoine Doinel’s life is just a life – not an exhilarating or prodigious one, but the life of a person with his own contradictions and faults. When I have a man like this as the main character on screen, I focus on his weaknesses. I also did this outside the Doinel cycle: Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player, Jean Desailly in The Soft Skin, and Charles Denner in The Man Who Loved Women are not heroes, either. American cinema is great at depicting ‘heroes,’ but the vocation of European cinema may be to express the truth about people, which means to show their weaknesses, their contradictions, and even their lies...

Love on the Run (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
In 1957 you wrote the following: ‘The films of the future will be more personal than autobiography, like a confession or diary. Young filmmakers will speak in the first person in order to tell what happened to them: their first love, a political awakening, a trip, an illness, and so on. Tomorrow’s film will be an act of love.’ If someone wanted to make movies today, would you tell that person, ‘Tell us about your life. There’s nothing more important or more interesting.’ Or would you say, ‘The industry is tougher now. Conform to it and don’t listen to what I said.’

Very tactfully put... My prediction was fulfilled beyond my wildest dreams – you know that. So I wouldn’t say the opposite today. But I would say, ‘Talk about what interests you, but make sure it interests others, too.’

– From ‘Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran,’ edited by Gary Morris (London: Anthem Press).


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