Surely François Truffaut is remembered as the most likable and accessible of the French New Wave directors, a filmmaker whose movies, unlike the avant-garde works of Godard and Resnais, the razor-edged societal critiques of Chabrol or even the philosophical romances of Rohmer, radiate a special charm. Odd, then, to look back now and realize that three of Truffaut’s first four films begin with romance and end with a murder – and in one instance, a murder-suicide, at that.
But charm is, almost by definition, a thin and deceiving facade, and there is a heavy strain of melancholy, if not fatalism, running through much of the director’s work. Even his early short Les Mistons (The Brats, 1957), seemingly a sunny remembrance of childhood infatuation – with its gliding camera work and the lovely, apparitional presence of Bernadette LaFont – is actually a vignette of anguished adolescent voyeurism. As the narrator, speaking for the group of boys who have decided to spy on Bernadette and her lover, puts it: "A virginal heart obeys a childish logic. Too young to love Bernadette, we decided to hate her."
Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), elaborates on Les Mistons’ idea of childhood as an outsider’s pastime (the two films will be presented together at the DFT) by focusing on 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (played by 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud). Again the film, which could be considered an enhanced autobiography, has a seductive surface, a mischievous eye appropriate to the protagonist’s age and an improvised documentary feel during its jaunts through Paris. But more radical for the time, and still effective, are the sudden shifts of mood, the way Doinel, a stranger in an adult world, will suddenly come up against a cold, hard slap – or increasingly, as the film progresses, the colder, harder reality of neglect.
Truffaut wanted to continue Doinel’s story, but shelved the idea in favor of making Shoot the Piano Player (1960), a homage to the Hollywood gangster B-movies he loved. This is a classic tragedy. Its hero, Charles Kohler (Charles Aznavour), is a once-famous concert pianist who now plays maudlin pop songs in a small dive, not because he’s financially destitute but because he’s lost the one person in the world he truly loved, and has decided to withdraw, to become a nonentity. The film shows us his gradual resurrection and reawakening only to discover fresh and more numbing horror.
The story would be almost too sad to bear if it weren’t for the fact that this is Truffaut’s most "filmic" film and his most ostentatiously experimental, full of visual jokes, odd narrative digressions and new ways to move a scene along. It’s a movie filled with the excitement of discovery, transforming the truly grim into something savory and bittersweet.
Truffaut’s next film, Jules and Jim (1962), seems to be the first of his features that has dated slightly, mainly because its central ménage à trois is no longer titillating and its sexual politics seem more quaint than bold. But Jeanne Moreau is appropriately enigmatic as the femme fatale Catherine who fatally alters the friendship of the German Jules (Oskar Werner) and the French Jim (Henry Serre); and the first half of the film, set just before and during World War I, has the same ebb and flow of rapid narration and pointed dialogue as his first two features. But the second part is more sober, more measured. It’s as though, halfway through Jules and Jim, the antic engine which propelled Truffaut’s imagination started to idle and a new reflectiveness became part of his palette.
It’s a mood which dominated his fourth feature, The Soft Skin (1964), a low-keyed story of adultery, methodically told and generally considered a failure when it first came out. At two hours it’s in serious need of trimming, but it has its share of privileged moments for the patient viewer. It’s also the work of a brilliant talent who’s gotten a lot out of his system and is settling down for a career in film.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].