Francois Truffaut, the French Auteur, was unique among directors. He celebrated the spirit of children. He did not consider childhood to be an ideal state; rather he saw it fully. Perhaps the best way to capture his view is to consider the world as either uncorrupted or corrupted. For Truffaut, childhood was an uncorrupted state, a state where the real person uncluttered by agendas resides. The child is good but also mischievous. The child is not idealized or perfect, but rather authentic, a true self. Truffaut in his best works explored this state of children as well as adults. When Truffaut's director's idea was realized, we see a playfulness in his films that is special among directors. Only the Italian film-maker, Fellini has been to employ this playfulness in creative ways similar to Truffaut.
Truffaut, like Hitchcock, became a character in his films, although he took it a step further. Truffaut played the director in "Day For Night" (1972) and the doctor in "The Wild Child" (1970). Steven Spielberg, who often chooses the child's point of view in his more personal work, cast Truffaut in his inner-space/outer-space epic, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). In this sense, Truffaut became both a director and a star identified for a particular approach to his work. That approach, simply put, was his celebration of and empathy for the child.
Body of Work
Truffaut's work can be grouped into three categories: (1) films about children and the child in the adult, (2) homages, and (3) woman's films. In the category of homages, I would include (of what I have seen) "Shoot The Piano Player" (1961), "Fahrenheit 451" (1966), "The Last Metro" (1980). Among the woman's films, "Jules et Jim" (1961), "The Story of Adele H" (1975), "The Woman Next Door" (1981). Children's films include the -- "400 Blows" (1959), "Stolen Kisses" (1968), "Love On The Run" (1979), "The Wild Child" (1968). Each category seems to have its own stylistic approach, with the child films being the most playful and unfettered in their stylistic choices.
ChildrenAlthough Truffaut focuses on the celebration of the child, he does not present the child as being the victim of an adult but rather as a state of life where the spirit within is irrepressible. That spirit may take on certain nobility, such as in "The Wild Child." More often, however, the child is more of a rascal than a symbol of nobility. Although the child is dependent on adults as parents or teachers, there is independence to Truffaut's child, a center all his or her own. In this sense, Truffaut is far from Lynn Ramsay's child in "The Ratcatcher" (2000). These children are victims of the adult world, whereas Truffaut's child is never a victim. The consequence is that we can admire the child in his films, but we are not necessarily invited to be sympathetic to the child.
We watch this children occupy their own worlds, not caring if they are transgressing adult rules of conduct. As Truffaut's children grow into adults, their view of the world does not change. His characters remain occupants of their own worlds -- functional and dysfunctional. This view is carried forward by Antoine in "Stolen Kisses" and "Love On The Run." It is also the prevailing view of the males in "Day For Night."
Women in all of these films present differently. Christine in "Stolen Kisses" and "Love On The Run" and Sabine and Colette in "Love on the Run" are all far more knowing and more honest than Antoine and Xavier. The men are grown-up boys, guarded, secretive, and disingenuous about the issue of commitment. The women seek stable relationships, and the men elude stable relationships.
MenThe Men seem equally unsettled in their work life. Antoine, having published a novel, works in a print shop. Xavier owns a bookstore. The actors and the director in "Day For Night" also have chosen a creative field, but both Alphonse and the director have fears and anxieties that threaten to undermine their commitment to their work.
In terms of the text interpretation, it it critical that the view of men and women underscore a particular perception of each. Truffaut's focus on the progress of relationships, or lack of, high-lights the respective roles within a relationship. The view that men are really self-absorbed and rather deceptive boys is consistent throughout most of his films. In terms of these boy-men, their spirited resistance to embracing adult responsibility is part of their charm.
In dramatizing the two worlds -- the child's world and the adult's world -- Truffaut put a positive spin on the child's world and a less appealing spin on the adult world. In "Stolen Kisses," Antoine's youthful view of the world is illustrated by his playfulness with regard to his feeling for Christine. Whenever they go to the wine cellar in her parent's home, he steals a kiss. When he practices for his new profession of detective, he is again playful as he follows a woman down the street.
Adult life, however, is filled with unfaithful people: Antoine bumps into Christine's father when he visits a brothel; Antoine's client's wife is more interested in the love-sick Antoine than she is in her own husband. But, the characteristics of adult life do not end with betrayal. For example, Antoine's client came to the detective agency to find out why people do not like him. And, of course, there is death. The detective who first encouraged Antoine to come into the business drops dead as he is interviewing a lead in his case.
The split is slightly different in "Day For Night." Her, the film-making is viewed as playful, and the behavior of all the adults involved is characterized as selfish and self-destructive. Film-making, the act of making a fantasy manifest, is childlike, a playful, and a reconstruction of reality, whereas real life (adult life) is fully a failing enterprise. The theme of elevating the child and debunking adult coping with adult's life is an utterly romantic one that recurs throughout Truffaut's work. Although Truffaut occasionally explored the dark side of this romantic sensibility, such as in "The Story of Adele H," for the most part he embraced romance and its relationship to the child in all of us.
Truffaut, as a "New Wave" film-maker, had a vested interest in being innovative as a director and differing from the leaders of the French film-industry at the time who were considered stuffy and old-fashioned. Truffaut proved to be less eccentric than Louis Malle, and not cerebral as Jean-Luc Goddard, nor was he as genre centric as Claude Chabrol. Instead he found his own way.
Characteristic of his visual work was the use of the jump cut rather than conventional pace devices in the editing of his films. Truffaut used jump cuts throughout the discovery of the unfaithful wife scene in "Stolen Kisses." Rather than cutting continually to close-ups of Antoine's reaction to being duped by the private detective, the scene relies instead on jump cuts to put us in the position of Antoine. The jump cuts create confusion and surprise, mimicking how Antoine felt at that moment, and it creates the feeling without resorting to the obvious, which would result from using the editing convention of close-up.
Truffaut also used a moving camera freely but to different effect. When Antoine practices detective work on a Paris street in "Stolen Kisses," we have the classic subjective movement throughout the scene. Here, Antoine following a person and the inherent suspense are treated ironically, as the woman realizes she has been allowed and alerts a policeman.
The more objective camera movement following the adolescent Antoine down to the sea in "400 Blows" is quite lyrical because of the length of the shots. Here, the moving shots flow one into the other to create a lengthy sequence. Before running away from the soccer match there was a scene with Antoine's mother on a visitor's day, but the message in that scene was accusatory and harsh. Antoine will be sent to a stricter reformatory, and his stepfather has totally rejected him, as has the mother apparently. It is a sense of profound abandonment. This lyrical moving shots of Antoine running to the sea beautifully illustrate his act of bravado, of rebellion against authority, and lyricism offsets the pain we associate with the previous scene. Antoine seems to be reclaiming the energy of being free.
In the opening scene of "400 Blows," the moving camera is once again used differently. Here, the camera is restless' first it is moving, trying to find out what is happening in the classroom. The restless camera follows the pinup from student to student until it lands on Antoine's desk. At that point he is challenged by the teacher and punished. The camera continues to move about the classroom and later moves outside recess. Quite what the camera is looking for we do not know, but it continues to move in the classroom as Antoine is ordered to clean the board of the message he scribbled during recess. Rather than quick cutting or using cutaways, Truffaut relied on this style of camera movement to create tension in the scene.
Whether we think of Truffaut the director celebrating film-making or celebrating the young romantic yearnings, the net effect of a visual narrative strategy such as using parallel action and cutaways becomes so much greater. Truffaut surprised us with his playful attitude toward these techniques and thrilled us with nostalgic narrative. The camera strategies connects us with his ideas in creative and surprising ways. Truffaut is playful with these powerful visual devices. This is his celebration.