François Truffaut, 1932-1984: Wild Child, Movie Master

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Ten years ago, François Truffaut stood in the wings of Avery Fisher Hall at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, chatting with an admirer while waiting to go onstage to speak at a tribute for Alfred Hitchcock. On cue the lights went down and scenes from Hitchcock films flared onscreen. Stopping himself in, midsentence, Truffaut exclaimed, “Oh! La projection!” and turned, eyes bright, to a peephole that gave access to the magic images. The old lure was irresistible for this French movie master who was, first and forever, a child of the American cinema.

America, in all its promise and excess, has long intoxicated the French. Truffaut’s achievement was to reconcile, with a uniquely canny buoyancy, the polar tugs of these two cultures. Six of the 21 features he directed were based on works by American writers, from Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black) to Henry James (The Green Room), yet they were unmistakably French in atmosphere and obsessions. In Truffaut’s pantheon of directors, Hitchcock rubbed shoulders with Jean Renoir, and his own films sizzled with the tension between Hitchcock’s manipulative elegance and Renoir’s sharp-eyed humanism. The French title of Day for Night, the 1973 valentine to film making in which Truffaut plays a director, is La Nuit Américaine. So it seems sadly fitting that when he died of cancer last week, he was a patient at the American Hospital of Paris.

The calendar says he was 52 at his death; but the enthusiasm he brought to his life and his work indicates that Truffaut remained in part a perpetual enfant adorable. That life began in rebelliousness. The son of a Paris architect, young François spent time in reform school (an ordeal he memorialized in his first feature, The 400 Blows) and was kicked out of the French army (an incident that begins Stolen Kisses). Luckily for Truffaut, the great film critic André Bazin saw in the layabout a ferocious intelligence begging to be channeled. By his early 20s, Truffaut the critic was trumpeting the cause of auteurs, directors whose point of view and command of visual style entitled them to the respect given novelists and painters. In 1958, at 26, he directed The 400 Blows, brought the new wave of film makers to its crest and became a budding auteur. With fellow New Wavers Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, Truffaut yanked film into the modernist age. No longer would the screen serve merely as a window through which the spectator sees “real people.” Now it could show anything, in any and all fashions. Time could be stretched or collapsed, as in Jules et Jim; the narrative could be interrupted for capricious movie references, as in Shoot the Piano Player; the film could jettison the neat happy ending for a character frozen in indecision, as in The 400 Blows. With these first three features, Truffaut helped provide a new grammar for the international cinema vocabulary.

If Truffaut were only the sum of his formal innovations, he would soon have become a footnote to film history. Not so. There were real people in his films, people driven to emotional extremes by something more compelling than a genre convention. The Two English Girls fatally in love with the same Frenchman, the young woman who turns unrequited passion into suicidal ecstasy in The Story of Adele H., the scientist afflicted with a sort of Peter Pan satyriasis in The Man Who Loved Women—all were captured under the glass of Truffaut’s sympathetic scrutiny. Children, though, seemed closest to the heart of this gentle genius. In Small Change, a three-year-old topples out of a high window and survives, in a gift of life bestowed by Truffaut, the man who could work movie miracles. “Kids are in a state of grace,” he said in 1976. So, for 52 years, was he. The evidence is on the screen.

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