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Great European Lives: François Truffaut

French director Francois Truffaut on the set of his 1969 film La Sirene du Mississipi (Mississippi Mermaid). (Photo by Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images) - Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY takes a look back at the life of French film director François Truffaut who helped found one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema – French New Wave.

In the final scene of 1959’s The 400 Blows, the film’s teenage protagonist Antoine picks up the ball to take a throw-in during a reform school football match. The game is a rare opportunity for any kind of free expression at the institution in which he has been placed at his mother’s insistence after being caught returning a typewriter he had previously stolen from his father’s workplace. Antoine takes the throw-in and, with all eyes on the ball, instead of rejoining the game turns and sprints for the wire fence. Scrambling beneath it he sets off across the fields, pursued initially by a member of the school staff whom he soon loses, and keeps running.

The camera moves alongside him with no soundtrack other than Antoine’s breathing and footsteps for a full two minutes before a tentative musical theme is introduced as the boy emerges into the estuary of a small river, runs down a flight of stairs onto a beach and keeps going towards the sea. He splashes a few steps into the waves washing gently onto the sand before veering away and turning to look directly into the camera, which zooms in on his face.

The frame freezes. The film ends.

Such ambiguous, inconclusive endings are more common in today’s cinema but when François Truffaut chose to end his first full-length feature with that close-up still of Antoine’s face this was something very new indeed. Critics have debated its significance ever since. The 400 Blows is a coming of age film, some said, so the enigmatic expression on Antoine’s face represents the exact moment he becomes an adult. Others have suggested it represents fear, loss, happiness, freedom and even death. The actor who played Antoine, Jean-Pierre Léaud, now in his 70s, maintains the meaning behind the shot is simply “a beautiful mystery”.

For the director himself, however, “the final freeze was simply an accident. I told Léaud to look into the camera. He did, but quickly turned his eyes away. Since I wanted that brief look he gave me the moment before he turned, I had no choice but to hold on to it. Hence the freeze”.

The 400 Blows was Truffaut’s most overtly autobiographical film, not just in the details of Antoine’s life that were borrowed from his own but also in its enigmatically inconclusive ending. When Truffaut died as a result of a brain tumour at the age of 52 he was still five films short of the 30 he had decided would comprise his total career output, as if the screen of his life had frozen with his audience left wanting more.

The 400 Blows was one of the first – some would argue the first – films of the French New Wave, a groundbreaking and innovative generation of filmmakers who emerged during the 1950s to kick against the received wisdom of cinema. Until the New Wave came along to shake up cinematic methodology films tended to be plot-led; since the birth of the medium filmmakers had essentially reproduced existing literary and theatrical techniques and projected them onto a screen.

The New Wave, with Truffaut its pioneer and leading light, sought to establish new, film-specific techniques with which directors could impose their own vision and style through a methodology known as le camera-stylo, ‘the camera pen’. Sets were discarded in favour of real settings, scripts became designed more for guidance than adherence and improvisation was encouraged, something aided by advances in technology such as compact and mobile cameras. Truffaut himself coined the term for this new breed of director-as-author: the auteur. When The 400 Blows scooped Truffaut the Best Director award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival it helped to establish the New Wave as an innovative and exciting genre on the world stage.

While others such as Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard pushed accepted norms beyond their limits, Truffaut pushed against existing boundaries while retaining a degree of nuanced sentimentality in his work that ensured films like Jules et Jim and Fahrenheit 451 have endured better than some of their contemporaries.

Sentimentality was in short supply during Truffaut’s early years, during which cinema provided an escape from a loveless childhood. He was born to a teenage single mother named Janine de Montferrand who subsequently married an architectural draughtsman named Roland Truffaut – not her son’s biological father – when François was 18 months old. Although Roland adopted François and gave him his name, the boy was farmed out to his maternal grandmother. He returned to the family home only after her death when he was 10 years old.

Deprived of unconditional parental love, Truffaut would be left alone in the house for days at a time. Even when the family was at home together François was made to sit in silence with instructions not to disturb his mother. When he emerged into his early teens, however, he found an escape from loneliness and rejection at home by skipping school in favour of the cinema.

Post-war Paris boasted an estimated 400 cinemas, offering the young Truffaut limitless opportunities for an entirely different kind of education gleaned from the cheap seats of picture houses. The legacy of countless hours in the dark with his face lit by the flickering images on the screen turned out to be a priceless one.

“In the movie theatre, when you see a film for the tenth time or so, a film whose dialogue and music you know by heart, you start to look at how it’s made and you learn so much more,” Truffaut recalled.

After the liberation of France in 1944 the cinemas of France were flooded with American films and it was in those fleapit houses that Truffaut fell in love with the work of US-based directors like Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. The latter in particular would be a huge influence, with Truffaut praising Hitchcock’s work as marked by an “intimate and profound comprehension of the emotions projected on the screen”.

At the age of 15 Truffaut formed his own film club, Cercle Cinemane, where he met the influential critic André Bazin who would go on to become a mentor, friend, champion and arguably the biggest – and most paternal – influence on Truffaut’s life and career. It was while trying to prop up the finances of his club that Truffaut stole a typewriter from his father’s offices and spent three months, at his father’s insistence, in a harsh reform school, an incident he later recreated in The 400 Blows.

He began writing for Bazin’s popular film magazine Cahiers du cinéma producing pugnacious reviews and columns that by the mid-1950s had helped hone his opinions into what was effectively a manifesto of the New Wave and, after a short period of incarceration after absconding from his military service, he began to practise what he was preaching.

By 1959 he had two short films under his belt that were received so well he was given his first full-length directorial role on The 400 Blows. Shoot the Piano Player and the seminal Jules et Jim followed soon afterwards, all of them the work of a fully-formed auteur despite Truffaut’s relative lack of hands-on experience.

Truffaut succeeded in the difficult task of making innovative, critically acclaimed films that also succeeded at the box office. His 1973 romantic comedy Day For Night even won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, while other notable successes included Stolen Kisses, The Wild Child, The Story of Adele H and Small Change. He also appeared occasionally in front of the camera, including as a French scientist in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The transcript of a series of 1965 interviews between Truffaut and Hitchcock on the subject of filmmaking became a bestselling book, conversations that showcased the respect that existed between two visionary directors from different generations. It was perhaps appropriate that Truffaut’s last film, 1983’s Confidentially Yours, was essentially a tribute to Hitchcock, a murder mystery filmed in black and white that proved to be Truffaut’s cinematic swansong.

Antoine meanwhile had proved to be a lifelong cinematic companion. Léard reprised the role in four films, charting the character’s life after that enigmatic freeze frame, a series that spanned more than two decades, culminating in 1979’s Love on the Run. Throughout the series Antoine kept searching for love and somewhere to belong, just like the small boy who used to park himself in a Paris cinema in time for the first screening of the day and stay put until the last, not yet realising that he had in fact found the true love of his life and the place where he genuinely belonged.

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