King of the New Wave: BFI salutes the brilliant, groundbreaking French film-maker François Truffaut

If there is one scene that sums up the work of the French film-maker François Truffaut (the subject of a major retrospective at the BFI next month), it's a moment midway through his 1976 film, Small Change, about children growing up in a small town in France. A baby boy called Gregory is left alone in a high-rise apartment. He is playing with a pet kitten that refuses to come in from the window ledge and then gets stuck. Gregory playfully tries to rescue the kitten, loses his grip and falls downward to his certain death... but he doesn't die. "Gregory went boom!" the little youngster tells the adult onlookers as he dusts himself off on the ground dozens of floors below. His mother faints. Gregory makes no fuss. Nor does Truffaut. In his universe, no harm should ever be allowed to come to children. The film-maker was, as one friend described him, "a kind soul" and "a treasure trove of tenderness".

It's worth bearing this description in mind when you consider Truffaut's first major intervention in film culture – his 1954 Cahiers Du Cinema article, "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema". This was a ferocious polemic against what he dismissed as "Le Cinema Du Papa". The young critic tore into what he called "the tradition of quality", excoriating film-makers who specialised in tasteful literary adaptations that won prizes at festivals and were lapped up by foreign critics. The reaction to his broadsides was similar to that of the Hollywood establishment toward Ricky Gervais when the British comedian took potshots at them on Golden Globe night. Leading French screenwriters and film-makers derided and dismissed the young upstart and confidently predicted that he would sink back into oblivion. Of course, the reverse happened.

There was more to Truffaut's revolt than dismay at what he considered to be the hidebound style of movie-making epitomized by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, the most famous screenwriting team of the era, and by directors like Claude Autant-Lara and Yves Allégret. "A great many of the producers of the time had collaborated with the Germans during the war and so there were all sorts of reasons to try to eliminate their stranglehold and, incidentally, the stranglehold of the unions on French film-making," the film-maker Marcel Ophüls later observed of Truffaut's essay. Another element was generational: Truffaut was part of a younger generation of cinephiles – the so-called "Hitchcocko-Hawksians" – who much preferred Hollywood B movies to self-conscious French literary adaptations.

It was later claimed that Truffaut had seen 4000 films between 1940 and 1955. It was not hard to see why he had turned toward cinema with such passion. The film-maker (born in 1932) had had a famously unhappy childhood. Movies were his way of escape. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana's exhaustive biography of Truffaut reveals how closely the director identified with Charles Dickens and with Dickens's David Copperfield in particular. Like Copperfield, he never knew his biological father. Truffaut may not have worked in a blacking factory (as the youthful Dickens once did), but he felt a similar sense of injustice about his upbringing. His mother, Janine, didn't pay attention to him. The grandmother to whom he was so close died when he was only 10. His stepfather, Roland Truffaut, was more interested in mountaineering than his new son.

The future auteur was the quintessential latch-key child. At weekends, while his parents went off mountain climbing, he was left on his own with pre-cooked meals. As his stepfather quickly surmised, the young Truffaut preferred "scooters and the movies" to the great outdoors. Three novels a week and three movies was the cultural diet he adhered to with the utmost strictness throughout his adolescence. Balzac and Dumas were particular favourites. He and his friend Robert Lachenay started their own film society when they were still teenagers and used fraud to try to make it profitable. They claimed that Jean Cocteau was coming to one of their screenings. A big audience turned up and paid to see him, but he never showed.

De Baecque and Toubiana offer an awful description of Roland Truffaut shopping his wayward stepson to the police. The young Truffaut was a petty thief who had accumulated huge debts. Roland tried to pay these off, even as he abandoned him to imprisonment. In a misguided attempt to go straight, Truffaut enlisted in the army, but then went Awol rather than risk being posted to Indochina. This resulted in imprisonment. By his early 20s, he had contracted syphilis several times and had befriended the underground writer Jean Genet, whose The Thief's Journal he regarded as a manifesto for his own life.

Truffaut made his reputation as a film-maker with The 400 Blows (1959), a film about a famously unhappy adolescent, Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud.) By then, he had already developed "la politique des auteurs", a highly influential approach to film criticism but one as much rooted in his own whims as in any rigorous theoretical basis. He used auteur theory to defend film-makers he admired (from Abel Gance to Hitchcock) and to bludgeon those he did not. Truffaut's apprenticeship as a film-maker was wrapped up with his career as a journalist and critic. He befriended directors he admired (notably Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini); interviewed them at length; followed them around and tried to work with them. As far as financing his first feature, it helped that he had married Madeleine Morgenstern, daughter of one of the most powerful distributors in Paris.

It's instructive to compare the Doinel of The 400 Blows with the character who reappeared (again played by Leaud) in later films like Stolen Kisses and Love on the Run. The teenage character first seen on screen was a little warrior: hostile, fierce and introspective. As a young adult, Truffaut's cinematic alter ego was very different: a whimsical and romantic man about town.

It was clear that Truffaut identified strongly with Lucien De Rubempré, the ambitious protagonist of Balzac's great novel Lost Illusions, who had affairs and made his name as a journalist in Paris but betrayed those closest to him and sacrificed his ideals in the process. It was also apparent – and very ironic given his attacks on literary adaptations in "A Certain Tendency..." – that he loved literature as much as he did movies. In the late 1960s, when his friend and colleague Jean-Luc Godard embraced Maoism and began to make self-reflexive, Brechtian movies, Truffaut continued to turn out well-crafted features with often surprisingly conventional narratives. Jules et Jim (1962), arguably his most celebrated movie, was based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, a by then elderly writer and artist he had befriended.

A new documentary, Two in the Wave, directed by Emmanuel Laurent and scripted by De Baecque, tells the story of the friendship and rivalry between Truffaut and Godard – the key figures in the French nouvelle vague. They first met in the late 1940s and – at least until the rupture of 1968 – their careers progressed in tandem. "When Truffaut made Jules and Jim, Godard replied with A Woman Is a Woman, also a ménage à trois story," Laurent recalls. "Or, when Truffaut made The Soft Skin, Godard did A Married Woman. It was always the same topic, the same subject. They kept talking to one another through their films, relating to one another."

The two directors even used the same actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud. "Godard wanted to have a substitute of Truffaut in his films. We may say that Truffaut gave birth to this actor as a boy, but Godard turned him into an adult. He (Léaud) rose to political consciousness."

Another trait the film-makers shared was their womanising. The comical beginning of Truffaut's 1977 feature The Man Who Loved Women, when female mourner after female mourner turns up at the funeral of the main character, was the director's in-joke about his own romantic adventures and misadventures. The list of women linked with him was almost as long and included such figures as Catherine Deneuve, Leslie Caron and Fanny Ardant.

The friendship between Truffaut and Godard imploded in the wake of Day for Night (1973), Truffaut's Oscar-winning film about an obsessive filmmaker. Godard thought Truffaut a sell-out. Truffaut thought Godard an impostor and a "piece of shit on a pedestal". There was to be no rapprochement before Truffaut's untimely death, aged only 52, in 1984.

Truffaut was a wildly contradictory character. Given that so much of his work was rooted in his own life, it was little surprise that his movies were contradictory too. As a critic in the 50s, he was the "young thug" of film journalism – or, at least, that was how he was viewed by the older directors he assailed. He was at the head of the New Wave. He was ambitious to the point of ruthlessness. At the same time, a tenderness and yearning ran through his work, too. The unhappy child and delinquent teenager never lost that sense of compassion or that instinct always to root for the outsider.

The Truffaut season runs at BFI Southbank from 1 February to 12 March. 'Two in the Wave' is released on 11 February

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own