Fragments of love and death

Are women magical? Do boys ever grow up? Was Francois Truffaut a great film director? Chris Peachment considers the evidence on the eve of a month-long retrospective

"The film director's task consists of getting pretty women to do pretty things." Francois Truffaut spoke these words in 1958, hardly before his film career had begun. Yet it is as good a definition of his output as any. Truffaut's films are always about himself, whether it is openly admitted, as in the four "Antoine Doinel" films in which Jean-Pierre Leaud is Truffaut's alter ego, or in the less obviously autobiographical films. And they are all of them about love in its many different forms. And they all feature pretty women.

We always associate Truffaut with the emergence of the French New Wave of the Sixties - indeed Chabrol openly declared that "we all owe him a little for being able to start off as we did". But, other than historical coincidence, his links with the other film directors of the New Wave are tenuous.

Unlike Godard, there is no innovation in any of his films, in either a technical or a political sense. Unlike Chabrol, he was no scourge of the bourgeoisie. Unlike Rohmer, his canvas is broad, and embraces more than just his characters' thoughts. Unlike Rivette or Resnais he has no interest in bending the rules of cinematic grammar. Unlike the Catholic Bresson, his only confessed religion was Charlie Chaplin. Neither politics nor social themes interested him.

This may seem odd, since he had ridden into town as a critic who savaged what he called the "cinema de papa", the stale French cinema of the Fifties. Truffaut became known as "the gravedigger of French cinema". Many expected him to turn out a political firebrand, not least because he wrote the treatment for Godard's Breathless (A Bout de Souffle). But in fact he wanted nothing more than to return to what he saw as a golden age - that of the Thirties, and more specifically, the lyrical humanist cinema of his idol, Renoir.

Although he was extremely secretive about his private life, the facts of his childhood are well enough known. He was born in 1932 to a mother who worked as a secretary and had no interest in him. He was farmed out to a wet nurse and raised until eight years old by his grandmother. His parents did finally get back together and take him back, but they had little time for him. It doesn't take a Freudian analyst to see why so many of his films are "adolescent" in tone, though always charmingly so. Most of the men in his films are "boys", even down to the jobs they do, such as Charles Denner working with model boats in The Man Who Loved Women. It was this boyishness that lent such exuberance to his early films, and which Spielberg spotted when he cast Truffaut as the wide-eyed investigator of the paranormal, among the long-lost aircraft in the desert storm, for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

His lack of proper mothering would also explain his life-long quest for "woman". Women in his films are always elusive, a dark mystery and often highly disruptive. In the case of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, all three at once. Alphonse, an actor played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in Day for Night (La Nuit Americaine), asks everyone on the film set the same question: "Are women magical?" The answers are mostly inconclusive, until Jacqueline Bisset tells him: "Everyone is magical. Or not."

I was told recently by Don Allen, who wrote a very good biography of the man, that Truffaut's own compulsive womanising was partly learnt from the novelist Henri-Pierre Roche, who wrote the novel Jules et Jim in 1953, aged 74. Apparently Roche was something of an enthusiast for the sport, and kept copious notes of all his conquests. Truffaut decided to do likewise, but thanks to the stringent French laws on invasion of privacy, which persist even after death if the family so wish, they are unlikely ever to be made public. Still, his affairs with his leading ladies are well enough known. Jeanne Moreau continues to deny it, but Catherine Deneuve does not, and he even had a child with Fanny Ardant in 1983, just a year before he died.

The Man Who Loved Women, about a compulsive womaniser, is probably his most closely autobiographical film, yet it is made baffling by the repulsive hero, Charles Denner. This may be the result of Truffaut's own ruthless self-criticism, or just a case study of a modern Casanova. Still, the many women he has pursued seem to bear him no grudge, even showing an affectionate bemusement. Perhaps women are magical.

While all his films are about the many guises of love, death is never very far away. Jeanne Moreau, the free-spirited Catherine in Jules et Jim, ends that impossible love triangle by stealing Jim from Jules in an inevitable Liebestod. Jean-Paul Belmondo in La Sirene du Mississippi realises that his wife Catherine Deneuve is slowly poisoning him for the insurance money but is content to accept his fate because he loves her. The joyous hymn to the art of film making, Day for Night, is brought up short by the death of the leading actor just before the end of the shoot. The Man Who Loved Women opens on the amazing gathering of hundreds of black-clad women at the funeral of the hero. And in his least typical film, The Green Room, Truffaut himself plays an obituary writer driven by a sort of necrophilia to keep a shrine to all the dead he has ever known. The novelist and critic Gilbert Adair, who translated Truffaut's letters, has argued persuasively that it is Truffaut's finest and most original work, and one of the great films of the Seventies.

Even if it had been the only film he ever made, it would indeed be a great work. But it is so uncharacteristic of the man who always wanted to end a film with a ray of sunlight as a reward to the audience for having sat through two hours of darkness, that I would prefer to remember him for other things.

What other things? At random: the teenage Jean-Pierre Leaud in Stolen Kisses repeating his name over and over in front of the mirror: "Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel..." ... The gangster in Shoot the Pianist swearing something on his mother's life, and the cut to a shot of an old woman immediately keeling over ... A bicycle ride in the country, a song about the whirlwind of life, and a plunge into the Seine, all from Jules et Jim ... The vivid red colours of Fahrenheit 451 (incidentally shot by Nic Roeg).

What do all these really amount to? Does Truffaut finally come down to his string of great epiphanies? Certainly without counting the score I would guess that Truffaut has given me more moments of unalloyed joy in the cinema than any other director. No one else has so often had a gift of making you feel as if you just levitated two feet into the air. But more than that, he gave us a whole world. Assuredly, it was his own world - a place where men were at their best when adolescent, and women were an unknowable ideal. But it was the world of love and death and that is the only one we all of us inhabit.

An NFT season of all Truffaut's films runs throughout July, beginning Tuesday 2 July. Information: 0171-928 3232

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?