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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