Suzanne Schiffman

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Suzanne Klochendler, screenwriter and director: born Paris 1929; married Philip Schiffman (died 2000; two sons); died Paris 6 June 2001.

The screenwriter and occasional director Suzanne Schiffman was one of the important figures of the French cinema's "nouvelle vague", that period of highly personalised creative energy that began in the late Fifties and revolutionised France's film output. She collaborated on many scripts with the director François Truffaut and also worked with Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette. In Truffaut's autobiographical hommage to film-making La Nuit américaine (Day for Night, 1973), Natalie Baye plays a character based on Schiffman, who was herself nominated for an Oscar for her contributions to the screenplay.

Born Suzanne Klochendler in Paris in 1929 and educated at the Sorbonne, she became in 1949 part of that group of cinéphiles ­ among them Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette and Truffaut ­ who would gather in film clubs and at the Cinématheque to pursue their love of cinema and formulate their ideas on new ways of telling stories on film.

After spending time in the United States and Mexico Schiffman joined her friends who, after some years as the enfants terribles of the journal Cahiers du Cinéma during which they promulgated the "auteur" theory, were now film-makers. Initially Schiffman worked as a continuity clerk and assistant on such films as Rivette's Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1958), Godard's Une Femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1960) and Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960).

Though she worked several times with all three directors, it was Truffaut with whom she formed the most prolific association, becoming not only his script collaborator and assistant director, but a trusted associate and friend. She was his personal assistant on Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and by 1968 she had become so much a part of Truffaut's life that when he wrote to a friend of his trepidation prior to starting La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississipi Mermaid), he said,

I'm in a blue funk, three days before filming, with the same old fantasies of pulling out . . . In short, once again they're

going to have to drag me screaming and kicking to work; it's la Shife who will drive me on by booting me up the backside.

She was his first assistant on L'Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970), and was co-scriptwriter on all his films from L'Argent de poche (Small Change, 1976) on, except La Chambre verte (The Green Room, 1978). After Truffaut selected a project or had an idea for the sort of film he wanted to make, he would discuss it and exchange thoughts with Schiffman, who would then be involved in all stages of the movie's development.

Films she co-wrote included L'Histoire d'Adèle H (The Story of Adele H, 1975), based on the diary kept by Victor Hugo's daughter during her passionate pursuit of an English officer, L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women, 1977), the hero of which dedicates his life to the pursuit of women, L'Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979), the fifth and last film to follow the life of the Jean-Pierre Léaud character created by Truffaut in Les Quatre cents Coups (The 400 Blows) 20 years earlier, and the international hit Le Dernier métro (The Last Metro, 1980).

Starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, Le Dernier métro told of a Parisian theatre company hiding secrets during the German occupation of the Second World War. "I wanted to satisfy three desires," said Truffaut:

To capture the essence of backstage life in the theatre, to evoke the climate that existed during the occupation, and to give Catherine Deneuve the role of a responsible woman. We established the scenario, Suzanne and me, by reading newspapers of the time and listening to the memories of people who lived through it. We wanted to show not only our aversion to all forms of racism and intolerance but also our great affection for those who choose the trade of actor and pursue it at all times.

The film's script won its writers ­ Schiffman, Truffaut and Jean-Claude Grumberg ­ the César Award as best screenplay of the year.

Although Schiffman worked closely with Truffaut until his death, she also worked with other directors, notably Rivette, whose films tended to break with tradition more than Truffaut's and thus were less popular. Schiffman co-scripted Rivette's 12-hour Out One (1971), which was never released though an abridged four-hour version, Out 1: Spectre, was briefly seen in 1974. She also co-wrote Rivette's Le Pont du Nord (1982), Merry-Go-Round (1983), L'Amour par Terre (Love on the Ground, 1984) and Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights, 1985).

After Truffaut's death in 1984 Schiffman turned to directing and had some success with Le Moine et la sorcière (Sorceress, 1987), set in the 12th century, about a young priest who goes to a small provincial town to search for heretics, announcing, "My task is to persuade the guilty to repent ­ or else be burned." She also directed Femme de papier (Front Woman, 1989) and Le Jour et la Nuit (1992).

David Kessler, Director of the National Cinematography Centre, said of Schiffman: "French cinema has lost a key figure, a real movie-lover, who had an exemplary career. Her name will for ever be associated with the New Wave."

Tom Vallance

Kika Markham introduced me to Suzanne Schiffman in 1973, writes Corin Redgrave. Kika had played Anne, the younger sister, in François Truffaut's Les Deux anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls, 1971). She and Truffaut had had an affair which ended when the shooting was over and Suzanne, who loved and understood Truffaut better than anyone, comforted Kika through the after-shocks of the affair and became a friend for life.

She was co-author of more than 30 films with Truffaut, Rivette and Godard, and yet not more than a dozen French cinema buffs in Britain would recognise her name. (That is one of the grievances which Hollywood screenwriters nearly went on strike over ­ the producers' habit of attributing all films to their directors, as though writers should be anonymous.) But no one epitomises the spirit of the nouvelle vague, its humanism, its self-mockery and self-assurance, better than Suzanne Schiffman.

Kika and I used to chide Suzanne that she would never write about her childhood as a Jewish girl in occupied Paris. Her mother had been taken by the French Gestapo to Drancy, and thence to a concentration camp. The father had formed another relationship, and Suzanne, not knowing her mother's fate until years later, fretted about what would happen if her real mother returned.

That experience, we pleaded, could be used by her just as Truffaut had accessed his boyhood in a reformatory for Les Quatre cent coups. We were wasting our breath. For Suzanne, using her own childhood as source material would have been, in a way which only she could understand, a betrayal. In much the same way she refused to write about Truffaut after his death.

She was a superb, generous teacher at Emergence, an imaginative project headed by Elisabeth Depardieu and Jack Lang to train a new generation of directors and writers. For sure that next generation will be enriched by her example. As are her sons by the painter Philip Schiffman, Guillaume and Mathieu (lighting cameraman and assistant director), who keep her name bright and alive.

Comments