Francois Truffaut

by John Boland

Ever since I was a teenager and saw Les Quatre Cents Coups in the Fine Arts Cinema Club that used to exist in the basement of Busaras, Francois Truffaut has been one of my heroes. It was in that movie – made 50 years ago this summer, though showing no signs of ageing – that I first encountered and fell in love with Paris: not the romantic Paris of the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, but a city unfamiliar both to me and to most other foreigners.

Yes, the Eiffel Tower features prominently in the haunting credits sequence, but it’s an unreachable Eiffel Tower glimpsed rather than seen by the camera that glides though the back streets of the French metropolis – a camera that’s on its way to tell a story that has little romance to it and nothing to interest touristic sightseers.

The story concerns Antoine Doinel, a boy living in a shabby apartment with his unfaithful and unloving parents, and it tells of how, through personal, educational and social neglect, he drifts gradually into a life of petty crime, for which he’s sent to a rural borstal. At the end he escapes and finds himself running towards the sea, at whose shore he turns in the last shot to stare, in confusion and anger, at the viewer.

That sounds depressing, and in one sense it is, but the young Truffaut (he was 27 at the time) brings to his first feature film an unforced lyricism and a love of the camera’s possibilities that are wholly enchanting. It’s a less subversive film than that released by his colleague, Jean-Luc Godard, in the same year, but if it’s lacks A Bout de Souffle’s sense of anarchy, it provides a real depth of feeling instead.

That’s partly because Les Quatre Cents Coups (The Four Hundred Blows to English-speaking audiences) is rooted in autobiography – Truffaut himself fell foul of the law as a teenager – but it’s also because his art is based on the kind of humane sympathy that’s more evident in the films of his great mentor Jean Renoir than in the provocatively mould-breaking Godard.

Godard’s early films may dazzle, and the best of them still seem strikingly modern and innovative, but affection and exhilaration are what you feel when you watch an early Truffaut film.

Truffaut died in 1984 at the tragically early age of 52, having made quite a few inferior and somewhat listless movies in the ’70s and early ’80s, but it’s to his early films that those of us who love him constantly return – especially Les Quatre Cents Coups, Shoot the Pianist and Jules et Jim, starring the incomparable Jeanne Moreau.

No one has captured the essence of these films better than the critic and former Sight and Sound editor Penelope Houston, who as early as 1963 wrote of their very special quality. Truffaut, she said, “has the gift of making film-making look wonderfully easy, like a man running down a long sunlit road with a camera in his hand.” And, she added, “along with this enchantment goes a nostalgia for innocence: he seems always to be glancing back over his shoulder, trying to catch unawares that wonderful moment, if it ever existed, when life seemed all gaiety and ease.”

Indeed, I often felt that he would have been the ideal director to make a movie of that great Alain-Fournier novel Le Grand Meaulnes, which is all about a lost domain sought by its boyishly romantic hero.

Truffaut himself always seemed romantically boyish, too, both onscreen and off. I met him just once, at the Cork Film Festival in the 1970s, and though his poor English and my lamentable French prevented us from having any kind of meaningful conversation, there was a givingness about him and an infectious enthusiasm and earnestness that were wholly beguiling. And you can feel it, too, in his performance as the humane scientist in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It was for all these reasons that, a couple of years back, I finally made a pilgrimage through a Parisian downpour, to his grave in the cemetery at Montmartre. I finally located his burial place with its plain marble headstone, which simply stated his name and his dates of birth and death. It was as unpretentious and unassuming as the man himself. It could, I suppose, have added “Filmmaker” for the benefit of those unaware of the fact, whoever they might be.

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