Thursday, March 3, 2011

Francois Truffaut

When I was getting into movies in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Francois Truffaut was one of the preeminent names of foreign-language cinema. He wasn’t typically regarded as a heavyweight to rank with Godard or Bergman – put simply, his films were just too easy to watch. But they were stimulating and elegant, embodying the notion of a more refined “French” sensibility, and his recurring use of quasi-autobiography (through a series of films about his alter ego Antoine Doinel) helped build a gentle personal myth. Jules and Jim became established as one of the great films of the French New Wave, he won an Oscar for Day for Night, and a bunch of French equivalents for The Last Metro. He died in 1983, at the age of only 52; it seems even more premature since two of his New Wave compatriots (Rohmer and Chabrol) kept working until quite recently, and the other two (Rivette and Godard) still haven’t stopped (at least officially).

The Story of Adele H

I don’t think about Truffaut half as much as I do about some of those others I mention, and it surprised me a bit to realize I’d watched four of his films in the last year or so, mostly as spontaneous digressions (if I’d happened to come across The Wild Child, The Woman Next Door, The Soft Skin and others on TCM or elsewhere, I’m sure it could have been eight or ten). I don’t think Truffaut set out to be radical or transgressive (he was increasingly accused of making the kind of films he’d damned as a young critic) but I’m often delighted - it’s not too strong a word - at the freshness of his artistic decisions. He certainly exemplifies a counter-Hollywood ease with moving from A to D while skipping over B and C, not for the sake of being difficult or obscure, but because it’s a nimbler and more stimulating route. The Story of Adele H, a 1975 tale of 19th century female obsession, might for example seem increasingly disconcerting as major events (a faked pregnancy; a major change of location) come and go almost subliminally, but the approach helps us appreciate the bravery and radicalism in her behavior, her rejection of prevailing structures. Of course, she’s still rather foolishly throwing her life away for a distorted romantic dream, but without being at all strident or idealistic about it, Truffaut coaxes us to contemplate whether there’s not greater lasting nobility and significance in this than in whatever else she might have done with her life during those times.

If nothing else, of course, her status almost a century later as the protagonist in a film asserts the significance in itself (without necessarily explaining it). This thought provides a natural segue to The Man Who Loved Women, which Truffaut made a couple of years later. It’s the story of a skirt-chaser – somewhat literally, in that he’s a man who might easily abandon all other plans in pursuit of a briefly-glimpsed pair of legs: he’s played by Charles Denner, who has the kind of face that might look plain ugly if it wasn’t attached to a Frenchman. The title refers not just to Denner’s character, Bertrand Morane, but also to the title of a book he writes about his experiences (his own original title actually is along the lines of The Skirt-Chaser, but his editor suggests the more-mythic sounding alternative, not long before he seduces her too.)

The Man Who Loved Women

For a long time, my sense of this film was influenced by Blake Edwards’ 1983 remake (an unloved flop), although I haven’t seen it for years now (has anyone?). It starred Burt Reynolds, just at the tail-end of his starring period, so it plainly followed a somewhat different take on the character. But in the wake of 10 and S.O.B., Edwards had a pretty good line on middle-aged anxiety, and I recall finding the movie a rather intriguing application of his deadpan methods. But it was also relentlessly glossy, and Edwards unproductively added a new major character, a female therapist (played by his wife Julie Andrews) to whom Reynolds spills out his self-doubts.

This might have been an inevitable adjustment at the time (it was also Woody Allen’s heyday) but it jettisons what’s most intriguing about Truffaut’s film: the sustained ambiguity about what it is we’re watching. There’s not much sex in the movie, and not even much explicit seduction; the focus is on opportunities glimpsed, considered, mulled-over, sometimes lost, more often won. The film looks deliberately drab; it’s set in the seemingly unprepossessing town of Montpellier. Many of the women are attractive of course, but it’s possible that even the conventionally sexiest of them is less sexy than the drabbest woman in Edwards’ film.

Morane may or may not, in some sense, love all the women with whom he crosses paths, but that’s only another way of saying that at any given moment, the most rational course available to him is to follow the trail that just opened up. The mixture of discipline and compulsion and instinct required to write his book isn’t so far removed from what he invests on his prospects and conquests, and in the end, the film rather straightforwardly holds out the book as a validation of the life he led. Of course, Truffaut didn’t believe that creating art (even if it’s not particularly good) somehow earned one an exemption from normal morality or ethics. But he’s at least implying the opposite here, that heavy-handed judgments about human interactions or choices probably go hand-in-hand with a rather crass aesthetic sensibility.

Jules and Jim

It’s always been tempting to read Morane as a projection of Truffaut himself, and to read The Man Who Loved Women as an attempt at self-justification, if not self-congratulation; as if hinting at this, the director makes a brief onscreen cameo in the opening few minutes. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana’s biography of Truffaut draws out the parallels at some length, revealing among other things that he only realized at the editing stage how melancholic the film had turned out, considering changing the title to The Man Who Was Afraid of Women. Which actually might be much the same thing, depending again on what you think actually drives love in its more restless manifestations.

I’m concentrating on this film only because it happens to be the Truffaut picture I viewed most recently (yesterday, as I write). Jules and Jim might be the more conventional focal point for an article about him, especially because the popular memory of that picture as a lyrical tale of friendship drastically overlooks the extreme (to me almost apocalyptic) portrait of the woman they both love. I’ve always found it a bit forced, and yet it always surprises me in some way, no matter how often I see it. Scheduling a few Truffaut viewings a year, I think, remains entirely appropriate for a man or woman who loves movies.

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