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François Truffaut, Interviews
Ronald Bergan's Introduction to His Book

François Truffaut, Interviews. Edited by Ronald Bergan. Introduction, Chronology, filmography, index. 176 pages. 978-1-934110-13-3 Unjacketed cloth $ 50.00, 978-1-934110-14-0 Paper $ 20.00. University Press of Mississippi, USA. Published in April 2008.

Cover.In 1992, eight years after François Truffaut's death from a brain tumour aged 52, I sat in his comfortable armchair in his offices of "Les Films du Carrosse", his production company in the rue Robert Estienne, a small street off the Champs Elysées. I was surrounded by posters from his films, and those of the directors he revered: Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.

On his desk and on the mantelpiece above a fireplace, bric-à-brac of a certain significance and value to Truffaut. A stuffed bird from Psycho, a cigar box that belonged to Rossellini, an unfilmed script by Renoir. And on the shelves, hundreds of books, bold and defiant, the objects that Truffaut wanted to film in Fahrenheit 451, as he told "L'Express", "burning as the burning of people. I don't say that I succeeded, but it was the plan to make a film about the importance of literature".

A quick glance at the shelves revealed Balzac's "La Comédie Humaine" and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary". "My feeling [the love of literature] is expressed in that scene in The 400 Blows where Antoine lights a candle before the picture of Balzac," Truffaut explained. To Sanche de Gramont in the "New York Times Magazine" in 1969, he confessed: "I was very sensitive to the amorous intrigues of those around me, to the couples, to the adultery, so that when I read 'Madame Bovary', I identified with her completely, because she had money problems and so did I, and she secretly met her lover while I secretly went to the movies."

Naturally, among the books were all those that Truffaut had adapted for the screen: Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451", signed by the author, and Henri-Pierre Roché's "Jules et Jim"  and "Deux Anglaises et le Continent" (Two English Girls), equally with a dedication to Truffaut; and the American 'dime' novels: "Down There" by David Goodis (Shoot the Piano Player), "The Bride Wore Black" and "Waltz into Darkness"(The Mississippi Mermaid) by William Irish, "Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me" by Henry Farrell and "The Long Saturday Night"(Confidentially Yours) by Charles Williams.

When Charles Thomas Samuels asked why he usually adapts "trash novels to the screen", Truffaut replied "I have never used a trash novel or a book I did not admire... After seeing Shoot the Piano Player and liking it, Henry Miller was asked to write an introduction for a new edition of "Down There" and therefore had to read the book. He then phoned me to say that he suddenly realized that whereas my film was good, the book was even better. So you see, I don't film trash.” 

As much fiction as there was on the shelves, there were even more film books, including Truffaut's own "The Cinema According to Hitchcock", in various editions and languages. Because of this lengthy interview book, which reads more like a dialogue (many of the questions are longer than the answers), Truffaut was continually being asked about his relationship to Hitchcock, both the man and his work.

It must be remembered that when Truffaut's book was first published in 1967, Hitchcock, in the twilight of his career, with his best work behind him, was greatly underrated, especially by American critics. Truffaut believed that his book had "succeeded in its primary task of making people revalue upwards the talents of a really great director." 

Les Films du Carrosse derived its name from the Renoir film, Le Carrosse d'or  (The Golden Coach): The Mississippi Mermaid is dedicated to Renoir, and the courtyard in Bed and Board refers to Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange. There are other examples of Renoir's influence as well as Hitchcock's, the two directors that Truffaut admired most and who come up most often in the interviews. Hitchcock, Truffaut felt, was able to portray the force of cinema by image alone, whereas for Renoir, words were more important. Truffaut once said that he wanted to film thrillers like Renoir, and tender stories like Hitchcock.

As is evident from his films and interviews, Truffaut was the most cinéphilic of all cinéastes, whom Sanche de Gramont calls "a member of a new species, the homo cinematicus, who is concerned — to the exclusion of nearly all other pursuits — with life at 24 frames a second."

"Are films more important than life?" asks Jean-Pierre Léaud in Day for Night  (1973), Truffaut's loving tribute to film-making. For Truffaut the answer must be in the affirmative. "When actors sometimes go skiing on Sundays... I'm sick all day with worry," he explained in an interview. When asked if he fears for the actors or the film, he replies, without hesitation, "For the film."

What makes Truffaut rare among filmmakers is that he had been a film critic previously. Not just any film critic, but one who made a name for himself as a provocateur on the influential magazine "Cahiers du Cinéma"in the mid-1950s. It was Truffaut who first formulated the politique des auteurs, a view of film art that defended "true men of the cinema": Renoir, Jean Vigo, Hawks, Ford and Welles, against the more literary tradition of the cinéma du papa.

In 1957, in "Art", another magazine for which he was a harsh critic, the 25-year-old Truffaut wrote: "The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them. It may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service, their marriage, their last vacation... and it will be enjoyable because it will be true, and new... The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure. The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love." This was two years before he started to practice what he preached.

Throughout his career as a director, Truffaut is continually asked about the effect of his having "changed sides", as it were. "One looks at films differently when one is a director or a critic. For example, though I have always loved Citizen Kane, I loved it in different ways at different stages of my career. When I saw it as a critic, I particularly admired the way the story is told… As a director I cared more about technique... Behaving like the ordinary spectator, one uses a film as if it were a drug; he is dazed by the motion and doesn't try to analyze. A critic, on the other hand (particularly one who works for a weekly, as I did), is forced to write summaries of films in fifteen lines. That forces one to apprehend the structure of a film and to rationalize his liking for it."

In stark contrast to the oeuvre of his erstwhile Cahiersand New Wave comrade, Jean Luc Godard, Truffaut's films are not overtly political in any way. "For right or wrong, I believe there is no art without paradox: now in the political film, there is no paradox, because already in the script, it is decided who is good and who is bad..."  

Throughout the interviews, he stresses his abhorrence of "social cinema". "In some sort of way these films are traitors to cinema, they are theoretical demonstrations." Even in The Last Metro (1980), he eschews any didactism. Truffaut stated that the film fulfilled three of his ambitions: to recreate on film the climate of the Occupation in Paris in 1942, to show the backstage life of the theatre, and to provide Catherine Deneuve with the role of a responsible woman. "After '68, in Europe, politics were overestimated. You kept hearing the slogan, 'everything is political' — which I find absurd." In The Last Metro, the line is uttered by the Nazi sympathizer as a justification for ridding France of the Jews. Despite this, Truffaut tried to live by the Renoir credo of "Everyone has his reasons".

When someone suggested that any of his films had social or political significance, Truffaut would energetically rebuff such an "accusation". "There is nothing social in my films. No, there were no social implications in the prison scenes in The 400 Blows... Even if there was social criticism in the Bradbury book [Fahrenheit 451] there is none in my film." And elsewhere... "... in spite of its 'modern' appearance, the film [Jules and Jim] isn't polemical. Without doubt, the young woman of Jules and Jim wants to live in the same manner as a man but it is only a particularity of her character and not a feminist attitude."

What worried him in 1978, 17 years after the film appeared, was that "it gave the impression that I was going with the fashion to make a feminist film." Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) "will be recuperated by feminism, independence, a woman's choice... the topical subject that made me want to run away... Now, I know that this attitude may appear unpleasant. Let's say that my refusal to go with the mode is so deep in me that it makes me want to make films that turn their backs on topical themes which, possibly, could interest me."

Truffaut's rejection of current topics or fashions is not a conservative one, but the need to retain a freedom and purity of expression uncluttered by the zeitgeist. For him, the eternal theme of Love "is more important than social questions. It is the way to lead people to truth. There is more truth in sentimental relations than in social relations. There is more truth in the bedroom than in the office or the board room."

Truffaut said that "There are very few films I like outside films about love in one form or another", and claimed that he had about 30 films about love in his head and if someone proved to him that nine out of ten films made were about love, he would still say it wasn't too much. On more than one occasion, Truffaut opined that if you suggested to ten directors to make The Bridge on the River Kwai, you would get almost the same film from all of them. But if you suggested to them the subject of Brief Encounter, you would get ten different films. "To speak of love requires a greater gift and obliges one to go beyond the frame of just telling a story."

Love, in Truffaut's world, whether obsessional or exploratory, is the domain of women. "Men know nothing about love. They are always beginners. The heroine is always the stronger." But these adult films, or rather, films about adults, still preserve a certain child-like innocence best seen in his semi-autobiographical series of five films with Jean-Pierre Léaud as his alter-ego Antoine Doinel. These seemingly lightweight films hide the pain at the loss of youthful spontaneity, and the difficulties of male-female relationships. 

There was an extraordinary rapport between Léaud and his mentor, which began with The 400 Blows (1959), and continued through almost 20 years as Antoine gets older, falls in love, marries, has a child, divorces, and finally becomes a writer (not a film director) in the last Doinel movie, Love On The Run (1978).

What comes out clearly in the interviews are Truffaut's methods in working with actors, though he objected strongly to the phrase 'direction of actors.' "I direct no one. I'm not a captain! I point them toward what is good for them or for the film." It is this sympathy with the actor and his improvisational approach that accounts partly for the freewheeling nature of many of his films.

"I don't like the actors to arrive on the set knowing their dialogue by heart. I want them to learn it in the heat of the moment. I think when you're feverish, in the medical sense, of the word, you're much sharper, and I want my films to give the impression they were made with a fever of 104."

Because Truffaut's characters "testify to human fragility", he was drawn to actors that show a certain weakness. "I could never have made a movie with Clark Gable or John Wayne or an American-style hero... The trouble in the States is that so many actors today come from television where they've been hired to play G-men and spies. No one has replaced Jimmy Stewart or Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant, those gentle, clear-eyed actors."

Which brings us to consider Truffaut's ambivalent attitude to America and American films. Primarily, Truffaut believed that the best American films were made under the studio system. "I don't think Americans respond well to independent production. Where American cinema was at its most unjust was with men of genius like Stroheim, Sternberg, Welles... but with middling good cinema it was at its best: people like Dassin and Preminger made their finest films for the studios, not when they became their own masters."

He was also concerned that the best directors were right-wing such as John Ford, "who votes Republican and who supports the 'American presence' in Vietnam... there have been awful left-wing Westerns. Americans are perhaps more gifted at exulting war than condemning it."

Truffaut grew up in Paris during the German Occupation of his country, when all American films were banned. At the end of the war, the first Hollywood films he remembers seeing were George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story and W. S. Van Dyke's Rage in Heaven, the latter, a lurid melodrama starring Robert Montgomery, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, being "the first American film to stimulate my imagination". But the turning point for him was Citizen Kane, which Truffaut reckons to have seen 27 times. "Certainly it wasn't typical of American cinema, but it had everything we love about Hollywood combined with everything we love about European cinema. It is an incredibly complete film."

On the question of whether he would ever work in America, Truffaut is generally consistent. To "The Observer" in 1960: "There [Hollywood] the choice of subjects is a matter of money — Broadway successes, literary best-sellers. They won't take risks and they suspect all films made on a small subject. Directors are rarely free to work in their own way."

To "L'Express"in 1978: "In France, it is not ridiculous to make a film without stars. I don't feel less well treated by the industry when I release a film played by unknowns. In America, I was made to feel the difference. I would be in the B league." Nevertheless, Truffaut did get a taste of Hollywood when he appeared as Claude Lacombe, the U.N. scientist in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), his experiences being amusingly related in the 1978 "L'Express" interview. Asked whether he liked the film, Truffaut was non-committal. "I can't say I'm interested in UFO's. I'm only interested in sentiments, love stories that may touch me. Meetings that one has in life are so mysterious and so difficult to succeed in that that is enough to satisfy my curiosity. There is science fiction everywhere..."

It was the first time he had acted in someone else's film other than his own, except for a couple of cameos. "From the start, I felt like an actor. I felt transformed. I could even say that I felt 'feminized', with the different meanings that that has. I wanted Spielberg to be happy with my performance. I felt a certain pleasure in pleasing him."

Although Truffaut thought that Spielberg made him smile too much, he agreed that "it wasn't a bad idea to have used me because of a certain credibility that I brought to the character." This is exactly what Truffaut brought to his three other leading roles in The Wild Child, Day For Night and The Green Room, all of which he justifies in the interviews.

In a way, he played himself as a film director in Day For Night, at the center, holding everything and everybody together. In The Green Room, as a man obsessed with death, Truffaut felt, by playing the role he would make the film more personal, which he explained was like a letter written by hand instead of on a typewriter.

Because the role of Victor, the 'wild child', was a very difficult one for a 12-year-old boy, he decided play Dr. Jean Itard so that he would be able to control and shape the performance of Jean-Pierre Cargol as the boy. Although Truffaut only made four films directly involving children (including his debut 18-minute short The Mischief Makers), his reputation as a director of children remains strong. Perhaps because Truffaut never lost contact with the child within himself. "I had suffered because I was an only child and I felt I was still close to the world of children; so I make The 400 Blows almost like a documentary."

Death was a subject that lingered in the background of Truffaut's life and films for some time. "I am convinced that the first scene of death shot by a director marks a stage in his career," he commented of his first death scene in Shoot The Piano Player. There were deaths in four of his subsequent films notably in The Bride Wore Black, with its multiple killings. "One cannot film death for 56 days without being affected."

But it took him until 1978, with The Green Room, to make Death, "rather the faithfulness to death", the subject of a film, a mere six years from his own demise. "I'm 46 and I've already started to be surrounded by those who have gone... From time to time, the people whom I have lost, I miss as if they have just died. Jean Cocteau for example. So I take one of his records and I listen to it. I listen to his voice in the morning in my bathroom. I miss him." According to Truffaut, the theme of The Green Room was the contradiction between the cult of death and the love of life, made more poignant in retrospect.

The last films were a looking back. Love on The Run, the last of the Antoine Doinel series, contains footage from the earlier films; The Last Metro recalls the period of Truffaut's own childhood in Occupied Paris. As he told Tom Buckley in "The New York Times" in 1980: "I had a short haircut...  A German officer patted me on the head. My grandmother saw him do it, and she called from the window of our apartment, 'Come in here this minute. I'm going to give you a shampoo.'"

The Woman Next Door was a return to the theme of adultery, and Truffaut's final film, Confidentially Yours, was a further adaptation from an American dime novel, another raising of Truffaut's chapeau to Hitchcock, a love letter to Fanny Ardent, soon to be the mother of his third daughter, and an "attempt to recapture the mysterious, nocturnal, glittering atmosphere of those American comedy thrillers that used to enchant us." (François Truffaut Letters, Faber and Faber, 1989). However, the crucial aspect of the film was that it was shot in black and white.

In the same letter of 1982, quoted above, to the producer Gérard Lebovici, Truffaut attempts to make his case to have the film made in monochrome, underlining the words "black and white" seven times. In several interviews over the years, Truffaut was very vigorous in his condemnation of colour, which had become more or less obligatory from 1960. Like Marnie, in Hitchcock's film, who screams, "Stop the colours!", Truffaut declared in 1978, "Colour has done as much damage to cinema as television. It is necessary to fight against too much realism in the cinema, otherwise it's not an art... When all films were in black and white, very few were ugly even when they were lacking in artistic ambition. Now ugliness dominates. Eight films out of ten are as boring as watching a traffic jam." And a year later: "How wrong we were to think that colour was an improvement and not a handicap. Colour is the enemy."

When asked why all his films since The Soft Skin (1964), with one notable exception (The Wild Child), were shot in colour, he replied, "Because I can't do otherwise. Whatever the film, it is planned that it will be shown on television one day, and they only buy films in colour." Truffaut felt that, as in the 1940s, directors should have the chance to choose whether they want to use colour or not. At least he was able to make one more film in black and white before he died.

Back in Truffaut's chair in his office, I was reminded of his eloquence and charm by watching his last ever appearance on television. It was on the book program "Apostrophes" on April 13, 1984, a few months before his untimely death. Truffaut, looking a little older and greyer, but still bubbling with enthusiasm, with a twinkle in his eye, spoke warmly of Hitchcock, and films in general with the childlike glee that can be discerned in most of his interviews.

Ronald Bergan
© The Author

With the kind permission of the University Press of Mississippi and Ronald Bergan we print the introduction to "François Truffaut, Interviews", in a version shortened by the author.

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Ronald Bergan's
introduction to the book
"François Truffaut,
Interviews".