Francois Truffaut comes out of the elevator into the lobby of the Watergate Hotel, his throat wrapped in a gray woolen muffler. Right off, there seems something intense and soft about him. Also pained. He extends a hand. "Bonjour," he says, bending briefly at the shoulders. Then he is gone -- back upstairs to fetch a sweater.
"It's a combination of jet lag and the death of Renoir," explains Michael Webb of the American Film Institute. "Actually, he's very shy," says Annette Insdorf, his translator.
Back downstairs, the director moves through the lobby, which has the feel of a ship on a sand bar: It is snow-stuck Monday.
Truffaut has come to town to help launch a retrospective of his work and of films he admires at the AFI. In the morning he was supposed to give a press conference at the Kennedy Center. Instead he watched "The Glass Key" on television. In the afternoon he thinks he may tune in "Orpheus."
"This is the man who once calculated he'd seen 3,000 films by the time he was 28. Who used to take his holidays in Nice because the town had 40 movie theaters. Life at 24 frames a second.
At night, the director of "Day for Night" and some 18 other films thinks he may try something new: "Roots." He says the word in English, smiling and arching his brows, pronouncing it in a funny, foreign, unself-conscious way.
He is asked what he thinks of Washington.
"Ah," he says. "Having already seen 'Born Yesterday,' All the President's Men,' and Hitchcock's 'Strangers on a Train' many times, you might say I consider myself an old habitue of Washington." There is something selfeffacing, almost self-mocking, in his tone..
Renoir, his mentor, comes up. Stumbles up. Jean Renoir, pioneer of the cinema and son of the French impressionist painter, died at 84 at his home in California last week. Truffaut attended a memorial service in Beverly Hills on Friday, and had thought of flying to France for the burial but with the snow and other complications, that became impossible.
"Non, c'est non facile," he says now, shaking his head sadly. His hands are folded in front of him. He is idling with an unlit cigarette and a matchbook. He isn't looking up.
"Renoir was able to work 50 years in the cinema without ever having to rely on a villain. Now I admire the American cinema very much. But the entire history of American cinema is based on the hero versus the villain -- the bigger the villain, the better the film.
"It is no accident, for instance, that 'Jaws' and 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' should have come out in the same year. The nurse and the fish, they are exactly the same."
The last three words of this fluid, Gallic minilecture are "exactement le meme ." He says the words three times, in rapid succession, a little arc of smile growing successively wider.
Renoir needed none of this.Instead of physical shocks, he gave the audience moral shocks. Until the end of his life I called him 'Mr. Renoir.'"
And where did Renoir's genius to swim against the tide come from?
"Son pere. Son pere ." Then, "One mustn't forget it was his father who freed women in his paintings from the burden of wearing corsets." A small flicker of laugh, a small offhand gesture. Truffaut, the master of sudden intimacies.
But one wants to talk about Truffaut's own genius. The origins have been well told: a near-career in juvenile delinquency, a spell in detention school, rescue by the eminent journalist and critic, Andre Bazin, boy-wonder success on the staff of Cahiers du cinema , finally his own filmmaking, the first serious flower of which was "the 400 Blows" ("Les Quarte Cents Coups "), a nearly autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young runaway.
There is a scene in "The 400 Blows" where Truffaut's cinematic self is grabbed by the scarf and dragged to the police station in Pigalle by his father, where the boy is thrown into a cell with prostitutes. "Yes, yes," he says. "This is exactly the way it happened in my own life."
He suddenly looks sad again. The animation has vanished. "After 'The 400 Blows' came out, my parents were divorced. They felt menaced by the film. I don't even think they saw it. Their friends had told them not to go. There was a great physical resemblance to my father and the man who played him in the film. The same for the flat where we filmed it -- it was in the same neighborhood where I had grown up.
"My parents felt the movie a great injustice. Especially since it went on to become the grand prix winner at Cannes. Of course I became the subject of much attention. It is only now I realize what a difficult position it must have been for them. I probably felt a great deal of bitterness at the time. One could say the film put in dialogue everything that had not been said in our lives."
All this is in monotone, with cadenced pauses for translation. At the end, he is asked if he is bitter now. A furious wag. "It is complice . But I am reconciled with my father. My mother, alas, is dead."
The director who once said his movies are like the circus -- first comes the elephant, then the magician, then the bear, and don't forget to send in the clowns -- has an instinctive need now to send in some comedic relief.
"You know, when I was young, I was throwing myself into the cinema as an escape. I formed a movie club. To pay for expenses I sometimes stole copper doorknobs. Later, during Liberation my friends and I stole cigarettes from American GIs. We made the mistake of returning to the scene of the crime a week later. A huge American soldier caught us and held us up off the ground."
Would he have become a filmmaker at all if he had experienced a normal, happy childhood? "It's possible I would have not," he says immediately. "Perhaps it would have been inevitable, but with less need."
This triggers a thought. "In life what makes us miserable is we cannot control a situation. But in a novel or a film, we have the illusion we are controlling a situation. We are creating a universe."
Perhaps the universe of children he has so expertly created in films like "Small Change" grows directly from his own unhappy childhood. Yes, he says enthusiastically.
"But it's not that I understand children better than other people, it's just that I've long been accustomed to working with them. From the beginning I was always afraid of adult actors. Why should they trust me?"
Does he ever think of himself still as a child -- the 47-year-old boy-man behind the global travels and acclaim? That he is one of them?
"Non, pas exactement ."
But as if to agree, a cigar comes from his vest pocket. He lights it with a flourish. "Voila! L'enfant avec cigar." He is beaming.
Truffant admires directors who work in English, and he is a great lover of the American B movie. He says he went to school on two-reelers and the pulps. He once said he watched "Citizen Kane" 27 times. His favorite director, outside of Renoir, is Hitchcock. He has interviewed him at length. "He has this great ability to simplify. Hitchcock says, 'In movie- making, you have a white rectangle, and you fill it up.'"
Hitchcock's phobias are the source of his genius, Truffant says, "I spoke with a Jesuit, 78 years old, who had been in school with Hitchcock. He told me that Hitchcock would never play ball with the other boys, but stand against the school wall with his arms folded, just like this."
Fause. "Such was not true of me. I participate a little in life. I drive a car."'
Four or five years ago, Truffaut tried learning the quirky English tongue. ("Fahrenheit 451," his only try in English, released in '66, generally bombed on American audiences.) He spent five hours a day for seven weeks in Hollywood at English: Nope. But he did master some useful phrases, one of which he pops up with now, in the hotel's restaurant.
"Medium rare," he instructs the waiter with authority after Insdorf orders him a steak sandwich. Then he laughs. (He is also very good at "For instance," "absolutely not," "excuse me," and "on the other hand.")
He likes going to California, he says. "First of all, it's the farthest distance I can go from Paris. I traverse an entire ocean, then an entire continent. I arrive and there before me is another ocean."
He doesn't fear Hollywood at all: "Hollywood can only corrupt weak people. It didn't corrupt Renoir. Or John Ford. Or Howard Hawks."
What he is interested in now is making films about one place and one time. "I wish to be more disciplined. Instead of creating an impression through variety, I wish to create an impression through concentration."
Truffaut's latest film, which had its American premiere Sunday night at the Kennedy Center, is "Love on the Run." He describes it as "a recapitulation" of the Antoine Doinel cycle begun with "The 400 Blows" and continuing with "Stolen Kisses." He won't say it's his best, maybe not even one of his best. They're all his children. You love them equally.
No, he doesn't have a new project in mind. But he might have a title. He has come conspiratorially close.
"Pacific Palisades." It has come out "Paceefeec Paleesades," with a finger- kiss of perfection."It's a town in California. It's a wonderful name. There is a mysterious double sense. All I have to do is think of a script."