True. Faux. He was, probably more than most men, though perhaps not more than most great artists, a man of contradictions: Truffaut the romantic, Truffaut the exacting technician. A filmmaker who never lost his awe and passion for cinema, and yet one who was also a tirelessly analytical film scholar.
In the '50s, Franc,ois Truffaut helped introduce the idea that film was as serious as literature, that it was the literature of this century, and that it deserved to be not just enjoyed but studied. Yet he remained, until his cruelly premature death yesterday in France at the age of 52, among the least pretentious of all serious filmmakers, and many of his films were imbued with a charm that was not only Gallic but ebullient.
Critic, director and gatekeeper for the now vanished French New Wave, Truffaut did the proverbial bursting-upon-the-scene with his autobiographical feature "The 400 Blows," which won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1959. The story of a troubled, battered youth in postwar France, the movie became slightly notorious in later years for popularizing the freeze-frame as concluding punctuation for a film, something that subsequently evolved into a nearly inescapable cliche'. In interviews, Truffaut pleaded innocent to having invented it.
Truffaut's eclectic film career encompassed a stoic and Spartan semisociological account like "The Wild Child" and a quirky romance like the trifling "Mississippi Mermaid," but the film that probably most endeared him to world audiences was the bittersweet tragic romance "Jules and Jim," with Jeanne Moreau, in 1961. This was the graduate course for the first real film generation, a film that occupies an imperishable soft spot in moviegoing hearts everywhere. It affected audiences of its time the way the TV version of "Brideshead Revisited" did years later -- something precious, elegiac and intensely personal to millions.
In the years that followed, there have probably been more Hollywood scripts written about two men in love with the same woman -- the core of the "Jules and Jim" plot -- than on almost any other serious theme. Some of these films have been produced. Paul Mazursky's "Willie and Phil," in 1980, with Margot Kidder as an ersatz Moreau, was one of the recent imitations that were widely considered utterly inadequate. For many, seeing "Jules and Jim" was an integral part of an emotional education, like reading "Catcher in the Rye." It was most likely Truffaut's greatest film.
Even now to see it is to be intoxicated by it.
In "Jules and Jim" and in other films, Truffaut took cinematic conventions and stood them on their heads, twisted them into pretzels, bounced them off walls -- all the things inspired iconoclasts do with conventions. It was always a loving rebelliousness, however; his devotion to cinema was made most explicit in his disarming comedy "Day for Night," in which he played the part of a director, in 1973.
Truffaut discovered movies the way many young people do: as a means of escape. In the '40s, he went to movie theaters to find solace from the psychological hardships he would later depict in "400 Blows." The movies he turned to for respite soon became a scholarly as well as magnificent obsession. With such mentors as Andre Bazin and Jean Renoir, Truffaut helped redefine the visual vernacular of film and the role of the director. Suddenly you didn't just go to the movies. You experienced cinema.
It was part of Truffaut's generosity that he helped us see not only the seriousness in his own work, but that in the work of others. Alfred Hitchcock had been a dependable commercial commodity for decades in England and in Hollywood, but Truffaut helped the world see him in a new way with the 1967 book-length interview "Hitchcock/Truffaut" and with his own Hitchcock homage film, "The Bride Wore Black." In his introduction to the book, Truffaut declared that Hitchcock could be placed alongside such other "artists of anxiety" as Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Poe. Hitchcock was born again.
In person, maker of masterpieces or not, Truffaut hadn't an ounce of bombast or condescension. He was an auteur sans hauteur. His eyebrows arched in a way that suggested a state of perpetual surprise, and of insatiable curiosity. It was sublime casting when Steven Spielberg gave Truffaut the role of a scientist in his daydreamy reverie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Truffaut was perfect.
Of all the things he accomplished, one project stymied Truffaut throughout his life. He never could learn to speak English. He repeatedly took courses, crash and otherwise, but never quite got beyond such phrases as "Pardon me," "I don't know," "Medium rare" and "Absolutely not." His apparently instinctual aversion to the English language crippled his attempt at an English language film, the ill-fated "Fahrenheit 451," from a Ray Bradbury novel, but there remains much about even that film to admire.
As it ends, the book-loving survivors of an anti-intellectual totalitarian state have fled to the woods with their favorite books locked in their brains -- like movies. Among the literature seen erupting under the dread firemen's flames earlier in the movie was a copy of "Cahiers du Cinema," the influential if fitfully flaky French film journal in which Truffaut made his name as a critic, one known for opinions strongly held and sometimes vituperatively expressed.
Interviewed in 1973 in New York, Truffaut was uncertain of his English but certain in his views. Though his fellow New Waver Jean-Luc Godard had concentrated on political statements, Truffaut said he was never tempted to make one. "My political ideas are very moderated," he said. "I have never admired a politician in my life. Politicians are like the cleaning lady; they do their work every morning and get out. They shouldn't be treated prestigiously. I do not think they deserve much attention. I think that, to the 20th century, Chaplin is more important than Churchill."
He spoke in a dry monotone suitable to a Beckett play and sat calmly in a chair with cigarette smoke circling him like clouds around a mountaintop. For all his love of cinema, cinema, cinema, he did express a doubt or two about the wisdom of having immersed himself so irretrievably in the business of illusions.
"I wish sometimes I had learned how to swim, or how to ski, or other things," he said. "I give too much time to the cinema. I have become a kind of voyeur. I prefer seeing to being seen. I prefer knowing to being known."
Later, at a Lincoln Center affair, the reporter bumped into Truffaut, then wearing a tweedy suit and a long white silk scarf, as he stood at the foot of the stage waiting for the program to begin. "Hi," said the reporter, hoping he'd be remembered, and Truffaut, putting two and two together and recalling the interviewer, said a startled "Hi" in return. He seemed delighted to have uttered this simple American colloquialism. He smiled as if he'd just lobbed one over home plate. His eyes looked illuminated, alert, eager for the next sight to come along, and yet he also seemed slightly fragile and even endangered.
Geniuses can look like that. Especially those who prefer knowing to being known. What Franc,ois Truffaut knew changed the movies and, more than that, changed the audience. The lens is very old, n'est-ce pas? Thanks to artists like Truffaut, we see more through it now than we ever did before.