Francois Truffaut at 80

“Ideas are less interesting than the human beings who have them.”

Francois Truffaut (February 6, 1932-October 21, 1984)

This Monday would have marked Francois Truffaut’s 80th birthday. I thought this would obviously be the best time to take a minute to reflect and appreciate the work of my favorite director, and what his films have meant to me.

My first exposure to Truffaut’s work was, as many others’ must have been, The 400 Blows, which I rented on VHS from the library while I was in high school – I couldn’t have been more than 14 years old at the time, a girl pretending to be a sophisticated woman. I remember I rented it in the summer, while school was out, and I watched it in my parents’ room (the only place in the house with a VCR other than the living room), sprawled out on their bed with the windows open, a breeze coming in. I’ve probably romanticized that moment in my head since then, but the fact is, I didn’t like the movie that much. It bored me, which makes sense for my age – I thought I was worldlier than I actually was. (One of my favorite Truffaut anecdotes is about how Harvey Weinstein saw The 400 Blows in the theater only because he thought it was a porno, and it set him on his cinephile path.)

I revisited Truffaut again in college, when I got Netflix and finally realized that film was my true passion (too late to study it, of course). I devoured the Antoine Doinel series, Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player. I was in love. After I graduated from college and went back home, I took a film class at a local community college, where I was able to analyze Shoot the Piano Player and, of course, The 400 Blows, along with Psycho (Truffaut was a Hitchcock devotee – I was recently able to pick up a copy of Hitchcock by Truffaut for a song at a rummage sale, and it’s delightful reading – along with The Films of My Life, an incredibly engaging volume of essays on films, filmmakers, and criticism).

Born in 1932 to an unwed teenage mother who resented him her entire life (the subtext, and just plain text, of which is visible in almost all his films), Francois Truffaut didn’t live an easy life. He was raised by his grandmother, and then by himself and the cinema, sneaking in and getting kicked out all the time. He joined the army in 1950, even after he had started writing film criticism – he spent his entire two year service term trying to escape, and tried to kill himself while in army prison. In 1954, he invented auteur theory for Cahiers du Cinema, in his essay “A Certain Trend of French Cinema.” That essay got him banned from the Cannes Film Festival, which he then came back and won its Best Director award for the 400 Blows at the 1959 festival. From there, his career was a veritable roller coaster – he made good films that were critical and financial successes, and lots of films, good and bad, that were neither. He died in 1984 of a brain tumor.

I think I somehow knew, even from that first lackluster viewing of The 400 Blows, that Truffaut was a man who didn’t have it easy, who didn’t come from privilege and instead taught himself filmmaking by watching (and falling in love with) thousands of films, long before Tarantino became a video store director. It’s that pure, undiluted love of film, and the sense that film can save us from ourselves, that I got from Truffaut’s work, long before I knew any biographical details about the man. It’s the people, not the ideas, indeed.

If I had to choose one of Truffaut’s films I like above all others (and I do, because I’m obsessed with listing and ranking things – thus how I am certain Truffaut is my favorite director ever), Bed and Board would be on top. Though I cannot say it’s the best film in the Doinel series – clearly that has to be 400 Blows – it is my favorite. We see Antoine and Christine together, and falling apart; falling out of love and, reluctantly, back in. We see the charming side of Antoine, of course, but we also see how he can be a total asshole, particularly to Christine. We see how much Truffaut loves Claude Jade. We see how much Truffaut loves Jean-Pierre Leaud, for that matter! It’s funny and painful and real and just fucking wonderful.

For Truffaut’s birthday, I rewatched Day for Night, one of my favorite films, but one I hadn’t seen for a while. The films I love can generally be classified as either Very Serious and/or Depressing, or trash (not in a pejorative sense – anyone reading this blog should know how seriously I take trash), so it has surprised some of my friends how much I love Truffaut’s work. But Day for Night, as so many of his films (Small Change in particular), just make me smile. It is, as the director set out to do, about people, about the people behind the great ideas and the great films we see projected larger-than-life in front of us. It humanizes the movies. Like a magician, he gives away his tricks (I laughed with childlike wonder at the candle with the lighted hole that points at the face!), if only to share with us how much he loves them.

I think, of all the great directors I love who have passed away, we lost the most when we lost Truffaut. Unlike Fassbinder, who left us about 500 films in his short lifetime, or Antonioni, Bergman, or Rollin, who left full careers-worth of movies, Truffaut died well before his time. Godard is still going strong; we could only assume that Truffaut would be, too (although he did say he would retire at 30 films – he made 25 by his death – and write books, but I think his love of filmmaking was too great to be restrained by an arbitrary number). But we’ll never know – his final, strongly Hitchcockian phase just teases at what could have been.

So thanks, Mr. Truffaut – the humanist, the director who chips away at life’s everyday hardships, just to give us a glimpse of the pure joy that thrives within – thanks for the films.


(All scans by me! From the Taschen book Francois Truffaut: The Complete Films)