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CineMasters: François Truffaut Programme Notes


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Spoiler warning: These programme notes are best read after viewing the films as they contain discussion of plot and character details.

Cinema was everything to François Truffaut. He was virtually raised on films, constantly playing truant from school to sneak into a local fleapit and catch the latest releases. He claimed to have seen as many as twenty films a week during his adolescent years. Accompanied by his friend Robert Lachenay, he would evade the nightly patrols of German soldiers on the streets of wartime Paris to steal front of house publicity stills of his favourite stars, including Jany Holt and Gaby Morlay.

“ I saw my first two hundred films on the sly,” he writes in The Films In My Life, “ playing hooky and slipping into the movies without paying-through the emergency exit or the washroom window-or by taking advantage of my parents going out for the evening. I paid for these guilty pleasures with stomach aches, cramps, nervous headaches and guilty feelings, which only heightened the emotions evoked by the films.

Films were a source of comfort, escape and education for Truffaut. In 1947, aged just 15, he formed the Movie-mania Club. Later, he found a father-figure mentor in film critic and film theorist Andre Bazin and began to write for his magazine Cahiers Du Cinema. Truffaut could be a fierce critic, scathing of anything that seemed conventional or courted the mainstream.

Was I a good critic?,” he asked. “ I don’t know. But one thing I am sure of is that I was always on the side of those who were hissed and against those who were hissing.” He adored the films of Orson Welles and Jean Renoir and thought Alfred Hitchcock was the greatest director who had ever worked in films. It was Truffaut’s critical study of Hitchcock that saw the master of suspense being taken far more seriously as an auteur rather than a mere showman.

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Truffaut is fondly remembered for his starring role in friend Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) and, much more significantly, as one of the guiding spirits of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague). Truffaut seemed to feel oppressed by much of post-War French cinema finding it staid, conservative and lacking in energy or ambition. His views were so passionately held that it became inevitable that the only solution was to make his own films. Along with Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Claude Chabrol , Jacques Rivette and others, he lit the fireworks that would propel French cinema into one of its most exciting, influential and treasured periods. Truffaut’s first dazzling success came with The 400 Hundred Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), a heavily autobiographical tale that evoked a childhood of neglect, delinquency, cinema-going and an unquenchable spirit for survival. The impish, stern-faced Jean-Pierre Leaud stars as Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego Antoine Doinel, a 14 year-old whose unhappy family life leaves him drifting through aimless days of truancy and petty crime.. The 400 Hundred Blows was chosen for the Cannes Film Festival, winning Truffaut Best Director and subsequent nominations from the Oscars and BAFTA. He returned to the “character” of Antoine Doinel throughout his career, renewing that initial collaboration with Jean-Pierre Leaud in a sequence of films that confronted aspects of his own life and loves.

Truffaut made Shoot The Pianist ( Tirez sur le pianiste) (1960) in opposition to The 400 Blows. It shows a director desperate not to be “ a prisoner of my success”. Adapted from a hardboiled David Goodis novel Down There, it is a jazzy, loose-limbed thriller with Charles Aznavour imaginatively cast as an anguished anti-hero trapped by his past. The subsequent Jules And Jim (Jules Et Jim) (1962) stands as one of the landmark achievements of the nouvelle vague and of Truffaut’s career. Based on a little know autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, it captures the explosive emotions, gaiety and frustrations in a doomed love triangle between the bewitching Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) and her rival suitors Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim ( Henri Serre). The film also reflects those emotions in its style and daring, using everything from freeze frames, jump cuts and iris shots to reflect the intense nature of the bonds that entwine them. It is a film that manages to feel of the past but also very much in the moment; honouring the lyrical legacy of a Jean Renoir whilst feverishly reshaping it in Truffaut’s own sensibility.
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Looking back over Truffaut’s career, you are struck by his versatility. He reunited with Jeanne Moreau for The Bride Wore Black (La mariée était en noir) (1968). Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who wrote Rear Window, and featuring a score by Bernard Herrmann, it is Truffaut’s gleeful homage to the world of Hitchcock. Mississippi Mermaid (La sirene du Mississippi )(1969) brought together the star power sizzle of Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in an adaptation of the Cornell Woolrich novel Waltz Into Darkness. A “ perverse love story“, it romps through the tale of a lonely plantation owner who marries a woman he has corresponded with but has never met. Day For Night (La nuit americaine) (1973) is one of the great films about the making of a film, inspired by many incidents from Truffaut’s own career and suffused with a love for the camaraderie, chaos and unpredictability of a film production.

He worked at the extremes of cinema’s possibilities; collaborating with major stars on ambitious projects but also creating acutely observed little gems of daily life. The Last Metro (Le Dernier Metro) (1980) was one of his biggest commercial successes, winning 10 Cesar Awards including Best Actress for Catherine Deneuve and Best Actor for Gerard Depardieu. Evoking the wartime Paris he had know as a child, it is a film that celebrates the importance of art as a theatre company tries to endure the toughest of times and ensure that the show goes on. A memory of heroic resistance, it shows an acute understanding of the connections between life and art, artifice and reality.

In contrast, The Soft Skin (La peau douce) (1964) is a chilly, Hitchcock-influenced anatomy of adultery as a middle-aged married man (Jean Desailly) embarks on an ill-fated affair with an air hostess (Françoise Dorléac). A tale of love, revenge and self-destruction, it was once considered one of Truffaut’s failures. Critics of the time found it cold and trite but now it seems a more substantial piece, chiming with a recurring Truffaut interest in the price we pay for our romantic obsessions. He may have been a master at capturing the complex emotions of childhood but he was equally accomplished at unravelling the mysterious workings of our foolish hearts.

Truffaut died far too young in 1984 following a stroke and the diagnosis of a brain tumour. He was just 52. His legacy is a body of work filled with fluid storytelling, compassion and an acute sense of the fallibilities that make people human. It hasn’t always been easy to see Truffaut films on the cinema screen in recent years or to assess how well they have stood the test of time. This GFT season is therefore all the more valuable a chance to enter the world of a true Cine Master and a man who loved movies.

Allan Hunter Glasgow Film Festival Co-Director

If you have seen films that are part of our François Truffaut Cinemasters season and want to share your thoughts, we would love to hear from you. Tweet @glasgowfilm or email and tell us what you thought.

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