18 January 2007

Truffaut meant something very special

“Truffaut’s passion for cinema, the desire that it stirred in him, animates every movie he ever made, every scene, every shot.”
– Martin Scorsese, in a tribute to Francois Truffaut in Time magazine

The title of this post is not mine. It’s a quote from a Time magazine tribute Martin Scorsese paid to Francois Truffaut. For, Truffaut was no ordinary filmmaker. Along with Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, Truffaut created the French New Wave in the 1950s that influenced generations and generations of filmmakers across the world. And does so even today.

Truffaut, who, in his 25-odd years in the industry, made as many films before his untimely death at the age of 52 from a brain tumour, began his career as a film critic. Even before that, Truffaut was a film buff (watching hundreds of films every year) and an avid reader (reading a book a week). As a film critic he was thorough, uncompromising and sometimes vicious. He spared no-one, not even his father-in-law who was a film distributor and whose films Truffaut reviewed scathingly. In 1958, Truffaut was banned from the Cannes Film Festival.

American film critic, author and educator, James Monaco, in his 1976 groundbreaking book, ‘The New Wave’, writes that Truffaut’s father-in-law had finally had enough and had taunted him with, “If you know so much, why don’t you make a film?” In 1959, Truffaut returned to Cannes with his own film, ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ (The 400 Blows), to take away the Best Director’s award. Thus began his career as one of the world’s best film directors, with masterpieces like ‘Jules et Jim’ (Jules and Jim) and ‘La Nuit américaine’ (Day for Night), giving pleasure to millions of film-viewers and influencing thousands of others.

But, for Truffaut, the going has not been smooth. He has received a great deal of criticism for his films. They’ve been cited as disappointing, private, introverted, complex and even cautious… too serious to be commercial successes. But, undeterred, Truffaut had gone ahead making films, experimenting with techniques, taking cues from those whose influences on him have been unmistakable: Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock.

The human dimension had intrigued Truffaut more than the story. He had always been more interested in his characters than his stories. He had always found ways to focus on his characters, isolating them from the background, punctuating their presence on screen with poignant dialogue. Where a Hindi/Bollywood film filled space with loud music or songs and dances, Truffaut’s films filled space with silence and carefully-crafted words.

But most of all, I think, Francois Truffaut had found filmmaking to be an adventure that gave life and meaning to his thoughts as a film documentarian.

And, what about the question (see my previous post) that had dogged Truffaut most of his life: ‘Is the cinema more important than life?’ Well, according to James Monaco, there may actually be more than one answer:

“It can be answered in the affirmative from two separate perspectives. From the point of view of Truffaut and Léaud [actor who played the main character in Truffaut’s earlier films] the film buffs, the phantoms of the cinémathèque, the answer is obviously – and unhappily – yes. But from the point of view of the media theoretician, the student of the sociological and psychological effects of film, the answer may also be a qualified yes; and this ‘yes’ then becomes the major premise for an important discussion of how the media have altered our existence.”

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