‘Francois Truffaut’ at the Cinematheque Francaise: Exhibition Review

Francois Truffaut Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Cinematheque Francaise

Francois Truffaut Still - H 2014

The late great New Wave auteur is given a worthy resurrection at the Cinematheque in Paris

To commemorate the death of the great French director, writer, producer and film critic Francois Truffaut, who passed away thirty years ago last month, the Cinematheque Francaise has organized a massive “event” that includes a brand new exhibition and catalog, a retrospective of both the films Truffaut made and some of the films he inspired and a series of conferences surrounding his work.

It’s no small irony that the Cinematheque, which Truffaut began frequenting in his teens when it was only a 60-seat theater stuffed into an apartment in western Paris, has since ballooned into a multimillionaire euro entity housed in a building designed by Frank Gehry, and whose initial cost (sans renovations) was over $40 million.

Along with fellow cinephiles Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, Truffaut made a startling leap from avid filmgoer to revered (and feared) critic to world-renown filmmaker in just over a decade, heralding the start of a New Wave that would light up art houses for years to come, and that would shift power from the hands of the producer and actor back into those of the director. The Cinematheque event reveals just how high Truffaut managed to climb: like The Ramones being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2002, it’s the consecration of an outsider turned ultimate insider, yet one whose work continues to inspire budding unknown auteurs across the planet.

Read more Kino Lorber Picks Up Jean-Luc Godard's 'Goodbye to Language'

Comparisons to The Ramones are not entirely inappropriate, and as the chronological exhibition (curated by Truffaut biographer and Cinematheque head Serge Toubiana) reveals, the young Truffaut was something of a punk, born in 1932 and raised as a hooky-playing street kid in the Pigalle section of Paris. After catching the film bug via the plethora of movie clubs that appeared in France after the war, Truffaut started his own cine-club that soon tanked and caused him to be arrested for unpaid debts. Later, he joined the army out of love for a girl, but not before slitting his wrists when she rejected him. He deserted the military and was arrested again, only to be saved by his mentor and surrogate father: the influential film critic and Cahiers du Cinema co-founder Andre Bazin.

Truffaut’s years as a critic are given special attention in the exhibit, with an entire wall lined with the original Cahiers magazines in which he was published throughout the 1950s – although he also worked for a number of other publications, including several dailies as well as Elle magazine. His most influential piece was the bombshell diss essay “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” published in 1952 when Truffaut was 22, and in which he viciously took down a number of respected French filmmakers of the time. The article helped pave the way for a Nouvelle Vague revolution that he and his fellow Cahiers critics would stage on paper and soon after that, in the cinema itself.

Indeed, after making headway as a critic, Truffaut exploded onto the scene in 1959 with his autobiographical debut, The 400 Blows, which nabbed the Best Director prize in Cannes and launched him into the forefront of international moviemaking. As both writer-director as well as producer through a company first financed by his father-in-law — and whose cushy office is recreated as an installation in the exhibit – Truffaut was able to maintain independence throughout his career, making movies “to keep the machine running,” as he said, while also co-producing a number of works by his contemporaries, including films by Godard, Rivette, Rohmer and Maurice Pialat.

Read More Daniel Boulanger, French New Wave Actor and Writer, Dies at 92

Twenty features would follow in the wake of The 400 Blows, including such gems as Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Stolen Kisses and Day for Night (which received the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1974), while Truffaut also starred in his own films The Wild Child and The Green Room. In fact, many Americans may know him less as a director than as an actor for playing the scientist Claude Lacombe in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind – an experience that rather beguiled and fascinated Truffaut, as evidenced by the enthusiastic correspondence between him and Spielberg that is on display toward the close of the exhibition.

Granted, a “film exhibition” is in itself a strange beast, and no amount of clips or stills can substitute for seeing the movies themselves, preferably on the big screen. But Francois Truffaut nonetheless offers up a consummate visual portrait of one of cinema’s most fervid admirers and practitioners – a man who left behind a sizeable record of his life and career, revealed through hundreds of photos, letters, telegrams, annotated screenplays and adapted novels (with the director’s own notes in the margins). One particularly memorable room recreates the dozens of Stasi-like files that Truffaut kept on other filmmakers, artists and writers of his day – files filled with notes and newspaper clippings, as if he were already storing away archives for a future exhibit.

The Cinematheque show underscores Truffaut’s total commitment to his art, yet while he’s quoted in one room saying his films should "look like they were made by a man with a 104° fever,” it ultimately reveals how he was a meticulous director-producer who ran a successful business without sacrificing too much artistic integrity in the process (he only made a few stinkers, and even those look better with age). Truffaut may have grown up a young punk, later becoming a “young Turk” (as the Cahiers gang was called), but he managed to mature well while still approaching cinema with the passion of a youngster – only to die way too young in the end. Now he’s been given a worthy resurrection.   

Runs: October 8, 2014 – January 25, 2015
Location: Cinematheque Francaise, 51, rue de Bercy, 75012 Paris, France
Website: www.cinematheque.fr