An icon. A rebel. A legend. The films of François Truffaut defined an exhilarating new form of cinema for moviegoers the world over. But before Truffaut became a great director, he was a critic who stood at the vanguard, pioneering an innovative way to view movies and to write about the cinematic arts. Now, for the first time in eBook, the legendary director shares his own words, as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time examines the art of movie-making through engaging and deeply personal reviews about the movies he loves. Truffaut writes extensively about his heroes, from Hitchcock to Welles, Chaplin to Renoir, Buñuel to Bergman, Clouzot to Cocteau, Capra to Hawks, Guitry to Fellini, sharing analysis and insight as to what made them film legends, and how their work led Truffaut and his fellow directors into classics like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and the French New Wave movement.
Articulate and candid, The Films in My Life is for everyone who has sat in a dark movie theater and dreamed.
“Truffaut brings the same intelligence and grace to the printed page that he projects onto the screen. The Films in My Life provides a rare knowledgeable look at movies and moviemaking.” —Newsday
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The Big Secret
Jean Vigo Is Dead At Twenty-Nine
I had the huge pleasure of discovering Jean Vigo's films in a single Saturday afternoon session in 1946, at the Sevres-Pathé, thanks to the Ciné-Club "La Chambre Noire," organized by André Bazin and other contributors to La Revue du Cinéma. When I entered the theater, I didn't even know who Jean Vigo was. I was immediately overwhelmed with wild enthusiasm for his work, which doesn't take up two hundred minutes of projection time.
At first, I liked Zéro de Conduite best, probably because I identified with Vigo's collegians, as I was only three or four years older than they. Later, after I'd seen both films again and again, I definitely came to prefer L'Atalante, which I never leave out when I'm asked: "What, in your opinion, are the ten best films of all time?"
In a way, Zéro de Conduite seems to represent something rarer than L'Atalante because masterpieces devoted to childhood, in literature and in film, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. They knock us out on two grounds: besides the esthetic response, there is the autobiographical, the personal response. All films about children are period films because they send us back to short pants, school days and the blackboard, summer vacations, our beginnings.
Like all "first films," Zéro de Conduite has its experimental aspect. Lots of ideas that are more — or less — integrated into the scenario are shot through with a kind of "let's try it and see what happens" attitude. I am thinking of the college celebration when dummies are mixed with real people on the platform, which is also a fairground booth. That could be out of René Clair of the same period; in any case, it is a dated idea. But for one set piece like that, there are nine superb inventions, droll, poetic, or shocking, but all possessing great visual power and a still-unequalled bluntness.
When he shot L'Atalante shortly afterward, Vigo had clearly learned his lessons. This time, he achieved perfection, he made a masterpiece. He still used slow motion to draw out poetic effects, but he didn't try for comic effects by speeding up the action. He no longer had recourse to dummies; he focused his lens only on the real and transformed it into fairy tales. Filming prosaic words and acts, he effortlessly achieved poetry.
The lightning-like career of Vigo is like Radiguet's on the surface. Both were young authors who died prematurely and left only two works. In both cases, the first work is openly autobiographical and the second seems further removed from its author, based more on external material. To underestimate L'Atalante, because it was created to order, is to forget that second works are almost always that. Le Bal du Comte d'Orgel is an order of Cocteau to Radiguet, or of Radiguet to himself. As a matter of principle, every second work is important because it allows us to determine whether the artist had only one work in him, that is, whether he was a gifted amateur, or a creator, whether he was someone who had a lucky break or someone who is going to develop. Finally, there is the same line of development, the passage from realism and revolt to preciousness and estheticism. (I use these terms in their most favorable sense.) Even though we can dream of what a marvelous Diable au Corps Jean Vigo would have directed, I don't want to stretch the comparison between the writer and the filmmaker. But studies of Jean Vigo often cite Alain-Fournier, Rimbaud, Céline, and with good reasons.
L'Atalante has all the qualities of Zéro de Conduite, along with maturity and artistic mastery. Two of the major tendencies of cinema — realism and estheticism — are reconciled in the film. In the history of cinema, there have been great realists like Rossellini, and great esthetes like Eisenstein, but few filmmakers have been interested in combining these two tendencies — most have treated them as if they were contradictory. For me, L'Atalante grasps the essence of both Godard's A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) and Visconti's White Nights — two films which can't be compared, which are diametrically opposite, but which represent the best in each genre. Godard accumulates bits of truth and binds them together to make a kind of modern fairy tale; Visconti begins with a modern fairy tale in order to rediscover a universal truth.
I believe that L'Atalante is often underestimated as being concerned with a small subject, a "particular" subject, as opposed to the great "general" subject of Zéro de Conduite. In reality, L'Atalante deals with a major theme, and one that has seldom been treated in films, the beginnings of a young couple's life together, their difficulty in adapting to each other, the early euphoria of coupling (what Maupassant calls "the brutal physical appetite that is quickly extinguished"), then the first wounds, rebellion, flight, reconciliation, and finally acceptance. L'Atalante doesn't treat any less a subject than Zéro de Conduite.
If you look at the history of French movies as the talkies began, you find that between 1930 and 1940 Jean Vigo was almost alone with Jean Renoir the humanist, and Abel Gance the visionary, although the importance of Marcel Pagnol and Sacha Guitry has been underestimated by historians of cinema.
Clearly, Vigo was closest to Renoir, but he forged further into bluntness and surpassed him in his love of the image. Both were brought up for the task in an atmosphere that was both rich and poor, aristocratic and common. But Renoir's heart never bled. The son of a painter who was a recognized genius, Renoir had the problem of doing nothing to blemish the name he bore. He came to the cinema after giving up ceramics, which he thought was too close to painting.
Jean Vigo was also the son of a famous but controversial man, Miguel Almereyda, an anarchist militant who died in prison under mysterious and sordid circumstances. An orphan who was bounced from one institution to another under an assumed name, Vigo suffered so much that his work cries out of necessity. Every biographical detail chronicled in P. E. Salès Gomès' admirable book on him confirms what we imagine about Vigo from watching his films. His great grandfather, Bonaventure de Vigo, was a magistrate in Andorra in 1882. His son, Eugene, died at twenty of tuberculosis, leaving one son, Miguel. Miguel's mother, Aimée Salles, remarried — she married Gabriel Aubès, a photographer in Sète; later, she went insane and in 1901 had to be institutionalized. The young Miguel took the name Almereyda, both because it sounded like the name of a Spanish grandee and because it contained all the letters of the word merde (shit). Miguel Almereyda married Emily Clero, a young anarchist militant, who already had five children from an earlier informal relationship. All the children died young, one by falling out of a window. In 1905 she gave birth to Jean, who was born to a hard life. Orphaned, he had for his whole inheritance his paternal great grandfather's motto: "I protect the weakest." His films were a faithful, sad, funny, affectionate and brotherly, sharp illustration of that motto.
The motto indicates a fundamental point shared by Vigo and Renoir: their passion for Chaplin. Since the "histories of the cinema" do not pay much attention to the chronology of films and the influences of filmmakers on one another, it is impossible to prove what I believe to be true — that the construction of Zéro de Conduite (1932), with scenes divided by titles that comment humorously on life in the dormitory and the refectory, was very much influenced by Renoir's Tire au Flanc (1928), which was itself directly inspired by Chaplin, most particularly by Shoulder Arms (1918). By the same token, when he called on Michel Simon for L'Atalante (1933), Vigo must have had in mind Simon's role in Renoir's Boudu sauvé des Eaux (Boudou Saved from Drowning) the previous year.
When we read the recollections of the moviemakers of the silent generation, we notice that almost all of them came to films accidentally. A friend had asked them to be extras, or an aged uncle had taken them to visit a studio. This was not, however, the case with Jean Vigo, who was one of the first filmmakers by vocation. He was a spectator who fell in love with films, began to see more and still more movies, established a film club to bring better films to Nice, and was soon making them. He wrote to absolutely everybody, asking for a job as an assistant: "I'm willing to sweep up the stars' crap." He bought a camera and produced on his own his first short subject, À propos de Nice.
It has often been remarked that the line of Zéro de Conduite is broken by gaps that are usually blamed on the hellish working schedule. I think these gross ellipses can also be explained by Vigo's feverish haste to get at what was essential, and by the state of mind of the filmmaker who has just been given his first chance. He can't believe it; it's too good to be true. He shoots the film wondering whether it will ever see the light of day. When he had been merely a spectator, he thought he knew what was good and what was bad. Now that he is a filmmaker he is assailed by doubt. He thinks that what he is doing is too special, too far from the old norms, he wonders whether his film will even be shown. That's why I imagine that Vigo, learning that Zéro de Conduite was forbidden totally by the censors, and once the moment of shock was past, might have seen it as a confirmation of his own doubts. Perhaps he thought, "I knew I hadn't made a real film, like the others ..."
Later, when he presented Zéro de Conduite in Brussels, anticipating the eventual criticism of those famous "gaps" in the story line, Vigo allowed a misunderstanding to develop in the mind of the public: not only that the film had been prohibited by the censors but that it had also been tampered with — which is not true. So, Jean Vigo doubted himself, despite the fact that he had scarcely exposed 150 feet of film when, without realizing it, he became a great filmmaker, the equal of Renoir, Gance and Buñuel, who also began at the same time. Just as we say a person is fully formed between the ages of seven and twelve, so we can also say that a filmmaker shows what his career will be in his first 150 feet of film. His first work is himself, and what he does later will also be himself, always the same thing, sometimes a masterpiece, sometimes something less good, even some failures. All of Orson Welles is in the first reel of Citizen Kane, Buñuel in Un Chien Andalou, Godard in Une Jeune Coquette; and all of Jean Vigo is in À propos de Nice.
Like all artists, filmmakers search for realism in the sense that they search for their own reality, and they are generally tormented by the chasm between their aspirations and what they have actually produced, between life as they feel it and what they have managed to reproduce of it.
I think that Vigo would have more reasons to be satisfied with his work than his contemporaries had. He was far more advanced in evoking different realities: objects, surroundings, personalities, feelings, and above all the physical circumstance. I wonder whether it would be an exaggeration to speak of Vigo's work as the cinema of smells. The idea came to me when a reviewer, putting down a film I liked, Le Vieil Homme et l'Enfant (The Two of Us), said to me, "It's a film that smells like dirty feet." I didn't answer at the time but I thought about it again and said to myself, "Here's an argument that smells reactionary and might easily have been used by the censors who prohibited Zéro de Conduite." Salès Gomès points out that many articles hostile to Vigo's films contain expressions like "It's like water out of the bidet" or "It verges on scatology," etc. In an article on Vigo, André Bazin employs a most felicitous phrase when he refers to his "almost obscene taste for the flesh." It's true that no one has filmed people's skin, human flesh, as bluntly as Vigo. Nothing that has been seen for the past thirty years has equaled the professor's fat paw on the tiny white hand of the child in Zéro de Conduite, or the physical embraces of Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté as they prepare to make love, even more so when they have finished and parallel shots show them each returning to his own bed, he to his barge, she to her hotel room, both still in the grip of passion. The prodigious score of Maurice Jaubert plays a role of the first importance in this scene. It is a sequence both carnal and lyrical, an exact rendition of lovemaking at a distance.
As both a realist and an artistic filmmaker, Vigo avoided the traps of realism and estheticism. He managed explosive material, for example, Dita Parlo in her wedding gown on the barge in the fog; the jumble of dirty clothing in Jean Dasté's closet. In both, he steered clear of trouble thanks to his own delicacy, his refinement, his humor, his elegance, intelligence, intuition, and sensitivity.
What was Vigo's secret? Probably he lived more intensely than most of us. Filmmaking is awkward because of the disjointed nature of the work. You shoot five to fifteen seconds of film and then stop for an hour. On the film stage there is seldom the opportunity for the concentrated intensity a writer like Henry Miller might have enjoyed at his desk. By the time he had written twenty pages, a kind of fever possessed him, carried him away; it could be tremendous, even sublime. Vigo seems to have worked continuously in this state of trance, without ever losing his clearheadedness. We know he was sick when he made his two films and that he directed some sequences of Zéro de Conduite lying on a cot. It is easy to conclude that he was in a kind of fever while he worked. It is very possible, indeed plausible. It is certainly true that one can be considerably more brilliant, more intense, and stronger when one has a "temperature." When one of his friends advised him to husband his strength, to hold himself back, Vigo answered that he felt he lacked the time and that he had to give everything right away. It seems likely that Jean Vigo, knowing the game was almost up, was stimulated by this measured time. Behind his camera he must have been in the state of mind Ingmar Bergman referred to when he said, "One must make each film as if it were the last."
— 1970 (unpublished)
This time "the film of the week" is twenty-eight years old. It isn't every week that one has the opportunity to criticize a film like Napoléon. Not every month, either ... nor, alas, every year. Therefore it would be a bit ridiculous to analyze it like a current production, sorting out the good elements from the less good, looking for some flaw in Abel Gance's main structural support. Napoléon must be discussed as a whole, an unassailable monument. It must also — this is essential — be spoken of with humility. What contemporary film, French or foreign, that has been praised unanimously by the press and public, will be shown in twenty-eight years and arouse the applause of a theater filled with filmmakers and critics as Napoléon did yesterday evening?
Gance first thought about making Napoléon in 1921. He had just completed La Roue and was in New York to present the first version of J'accuse, which Griffith was going to have distributed in America by Allied Artists, whose membership included Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Griffith himself. Preparations began in 1923, and in 1924 the Société Napoléon was established. The world premiere took place April 7, 1927, at the Paris Opéra on a triple screen.
Napoléon took four years of work, three for the shooting alone. Before writing his scenario, Abel Gance read more than three hundred books and other documentation on Bonaparte: the Memorial, the correspondence, the proclamations, the works of Thiers, Michelet, Lamartine, Frédéric Masson, Lacour-Gayet, Stendhal, Elie Faure, Schuermans, Aulard, Louis Madelin, Sorel, Arthur Lévy, Arthur Chuquet, and others.
The film cost eighteen million francs, an enormous sum for that time. Two hundred technicians were employed: operators, photographers, architects, decorators, painters, assistants, assistant directors (stage managers), electricians, explosives experts, gunsmiths, makeup artists, historical advisers, etc. Forty stars act in the film. Certain scenes contain as many as six thousand extras. One hundred and fifty sets were constructed either in the studio or outdoors and the scenes were shot on location in Brienne, Toulon, at Malmaison, on Corsica, in Italy, at Saint-Cloud and in Paris. The film was to have had three episodes: Bonaparte's youth; Bonaparte and the Terror; and the Italian campaign. Only the first two were made. During the preparation for the film eight thousand costumes, four thousand rifles and other weapons, tents and banners were stockpiled at Billancourt. At the same time a whole area of Paris with its twisting streets was reconstructed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Films in My Life"
Copyright © 1978 François Truffaut.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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Table of Contents
François Truffaut (1932-1984),
What Do Critics Dream About?,
I THE BIG SECRET,
II THE GENERATION OF THE TALKIES: The Americans,
III THE GENERATION OF THE TALKIES: The French,
IV HURRAH FOR THE JAPANESE CINEMA,
V SOME OUTSIDERS,
VI MY FRIENDS IN THE NEW WAVE,
Films by François Truffaut,