Monday was François Truffaut’s birthday, and I feel like I missed an opportunity by not writing about him. To make up for it, I’ve more or less turned this into a de facto Truffaut Week. The fact of the matter is that Truffaut is one of the most influential and important filmmakers in film history. His techniques have been mimicked and recreated for decades since. If you could, imagine for a moment that the entirety of film history is a river. Imagine that the first films ever made are the source, and that the movies being made today are the end of the river emptying into the great unknown that is the sea. In the middle of that river, there’s a gigantic rock that shifts the current of the river. All of the water flowing forth from that spot touches that rock. That rock is the work of François Truffaut.
As a critic in the 1950s at Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut adopted the auteur theory from his mentor, André Bazin. Over the course of his life, he became the most celebrated practitioner of the theory. The gist of it is that directors should have complete control over the creation of a film. This in turn would allow them to imprint their personal vision for the work. Moreover, accepted storytelling techniques in film (and filmmaking techniques) needn’t be obeyed. What ultimately comes out is that critics and fans alike can eventually detect the motifs and styles of specific filmmakers, patterns in their filmmaking that allow them to tell a broader tale about what they feel is important in filmmaking. Truffaut applied it by taking his own favorite filmmakers’ genres–film noir, crime drama, romantic drama–and putting a very distinctive French sensibility on top, often evocative of the realism of Renoir.
As a storyteller, Truffaut’s films often play out as a series of non-linear episodes. His films focus on the humanity more than the story itself, telling a grander tale about who his characters are. It was a reflection of his profound love of people. Visually, he delighted in breaking the accepted practices of moviemaking–spliced frames creating a disjointed feel for the viewer, long tracking shots, jump cuts, post-modern films about filmmaking–but did so in a way that was brilliantly subtle. Frankly, it’s what separates him from his peers for me. His peers in the French New Wave often seemed preoccupied with turning their destruction of the rules of filmmaking into THE story, while the actual story and characters were completely ancillary. That never happened in a Truffaut film. He was always true to his characters, even while employing revolutionary filmmaking techniques.
The influence is tremendous. As Truffaut and his peers were crafting a name for themselves in the late 1950s and 1960s while practicing Truffaut’s beloved auteur theory, American cinema was mired in the studio system. The Hayes Code was dying a long, protracted death. Only the biggest names in American cinema had total control over their films. More often than not, studios had final say on artistic choices. And it was starting to drag American cinema down. Truffaut and his devotion to auteur theory forced a giant wave of American film students in the late 60s to stand up and take notice. That batch of filmmakers became Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg, just to name a few. They took the incredible lessons of Truffaut and his peers and spun it into one of the very best decades for film in America during the 1970s. Even today, five and a half decades since Truffaut penned Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français for Cahiers du Cinéma, filmmakers are employing his techniques, borrowing from his films, and keeping in line with the spirit of the auteur theory.
Of course, a sizable part of the beauty of Truffaut’s works is that they were themselves rooted in and derivative of so many incredible classics that predated his work. I’ve already referenced Renoir. He had a famously profound admiration for the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Jean Vigo, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, and several American films noir placed their own unique stamp on Truffaut’s impression of what cinema can and should be. He served as an integral link between the amazing films that preceded him and the amazing films that would follow and mimic him.
In the end, he was brilliant in achieving his goal. He put his own very personal imprint onto his films. His Antoine Doinel series possesses a strong autobiographical element. Day for Night (1973) allowed him to take his pure joy in making a movie and spin it into gold. Many of his films focus on children, who act as surrogates that mirror his own childhood experiences. Making a movie was a very personal experience for Truffaut, and he did so with a tremendous style all his own.
What’s most amazing to me is that, even though his life was cut tragically short at age 52, he still managed to wield this much influence. He’ll be an important part of film classes for a very long time. Each of the American titans of cinema who drew inspiration from Truffaut have created their own influences, beginning the cycle anew with Truffaut serving as the grandfather. He’s on a very short list of my favorite directors, and he deserves every ounce of acclaim that goes his way. Happy birthday, Mr. Truffaut.