The Importance of François Truffaut


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.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960): Truffaut's take on the American noir

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.

Truffaut and Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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.

Truffaut with his most famous on-screen surrogate, Jean-Pierre Léaud

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.

25 Comments

Filed under French Film, Movies

25 responses to “The Importance of François Truffaut

  1. Great piece. Truffaut has always been my favorite French New Waver. I appreciate Godard for what he did in expanding cinematic language, but I’ve never been emotionally invested in his work. Truffaut, on the other hand, has always kept me riveted. His movies always leave me excited about movies.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I hate to “out” him, but when I was referencing Truffaut’s New Wave peers who made their work THE story, I was referencing Godard most of all. I have loads of respect for him, but his films tend to be 2 hours of Godard screaming “HEY LOOK! I’m not following film conventions!!!”.

      I caught two Truffauts over the weekend- The Bride Wore Black (review coming) and Love on the Run. I’ve loved all of his movies on at least some basic level.

  2. Darah

    Heh. I know nothing about cinema, the roots of it or any of that artsy fartsy stuff you delight in. Perhaps I’ll learn. I’m learning right now in fact, by reading your wonderful blog.
    What I do know is that I recognised Truffauts face and wiki’d him.
    Yep, he was the French scientist in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

  3. Nice post, man. I have only seen one Truffaut film (The 400 Blows), but I loved it and would really like to see more of his work. What would you recommend to watch next?

    • It’s cheating a bit because one of my entries later this week will be ranking all of the Truffaut films I’ve seen, but I’ll let the cat out of the bag a bit and say that Shoot the Piano Player is a great place to start, Day for Night is high up there, and so is Jules and Jim. Antoine and Colette is a good one, too. It’s a short film (45 minutes), the second one in the Antoine Doinel series.

  4. Excellent write up here John! I am passionate about Truffaut and some weeks ago I did a top of his films and yesterday it drag 24 000+ clicks on my modest little blog! I will link this post on this top of mine. You can see it here: http://cinephiliaque.blogspot.com/2011/12/top-films-of-francois-truffaut-by-lmdc.html

  5. Sam

    Excellent article. I had always been more attracted to Godard, but as soon as you started talking about the French New Wavers making the work their story, I knew Godard was the target of that. It definitely made me appreciate the craft that I’d seen in Truffaut’s work and curious to see more. Thanks!

    • It’s tough because I don’t want to belabor the point about Godard. The truth is, I like Godard a lot as well. It’s a lot like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It’s easy to have favorites, but there really isn’t a wrong answer.

  6. Great post. Truffaut is easily one of the greatest filmmakers of the French New Wave. I’ve only seen five of his films, to be honest, but they were all amazing. I need to see more of the Doinel series, and some of his smaller movies, which I haven’t been able to find easily. The 400 Blows and Day for Night will always be my favourites though, and Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim and The Last Metro are also equally masterful. Any recommendations for Truffaut films other than those five that I need to see?

    • That’s pretty much my top five (I have The Last Metro a little lower but I still loved the bejeezus out of it). The Green Room is fantastic, although it’s one of his less New Wavey movies. I really loved The Bride Wore Black, and Wild Child is excellent as well.

      • My local rental store has two Truffaut films I’m unfamiliar with: The Woman Next Door and Two English Girls. I’ll probably watch them next, but I’ve had my eyes on the two you mentioned as well as the other Doinel movies.

  7. I am such a noob… I haven’t seen any of his films… shoot me now!

  8. Great observations. If Truffaut was an American gangster, his name would be, Frankie Truffles.

  9. Truffaut will always be my favourite director, period. He happened to come into prominence during the New Wave, but he is one of the greatest directors of any generation. Boxing him in with other New Wave directors like Godard does a disservice to Truffaut. Truffaut was making waves, and Godard was riding on them! :)

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  12. Boudet

    merci d’aimer autant François Truffaut, ça fait au chaud au coeur. J’organise des lectures autour de son oeuvre, je parle de l’influence de la littérature sur son cinéma, si humain, si tendre.
    La nouvelle génération a tendance à l’oublier un peu, car son cinéma n’est pas “spectaculaire” mais simple et humain, donc, il est important de l’évoquer le plus possible pour ne pas qu’il soit oublié. C’est terrible l’oubli.

    • My French is very poor, so I’m going to use Google Translate to reply. My apologies for any mistakes:

      Mes préférés réalisateurs français semblent tous avoir une solide expérience dans la littérature. Louis Malle est un autre exemple comme Truffaut, qui a utilisé une base solide dans la littérature.

      Nous vous remercions de votre visite, et continuer à répandre la bonne parole à propos de Truffaut.

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