By Anthony James

Francois Truffaut said famously that the movies saved his life. He adored cinema. As a young child, he stole a lobby card from a cinema showing Citizen Kane (something that he recreated for 1973’s Day For Night, his love-letter to cinema and its processes). He grew up a delinquent, feeling unloved by his family, and would find solace from his painful feelings of rejection in darkened cinemas in his native Paris. Truffaut distrusted institutions like school and politics, and was jailed as a young man for deserting the army.

He won a friend, guardian and surrogate family through the great critic and “father” of modern criticism, Andre Bazin. Truffaut started writing reviews critical of the French cinematic establishment, and hankered for a personal, direct cinema; in these writings, Truffaut was forging a kind of “thesis” for what would become the French New Wave of the 1960s, led by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette. For Truffaut, movies were transporting and transcendental, and as personal as a poem; they could explore the thing that he yearned for the most…love. Romantic love between men and women was a painful but comic mystery to him, and a life-long obsession that lasted until his sad, early death from a brain tumour at age 52 in 1984.

If all art is disguised autobiography, then four of Truffaut’s features (and a short) offer a fictionalised “anatomy” of Truffaut’s gentle and winning sensibility, which is a testament to his passion for both cinema and romance. These are the films that feature the character of Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), a figure that Truffaut was happy to declare as his on-screen alter ego. Introduced in 1959’s The 400 Blows (seen by many as the director’s masterwork) as a young movie fanatic and runaway, Antoine incarnates the basic facts of Truffaut’s miserable childhood. Yet, the film’s wide screen images, mobile camera, and sense of youthful, restless energy are intoxicating.

Antoine And Colette
Antoine And Colette

The thirty-minute short, Antoine And Colette (1962), has Truffaut’s anti-hero at the age of twenty, and suffering the pain of unrequited love. It’s bittersweet, funny, and very touching, and doesn’t suffer from the twee goofiness that afflicted the director’s later attempts at a “straighter” form of comedy. Stolen Kisses (1968) is the best of the “adult” Antoine tales; he gets a job as a private eye and falls for a client. It’s whimsical, feel-good, and features a dazzling mobile camera and a very pretty Paris. Bed And Board (1970) is less attractive. In this decidedly slight effort, Antoine is married, has an affair, and fathers a child. Love On The Run (1975) is considered by most critics as the point at which Truffaut’s stylistic mannerisms and lack of rigour became insufferable. Still, it’s a diverting comedy if you can stand Antoine’s boy/man qualities and his basic immaturity.

Truffaut has been quoted as saying that he could not take the character much further since “there is something in this character that refuses to grow up.” Most prefer Truffaut at his most tragic and bittersweet – best exemplified by Shoot The Piano Player and Jules And Jim – but these films make for pretty intriguing viewing, especially The 400 Blows and Antoine And Collette, which rates as a minor masterpiece. They’re also the best cinematic summation of the man himself…


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