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As the summer of 1983 began, Francois Truffaut's professional and personal lives merged, took flight, and turned the often anxious filmmaker euphoric. After six hectic but happy months, he had just completed his latest film, Confidentially Yours (Vivement Dimanche!) with Fanny Ardant and Jean-Louis Trintignant and arranged for its premiere in Paris in August. Now it was time for Truffaut and Ardant, his lover and muse, to take some time off. They rented a house in Normandy to await the arrival of their baby, due that fall. In letters to intimates that summer, the prolific Truffaut took delight in pointing out that when he referred to "my new baby," he didn't mean his next film, but the real thing. In August, the film got off to a better start than he thought it would, holding its own against Superman II.
Three days after the premiere, back in Normandy, Truffaut fainted after a headache ("a firecracker exploded in my head"). He continued to feel unwell. On September 12, he underwent an operation for a brain tumor. On September 28, Ardant's and his child, a daughter, Josephine, was born. By April, 1984, it was apparent that Truffaut was facing more than a long convalescence. In July, a scan showed that the tumor had spread. At times, he rallied. But in September he entered the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. On October 21, 1984, Truffaut died, aged 52, leaving behind a woman with whom he had been happy, their infant daughter, and an office full of projects in various states of incubation, including several with Ardant. In a final irony he would have appreciated, Truffaut's last film is one of his lightest and larkiest.
This was by intention. Truffaut had made a previous film with Ardant, his penultimate one, La Femme d'a Cote (1981), a dark work tracing a path from l'amour fou to death, with Ardant as a married woman who rekindles an old romance with a man, also now married, bringing all to grief. This time, he was determined to star Ardant in a comedy. Truffaut loved American noir writers. David Goodis was the inspiration for Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Cornell Woolrich spawned The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). For Confidentially Yours, he went to Charles Williams, an underrated master of hard-boiled suspense, with a couple of big reversals of Williams's The Long Saturday Night, the first of personnel, the second, and far more important, of style.
In Williams's book, a man is forced to clear himself of a murder rap with the help of his secretary, who mostly stays in the office. In Confidentially Yours, Jean-Louis Trintignant's real estate man in a deliberately generic-looking south of France is accused of murdering his wife and her lover and two more shady types tied to them. But he spends most of the film hiding in a basement store room in his office. It's his secretary who does all the running around, trying to prove him innocent after first parking his car at the Nice airport so the police will think he's flown the coop. From the film's first sequence, showing Ardant walking to work with a jaunty step, a mischievous eye, and a buoyant air, the film puts a new twist on Truffaut's usual man-woman plots. The relationship that enlivens the film isn't between the leads. It's between Ardant and Truffaut's adoring camera. She's not just the film's centerpiece; she's its reason for being.
So stylistically gorgeous is Nestor Almendros's black and white camerawork (some of the sets were even painted black and white!) that at first, like the cops, you're fooled. You think you're getting a noir. Certainly its male fugitive evokes the pessimism and foreboding that lie at the heart of noir. The noir visual vocabulary is reinforced by Almendros's head-on shots of the Provencal underworld, the Provencal rain and the mostly nocturnal action, and also by Truffaut's crisp editing. But Truffaut's temperament isn't really at home in this hard-boiled, fateful genre, even on the level of comic noir.
Truffaut is neither armored nor pessimistic, as was his idol, Hitchcock (referenced here with several other filmmakers). The distrust of women that is a staple of film noir is alien to him (one of the sly citations is of Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women, 1983). At one point, the dark-haired Ardant obliquely kids Hitchcock's penchant for cool, dangerous blondes. Before long, Truffaut's amiability has undercut any inclination we might have had to take its menace or its pileup of corpses seriously. The plot machinery seems to clank along half-heartedly, a speed bump to Truffaut's celebration of Ardant. The demands of the genre also seem at odds with Truffaut's characteristic complicity with his characters and with the romance that's supposed to develop between Ardant and her boss. Trintignant is singularly grumpy and charmless, and his way of slapping Ardant around is a turnoff. They seem at ease only when stalking the killer.
Not that Ardant in action doesn't more than justify an immersion in the film. Her face gleams with intelligence and generosity. Her handsome features, slightly outsized in an earthy way, with full lips and a jaw that projects resolve, are the stuff of seducing cameras en route to stardom. She could have stepped from the prow of an ancient ship. Added to which, she projects a good-humored confidence. She's fully believable as the kind of woman who'd walk out of a rehearsal of an amateur play, throw a raincoat over a Renaissance tunic and tights, and hop a bus to Nice to look for clues without ever looking back. And if she bops a priest or gets something else wrong while playing detective, your urge is to cut her some slack.
Which is more than Trintignant's character does. You'd think he'd celebrate his good fortune instead of losing his temper with her as often as he does. What's mystifying here is what she sees in him, other than motivation for her initiative. The wide set of her mouth and her way of seeming to notice everything at a glance, enhance a considerable comic flair, too. If Trintignant's character hadn't been written as such a sourpuss, Confidentially Yours might more naturally seem a screwball romantic comedy than a going-through-the-motions tribute to noir. Truffaut described Ardant's Barbara as a Katharine Hepburn character and first bought the rights to the novel hoping to star Jeanne Moreau. Still, Barbara wound up in the right hands. There's a playfulness and finesse in Ardant's high-energy loveliness that seems eminently suited to Truffaut's essentially sunny temperament and the kinds of empathy that often make his films so beguiling. One of the things we lost when we lost Truffaut is the string of films they would have gone on to make. As swan songs go, this valentine disguised as a noir will do quite nicely.
By Jay Carr