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Francois Truffaut - Friday Night Spotlight
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Francois Truffaut Profile

Few filmmakers have had as much impact on the art of cinema as François Truffaut (1932-1984). A film buff since childhood and an avid reader, he was largely self-taught, but he became one of France's leading film critics during the 1950s. His promotion of the "auteur theory" (politique des auteurs) eventually led to a critical reevaluation of Hollywood filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray, revolutionizing film criticism. He and several of his colleagues at the magazine Cahiers du cinéma also developed a more personal, freewheeling vision of filmmaking that achieved world renown as the French New Wave. Yet even when his later films became more conventional-looking on the surface, they nonetheless expressed a deeply personal vision.

Truffaut was born on February 6, 1932 to Janine de Monferrand, an unwed mother. This central fact would shape much of his life. Originally cared for by a wet nurse, Truffaut was taken in by his maternal grandparents when it became apparent that he was wasting away due to lack of care. In November 1933 his mother married Roland Truffaut, an architectural draftsman, who adopted the young François as his son. (Years later, in 1968, Truffaut would discover that his biological father was Jewish-a dentist named Roland Lévy-somehow fitting since he had long identified with Jews as outsiders.) His parents had a second son named René, who died as an infant.

Only in 1942, when his grandmother passed away, did Truffaut's parents finally take him into their household, located in the colorful Pigalle district in Paris. His mother Janine was socially active and sometimes took lovers, though she remained distant toward her son and often made him sit and read in absolute quiet. His adoptive father Roland was away much of the time mountaineering, but he was mostly easygoing and in some respects the young Truffaut got along with him better. Many details from his childhood, freely reworked, may be found in his semiautobiographical debut feature, The 400 Blows (1959). In a 1971 interview he recalled, "Obviously my childhood wasn't much fun, not that of a martyred child or a child who was beaten, but that of a child unloved or just ignored, which is even then pretty galling."

As a teenager, Truffaut started to attend various film clubs and societies, where he earned a reputation for his outspoken, at times vehement, opinions on films and directors. Many older intellectuals and cultural figures befriended him, especially the film critic André Bazin. Others included the writers Louise de Vilmorin, Jean Cocteau and later Jean Genet. Some of the films Truffaut most admired during this time included Sacha Guitry's The Story of a Cheat (1936), Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), and Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Raven (1943). When he attempted to establish his own film club, he quickly ran up debts and even stole a typewriter from the French Boy Scouts, his father's workplace, in order to cover the expenses. When his father found out, he dragged Truffaut to the police station and had him arrested. He was then sent to the Paris Observation Center for Minors. Bazin intervened with the authorities and eventually got Truffaut released, taking him on as an assistant at the organization Work and Culture. In a November 1958 interview, just after Bazin's death from leukemia, Truffaut stated: "Since that day in 1948 when he got me my first job as a fellow film buff, I became his adoptive son and so I owe him everything good that has happened in my life since. He taught me to write about the cinema, he corrected and published my first articles, and it was thanks to him that I was able to get into directing." In 1950 Truffaut also landed a position as a society reporter for the popular women's magazine Elle. In October of that year, he enlisted in the army and soon regretted it. Arrested and imprisoned for desertion, he attempted suicide and eventually secured a discharge.

With Bazin's continued support, Truffaut quickly established a reputation as one of the leading young French film critics, writing for publications such as Cahiers du cinéma and Arts-Lettres-Spectacles. Most notorious was his essay "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," published in the January 1954 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, in which he called out old-guard screenwriters and directors by name for their stodgy "tradition of quality," preferring instead American films, even low-budget B-pictures. Around the same time Truffaut proposed a new politique des auteurs (auteur theory), which emphasized the creative personality of directors across their bodies of work over individual films. Some of the directors he admired in particular as auteurs included Abel Gance, Jacques Becker, Max Ophuls, Roberto Rossellini, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, and of course Alfred Hitchcock.

Through his activities at film clubs, his work at the Cahiers du cinéma and his frequent attendance of screenings at the Cinématheque Française headed by the archivist and curator Henri Langlois, Truffaut befriended a number of other young critics who eventually became leading filmmakers of the French New Wave. Mainly this group included Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, although a number of other innovative works appeared during this time, including Agnès Varda's La Pointe Courte (1955), which predated the major New Wave films. Truffaut himself ventured into filmmaking with the short Une Visite (1955), though his real artistic breakthrough came with his second short, Les Mistons (1957). That film was also the first produced by Les Films du Carosse, Truffaut's production and distribution company, which he named after Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach (1952). The producers Ignace Morgenstern and Marcel Berbert provided the backing; in 1957 Truffaut also married Morgenstern's daughter Madeleine, and would have two daughters with her before their divorce in 1965.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the peak of the French New Wave, Truffaut created a truly brilliant series of films. For his debut feature, The 400 Blows / Les Quatre Cent Coups, Truffaut invented the character Antoine Doinel as an alter-ego, running on a parallel track with the director's own life. Thanks in part to Jean-Pierre Leaud's haunting performance in the lead, it created a sensation at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the prize for Best Direction. For Truffaut's second feature, the stylistically playful Shoot the Piano Player (1960), he adapted a David Goodis crime novel and cast the popular French singer Charles Aznavour. Although the film was not a success at the time, it developed a cult following and remains one of Truffaut's most appealing works. Long an admirer of the writer Henri-Pierre Roché, he had planned for several years to adapt his novel Jules and Jim and finally realized this dream in 1962. While still displaying Truffaut's stylistic bravura, Jules and Jim also achieved greater emotional depth than his previous works and arguably remains his masterpiece. The short Antoine Doinel film Antoine and Colette (1962), part of the anthology film Love at Twenty, is one of Truffaut's most perfectly realized works--a bittersweet mini-drama that exploits the full potential of the short film format.

If the manic energy of the French New Wave was perhaps destined to burn itself out, its leading filmmakers nonetheless went on to lengthy, if at times erratic, careers and continued to play a major role on the international film scene. Truffaut was no exception. The Soft Skin (1964), a drama of marital infidelity, was regarded as a misstep at the time of its release. Spare and modern in tone, with richly textured black-and-white cinematography by Raoul Coutard, the film was recently restored and is finally beginning to attract the critical attention that it deserves. Another important work during this period, albeit one with a lengthy and troubled production, was Fahrenheit 451 (1966), an English-language adaptation of the Ray Bradbury science fiction novel. In 1962, Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock at length and published the transcribed interviews in 1966. They were published in the U.S. as Hitchcock/Truffaut in 1967. Together with the earlier critical essays of his fellow New Wave filmmakers, the book played a major role in the worldwide reappraisal of Hitchcock as an auteur. Around the time that Truffaut was finishing work on the Antoine Doinel installment Stolen Kisses (1968), Henri Langlois was ousted as the director of the Cinématheque Française. Truffaut spent much of his energies in the spring of 1968 defending Langlois, and the protests spilled over into the May 1968 strikes and civil unrest across France.

While the common critical consensus today is that Truffaut's eclectic output in the Seventies and Eighties represents a relative decline in inspiration from his earlier works, he nonetheless produced some notable films, including Two English Girls (1971), adapted from another Henri-Pierre Roché novel, the historical dramas The Wild Child (1970) and The Story of Adèle H. (1975), and especially his homage to moviemaking Day for Night (1973), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Although unsuccessful upon its original release, The Green Room (1978) has earned a following as one of Truffaut's darkest and most deeply personal works. The Last Metro (1980) is in some ways the kind of "quality" film that Truffaut liked to rail against early in his career, but it also stands out as a portrayal of complicated moral choices during the Occupation and as a grand entertainment; it received ten Césars, including Best Picture. His last film was the noir-comedy Confidentially Yours (1983) starring Fanny Ardant, his partner at the time.

In September 1983, Truffaut was diagnosed with a brain tumor after suffering acute symptoms the previous month. He passed away on October 21, 1984, at the all-too-young age of 52, leaving behind a number of unrealized projects. Yet during his life Truffaut created a rich and varied body of work that revolutionized film culture. His best films still look fresh decades later, thanks to their precisely executed, at times provocative stylistic gestures and an engrossing emotional depth that marks him as the heir to Jean Renoir.

by James Steffen

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