July Highlights on TCM
(Fridays, 8pm)--This month, TCM is doing a month-long tribute to François Truffaut, showing all but two of his 21 features and a couple of his shorts as well. It's hard to believe that Truffaut has been gone for almost 30 years now, and I'll never forget the shock I felt when I heard the news that he had died of a brain tumor at the age of 52. Of all the great directors of the French New Wave, Truffaut was the one who always seemed the most youthful in spirit. Many of us actually associated Truffaut with youth--his youth, our youth, and the youth of his alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud. Truffaut exploded onto the world of cinema with The 400 Blows, made in 1959, which starred Léaud as Antoine Doinel, an autobiographically-inspired character he would reprise in four more films for Truffaut, at various stages of his life (they're all included here). The 400 Blows was not the first New Wave film (I suppose that distinction belongs to Le Beau Serge by Claude Chabrol), but it was in many ways the film that introduced the New Wave to the world, along with Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, for which Truffaut wrote the original story, two years later (it came out in France in 1960 and over here in 1961). The immediacy of The 400 Blows, in black and white Scope, came as a shock, and so did the frankness about childhood: this was not an idealized memory of youth but a very tough and close portrayal of a child's longings and fantasies and impulses and defenses; and it was also heartbreakingly lyrical and delicate. There was a relationship between Truffaut's film and the work of his hero Jean Renoir, and with Italian neorealist films as well, but it was actually something new in cinema. And his next two pictures, which went into different directions, were even more daring. Shoot the Piano Player was a crime picture, adapted from a novel by the American crime writer David Goodis, and it left us all speechless because it was made with a freedom that didn't seem possible in previous films: Truffaut kept changing his tone, from comedy to tension to lyricism and then back again, sometimes in the same scene. And in Jules and Jim, he told the story of two men and a woman who shift their affections back and forth across many years with a speed and a dexterity that stunned me: that picture had an overwhelming effect on me, particularly the opening ten minutes. I recommend all the films in this tribute, particularly The Soft Skin (which was underrated when it came out--an extremely sharp film about adultery), The Wild Child (starring the director himself--Truffaut was a wonderful actor), Two English Girls, also starring Léaud and based on the second of two novels written by Henri-Pierre Roché (who also wrote Jules and Jim), The Green Room (also starring the director, an extremely unusual picture based on some stories by Henry James), and The Woman Next Door, a shattering story of obsessive love. Truffaut's work is so rich that I could go on for several thousand words more about his dense but fleet narrative style, his creative partnerships with the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros and actors and actresses like Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, or the power of his period films, which stand alone. He opened a lot of doors in the cinema, and he left behind an extraordinarily rich body of work.