In Cinemas

Two or three things to know about Godard and Truffaut

Here’s the text of a talk I gave at Derby QUAD to introduce Two In The Wave, a documentary about Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.

Two In The Wave

The Cannes Film Festival 1958. Francois Truffaut, the firebrand critic at French movie magazine Cahiers Du Cinema, gets banned. He’s been a perpetual thorn in the side of the French film industry for years, having regularly slagged it off in print for being elitist, stagey and dull. Frankly, the Cannes organisers don’t need the aggravation. Fast forward to Cannes 1959. Francois Truffaut is the only French director in the main competition with his debut film, Les Quatre Cent Coups, aka The 400 Blows. His film – fresh, youthful, energetic – becomes the toast of the festival.

In the space of that year, it’s fair to say that French cinema, and then the whole world’s cinema, changed irrevocably. Truffaut’s writing – ecstatic about the films he loved, merciless about the films he hated – was the lynchpin for The 400 Blows and he practiced what he preached. And he wasn’t the only one. His long-term friend and colleague, Jean-Luc Godard, also wanted to direct. Borrowing a story from Truffaut, he released A Bout De Souffle – or Breathless – in 1960. If Truffaut’s Blows were a warning shot across traditional cinema’s bows, Godard came along and blew the whole place sky-high.

Tonight’s film is their story. It’s something of an insider’s view, written by an ex-editor of Cahiers Du Cinema Antoine de Baecque. It’s also a voyage of rediscovery, as actress Isild Le Besco reads and watches the impressive array of archival material assembled by director Emmanuel Laurent – letters, interviews, magazine articles and plenty of clips. The film borrows Godard’s maxim that “cinema has a beginning, a middle and an end…but not necessarily in that order,” so pay attention to the chronology. Also, it’s worth noting that since Laurent’s own visuals are fairly conventional, the sequences shot by Truffaut and Godard burst out of the screen, as fresh today as they were 50 years ago.

Why Truffaut? Why Godard? They might have been the first to gain worldwide recognition, but they weren’t alone in the movement that quickly became known as the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave. There were many other directors (most of them fellow critics of Cahiers Du Cinema), a list that includes Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. The distinctive look and sound of the films owes to genius cameraman Raoul Coutard, and composers Georges Delerue and Michel Legrand. And the films rely on their iconic, charismatic actors: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jeanne Moreau, Godard’s wife Anna Karina, and crucially, Jean-Pierre Leaud, the directors’ shared protégé who becomes a central figure in their relationship.

But by concentrating on Truffaut and Godard, tonight’s film gets at some fascinating truths about cinema’s power. The two couldn’t have been more different: Truffaut was lower class, a truant who regularly got in trouble with the law. Godard was a well-off intellectual, raised in affluent Switzerland. But they were united by cinema. Both began to frequent Paris’ cinema clubs as teenagers, both were befriended by influential critic Andre Bazin, and both learned about the great directors of the past…and kids being kids, they noticed something that seemed to have eluded the adults.

After watching so many Alfred Hitchock and Howards Hawks movies, they noticed that the directors used regular stylistic devices, with visual signatures as characteristic as a writer’s prose. It didn’t matter to them that Hitchcock and Hawks worked in genre movies dismissed by establishment critics; if anything, that made them all the more meaningful, because they had imposed their vision and personality on films that could so easily have been routine.

That realisation, coupled to their exasperation with French cinema, led to an even more radical notion. Why didn’t they make their own films? And because they had no formal training, because their only credentials were the existing films of the heroes they worshipped, and because their only goal was to pour their personality onto the screen, their films looked like nothing that had seen before.

Those early films are, to borrow a phrase, Breathless. Truffaut followed The 400 Blows with Shoot The Pianist and Jules et Jim. Godard responded with Bande A Part, Contempt, and Pierrot Le Fou. An entire generation was raised in Parisian glamour, insouciant cool, and the belief that anything goes. Suddenly, the jump cut impatiently did away with smooth, continuous action. Captions and freeze-frames provided literal pause for thought. And the tone could turn on a dime from comedy to violence to romance, all in the same scene.

The world noticed – especially in America, where two young critics called Robert Benton and David Newman reckoned they could do the same thing by writing a screenplay about gangsters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Feeling nobody in America could direct it the way they wanted, they asked Truffaut. When he reluctantly bailed, he recommended Godard. In the end, neither man directed Bonnie and Clyde, but their imprint is all over its freewheeling brilliance – and so the French cinema of the 1960s inspires the American movies of the 1970s. Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, William Friedkin and Brian De Palma all loved, and were influenced by, the two Frenchmen. Steven Spielberg went so far as to cast Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

However – that’s the big difference between the two. Godard would never have acted in a big Hollywood movie. Where Truffaut used his style to refine classical storytelling, Godard deliberately set out to destroy the past and replace it with something modern. Truffaut wanted the audience to feel, Godard demanded that it think. Truffaut was an aesthete, who believed that cinema’s transformative power came from its beauty. Godard was a revolutionary, a Marxist who gradually used his movies as agitprop to take on bourgeois complacency, imperialism and the Vietnam War. Inevitably, they came to blows, and the turning point arrived during the student protests of May 1968, when Truffaut and Godard shared their final public stage in the name of artistic freedom. Inevitably, it was at the Cannes Film Festival.

After that? Well, you’ll see. But it’s worth knowing what happens after the film’s story concluced in the mid-1970s. Both directors continued working, but Truffaut died from a brain tumour in 1984, tragically young at the age of only 52. Godard lived, and is still making movies today into his 80s – but his best work, like Truffaut’s, came during that glorious period when the two were inseparable, determined to rewrite cinema on screen as they had in the pages of Cahiers Du Cinema. Like that other great collaboration of the Sixties, Lennon and McCartney, the two complemented each other perfectly, and each lacked something without the other’s inspiration. Which just goes to show: if you’re going to be an artist, maybe first you need a friend to help.

Thanks to Derby QUAD for kind permission to publish this talk.

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