IN FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT: STOLEN PORTRAITS, A ROUTINE talking-heads documentary accompanying the new Truffaut retrospective at the Nuart, there's a lovely clip of Jean Renoir, looking like a benevolent gnome as he notes that Jules and Jim was the film that made him “most fondly jealous of Truffaut.” The old genius, who was Truffaut's mentor and his hero, might as well have professed jealousy of himself. Of all Truffaut's films — 11 of which, plus two shorts, will play in fresh 35mm prints with very '90s translations custom-built for young moviegoers who (at least as current wisdom has it) have to be lured to subtitled movies — Jules and Jim bears most clearly the mark of Renoir's lambent style, his ardent humanism and lyrical regret for the death of ideals. And all the better for it: Notwithstanding Truffaut's passion for popular American movies and his venomous attacks on much of the French film establishment (in his criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma during the 1950s), his best work as a writer-director is identifiably French-classical, and specifically Renoirian in craft and philosophy.
Unlike those of his New Wave rival Godard, Truffaut's movies invite audience identification. That may be what inspires a couple of his more jaundiced colleagues in the documentary to dub him a bourgeois filmmaker. (Godard, for whom nothing was worse than playing to viewer satisfaction, doesn't appear — but he would have joined the chorus.) If accessibility is bourgeois, the cap fits. Truffaut rarely talked down to his audiences; he took it for granted that they shared his literary tastes as much as they did his love of Hitchcock and gangster movies, and his commitment to the doomed longing for completion that motivates his characters, however anguished or disaffected.
The man who coined the term “auteurism” believed that a filmmaker's personality must be transparent to his public. Lord knows, his was, especially in the heavily autobiographical “Antoine Doinel” series, starring Truffaut's alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud, beginning with Truffaut's 1958 first film, The 400 Blows, and ending in 1978 with Love on the Run. Were it not for the dry wit that puts a saving skeptical spin on his glum self-absorption, Doinel — a lost soul with indifferent parents modeled on Truffaut's bitterly resentful vision of his own — would be the most insufferable of narcissists.
If in Renoir's films everybody has his reasons, almost everyone in Truffaut's, man or woman, has Truffaut's. In his early work they're pretty good reasons, nowhere more so than in Jules and Jim, a tale of two men (surely modeled on Truffaut and his childhood friend Robert Lachenay) — one a dapper, womanizing Paris journalist (Henri Serre), the other a shy, wistful intellectual played by the Austrian actor Oskar Werner — so close that they're willing to share the same woman, who in turn shares herself lavishly with others. One could make a convincing case that Jeanne Moreau's Catherine — by turns maternal and infantile, remote and engulfing, ravenous for attention and desperate to be alone — is a distillation of Truffaut's bottomless ambivalence, at once worshipful and terror-struck, toward women. A disappointingly plodding new biography by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, both big cheeses at Cahiers du Cinéma (Toubiana also made Stolen Portraits), fingers his mother, as Truffaut did for many years, as the source of his problems.
No doubt Madame Truffaut's remoteness and inconsistency, coupled with his stepfather's passivity, contributed to their son's woman troubles, but the more interesting question is not what Truffaut's parents did to him, but how he mythologized himself, his parents and his women in his movies. Truffaut was not above spite — the secondary women in Jules and Jim are ciphers: Jim's submissive girlfriend, Gilberte; the prattling waitress, Therese; a blank-faced waif who's introduced to Jim by her date as “pure sex.” Catherine, too, can be manipulative and insecure, qualities that Truffaut understood from the inside. (“Such women are marvelous to some people,” he remarked in an interview. “But they seem odious if you're not in love with them.”) There is more of Truffaut in Jeanne Moreau's Catherine than in either of the two men, and not just because he was himself a noted multitasker in his relationships. One might have expected Truffaut to cast a waif to play this free spirit, but the heavy-featured Moreau was a brilliant choice, signaling Catherine's quicksilver nature with that marvelous bee-stung (without benefit of collagen) mouth. Turned up, it radiates careless rapture; pulled down, it expresses not just her depressive temperament, but the failure of the romantic and moral experiment she entered into with the men who adored her. Like all Truffaut's protagonists, Catherine is defined by melancholy, forever seeking to reinvent and fulfill her life in a restless seesaw with all her lovers, forever condemned to disappointment. Moreau's enormous presence keeps the viewer a hair's breadth away from disengaging from the film's sillier bits of melodrama, doubtless culled from the American movies that Truffaut so admired. With the exception of Shoot the Piano Player, an adoring homage to B movies, the Hollywood influence cheapened his most classical impulses.
LOVE TRIANGLES ARE A COMMON ENOUGH COMMODity, especially in French film. If Truffaut has anything to answer for, it's the countless froufrou Jules and Jim knockoffs by lesser talents. (Not to mention the final scene in Thelma and Louise, surely lifted from Catherine's solution to her predicament.) Truffaut's film will keep forever, less for its subject matter — which was a lot more daring in 1961 when it was made, and in 1912 when it was set, than it is in our jaded post-counterculture age — than for the sheer beauty of its construction, the classical fluidity of its rhythms, its restless shifting of tone from jaunty to elegiac, the quick freeze-frames and myriad grace notes (Paris glimpsed at an angle through the struts of the Eiffel Tower, Jim rolling down a hill with Jules and Catherine's little girl) that remain in memory along with Georges Delerue's lovely score. Gratifying though it is that Truffaut was a mere stripling of 29 when he completed Jules and Jim, it's sad to contemplate that with the possible exception of The Story of Adele H, a passionately told (and acted, by a 19-year-old Isabelle Adjani) story of unrequited love, and The Wild Child, based on a French doctor's attempt to connect with a feral boy (and a glaring omission in this series), nothing he made subsequently came close to the rueful wisdom of this radiant film. Truffaut's later films — the tediously neo-Jamesian Two English Girls, or the schematic The Last Metro, or the chilly The Green Room — have none of the luster of his early films. That slump, as much as the brain tumor that carried him off in 1984, not long after he had a baby with Fanny Ardant and while he was preparing to write the story of his life, was Truffaut's tragedy, and our loss.
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FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT: A Celebration At the Nuart | May 1427