François Truffaut Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

François Truffaut 1932–1984

French screenwriter, filmmaker, and critic.

Truffaut is considered one of the most innovative filmmakers in the history of French cinema. He was at the forefront of the French New Wave style of filmmaking and is best known as a proponent of the auteur theory, that the director should be involved in the creation of the film from the writing of the script to the direction of the movie. He also worked throughout his life as a film critic, attacking the pretention of French cinema and praising American filmmakers. Although his life was relatively short, Truffaut made numerous films which achieved both critical and public success.

Biographical Information

Truffaut was born on February 6, 1932, in Paris. Not wanted by his parents, he spent his youth as a delinquent, skipping school and attending the cinema. Truffaut dropped out of school at the age of 15, about the time he met the film critic André Bazin. Bazin was instrumental in having the youth released from a juvenile detention center and later in helping him avoid criminal charges for desertion from the army, as well as influencing him about the cinema. Truffaut wrote an important essay for Bazin's journal Les Cahiers du Cinema, "Une certain tendance du cinema francais" which discussed the concepts of the auteur style. Truffaut married Madeline Morgenstern, the daughter of an influential film producer, and her dowry allowed him to establish a film production company. In 1957 he made his first film, Les Mistons, and in 1959 he released his best-known film, Les Quatre cents coup (The 400 Blows). He continued to make films at the rate of approximately one per year. The father of three daughters, Truffaut divorced his wife and in the last years of his life lived with the actress Fanny Ardent; he died of a brain tumor in 1984.

Major Works

Throughout his lifetime Truffaut created 21 feature films, 3 shorts, 10 books, and hundreds of articles and reviews. He was influenced by the filmmakers Renoir and Hitchcock and his films addressed subjects such as youth and misfits. His first critical and commercial success The 400 Blows was an autobiographical account of a neglected, abused and misunderstood boy, Antoine Doinel. The film won Truffaut the 1959 Cannes Film Festival award for best director and brought him public recognition. He continued the story of Doinel in the films L'Amour à vingt ans (1962; Love at Twenty), Baisers voles (1968; Stolen Kisses), Domicile conjugal (1971; Bed and Board), and L'Amour en fuite (1980; Love on the Run). Tirez sur le pianiste (1962; Shoot the Piano Player) reflected Truffaut's deep love and respect for the American cinema, particularly of B movies. It was an unusual blend of many genres and was both serious and comical. Jules et Jim (1962; Jules and Jim) is an intense character study, the product of a wide range of cinematic devices, and is somber and introspective. In La Nuit americaine (1973; Day for Night), which won the New York Film Critics' award for best picture and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Truffaut considers the nature of filmmaking. It is again autobiographical and Truffaut plays the role of a film director in the movie.

Critical Reception

Critics agree that Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player and The 400 Blows are Truffaut's best works. There is less agreement about the rest of his work. Some critics believe that Truffaut's first films are his best and the quality of his work decreases over time. Others point out that Day to Night and L'Enfant sauvage (1970; The Wild Child) are among his best work. Most critics agree that Fahrenheit 451 (1966), based on the Ray Bradbury novel, and La Sirene de Mississippi (1970; Mississippi Mermaid) are his least successful works. Despite criticism, he is praised for his approach which, while affectionate, does not sink into sentimentality. He is also known for his ease in filmmaking and for his natural style and balance.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Une visile [with Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais] (screenplay) 1954
Les Mistons [adapted from a short story by Maurice Pons] [The Mischief Makers] (screenplay) 1957
Une Histoire d'eau [with Jean-Luc Godard] (screenplay) 1958
Les Quatres cents coups [with Marcel Moussy] [The Four Hundred Blows] (screenplay) 1959
Jules et Jim [adapted from the novel by Henri-Pierre Roche] [with Jean Gruault] [Jules and Jim] (screenplay) 1962
Tirez sur le pianiste [adapted from the novel Down There by David Goodis] [with Marcel Moussy] [Shoot the Piano Player] 1962

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Penelope Houston (review date Spring 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Critic's Notebook," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring, 1961, pp. 62-6.

[In the following excerpt, Houston reviews Tirez sur le pianiste, commenting that although the critics and public disliked the film, it reflects Truffaut's dedication and devotion to the art of filmmaking.]

Left-wing critics in this country seem to have been thrown distinctly off-balance by Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste. No one has had the nerve to write, though some people have said, that Truffaut may have to be written off as a serious film-maker if this is the way he intends to carry on. Apparently the audience which saw the film at a meeting of the French...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

Roger Greenspun (essay date Spring 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elective Affinities: Aspects of Jules et Jim," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1963, pp. 78-82.

[In the following essay, Greenspun discusses the cinematography in Jules et Jim and the way in which the film's images illustrate the problems in the characters' lives.]

The forms of life flourish within the protective circles of François Truffaut's Jules et Jim. Whatever is reflected in the kindly eyes of Jules "comme des boules, pleins d'humour et de tendresse," tadpoles squirming in a round bowl of water, the slow sensitive circling of a room by hand-held camera taking careful inventory of the pleasant labours of a...

(The entire section is 3844 words.)

T. J. Ross (essay date July 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wild Lives," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, July, 1973, pp. 218-25.

[In the following essay, Ross analyzes Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black, and suggests why the critics and the public have not considered them to be among Truffaut's best work.]

The three films made by Truffaut after his major triumph with Jules and Jim were met with increasing reserve by both critics and general audiences. Undeniably, The Soft Skin, Fahrenheit 451, and The Bride Wore Black lack the sweet-and-sour charm of Jules and Jim (or Shoot the Piano Player), let alone the more consistently affable charm of the...

(The entire section is 4127 words.)

Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston (essay date Winter 1973–74)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Truffaut's Gorgeous Killers," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 2-10.

[In the following essay, Kinder and Houston consider the changing roles of women in Truffaut's films.]

The central character in many of Truffaut's films is a profoundly seductive woman steeped in the archetypal mystery of the belle dame sans merci; she uses her sexual liberation like a femme fatale, to destroy a hero who is either sensitive and needy, or who mistakenly believes that his rationality will enable him to cope with her magic. Truffaut's earliest films present a combination of attraction and hostility in response to this kind of woman. In...

(The entire section is 5424 words.)

Gerald Mast (review date 2 April 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From 400 Blows to Small Change." in The New Republic, Vol. 176, No. 14, April 2, 1977, pp. 23-5.

[In the following review, Mast compares Small Change to Truffaut's earlier film The 400 Blows. Mast states that although both films have similar subject matter. Small Change has a lighter tone.]

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about François Truffaut's Small Change is that it was made by the same man who made The 400 Blows. In his most recent film, Truffaut returns to the subject and setting of his first feature film—the world of children and the schoolroom, the contrast between that world as children see it and as adults see...

(The entire section is 2219 words.)

François Truffaut with Hélène Laroche Davis (interview date January 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reminiscing about Shoot the Piano Player: An Interview with François Truffaut," in Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No. 4, January, 1980, pp. 30-3.

[In the following interview, Davis questions Truffaut about the making of Shoot the Piano Player.]

At the end of a little street, filled with the voices of children playing in the schoolyard, are the offices of Les Films du Carrosse, François Truffaut's production company in Paris. This is where we first met in 1978 to discuss a project for a book on Shoot the Piano Player. Images of The 400 Blows and Small Change came to my mind as I entered the building. The walls of Truffaut's office were lined...

(The entire section is 4144 words.)

Stuart Y. McDougal (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Adaptation of an Auteur: Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1961) from the novel by Henri-Pierre Roché," in Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation, edited by Andrew Horton and Joan Magretta, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981, pp. 89-99.

[In the following essay, McDougal argues that Truffaut's adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché's novel Jules et Jim is both true to the novel and contains autobiographical aspects of Truffaut's life.]

The film of tomorrow seems to me even more personal than a novel, individual and autobiographical, like a confession or a private diary.


(The entire section is 3926 words.)

Bart Testa (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "François Truffaut," in Religion in Film, edited by John R. May and Michael Bird, University of Tennessee Press, 1982, pp. 210-18.

[In the following essay, Testa considers religion and spirituality in Truffaut's work, contrasting his cosmology with the beliefs of his mentor André Bazin.]

Among film makers whose work has received treatment by critics considering the religious dimension of cinema, a particularly complex figure is François Truffaut. The leading student of André Bazin, Truffaut reflects in his films his own belief that human consciousness and experience must be bound to language and culture. For Bazin, human consciousness is directly grounded...

(The entire section is 2446 words.)

Eugene P. Walz (essay date Winter-Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Antoine's First and Final Adventure," in Mosaic, Vol. XVI, Nos. 1-2, Winter-Spring, 1983, pp. 139-43.

[In the following essay, Walz discusses Truffaut's short story "Antoine and the Orphan Girl," which he describes as a pastiche of Jean Cocteau's work.]

Antoine Doinel was to acquire a last name and a police record in The Four Hundred Blows (1959), his first girlfriend and job in Antoine and Colette (1962), a dishonorable discharge from the military and several more jobs in Stolen Kisses (1968), a wife, a child and a mistress in Bed and Board (1970), and a divorce in Love on the Run (1979). The "adventures" of this...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)

Raymond Cormier (essay date February 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Metaphorical Window in Truffaut's Small Change," in The French Review, Vol. 63, No. 3, February, 1990, pp. 452-63.

[In the following excerpt, Cormier discusses the merits of Truffaut's film Small Change as a vehicle for the study of French.]

Et je me couche, fier d'avoir vécu et souffert dans d'autres que moi-même …—Baudelaire, Les Fenêtres, 1869.

With L'Argent de Poche (Small Change), which saw its premiere in March 1976, François Truffaut has given us a charming, bittersweet, funny and sad film about childhood. The story, it may be recalled, leisurely follows the...

(The entire section is 3710 words.)

John Simon (review date September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "François Truffaut: Saved by the Cinema," in The New Criterion, Vol. 9, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 35-43.

[In the following review, Simon considers Truffaut's life and philosophy about filmmaking.]

There are good, questionable, and bad reasons for wishing to read someone's collected letters. The sound reason is simply wanting to know that remarkable person better; to become, at least vicariously, a confidant and friend. The more dubious reason is wanting to impress people who haven't read the book with juicy anecdotes—human, all too human. The unsound reason is trying to derive some previously secret formula for success and fame. No one became lastingly...

(The entire section is 5754 words.)

Daniel Towner (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Antoine Doinel in the Zoetrope," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1990, pp. 230-35.

[In the following essay, Towner argues that Truffaut is a revisionist and that his later films reintroduce characters, scenes, and images from his earlier films.]

It should surprise no one that Francois Truffaut would base one of his later films (The Green Room, 1978) on the writings of Henry James. There are a number of aspects about their works that bear comparison, and even if the filmmaker as a youth might have been ignorant of the American novelist's work, Truffaut's later discovery of James must have been a revelation. After all, like James, Truffaut...

(The entire section is 3415 words.)

Elain DalMolin (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Voice in the Dark: Feminine Figuration in Truffaut's Jules and Jim," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1994.

[In the following essay, DalMolin discusses the role of the female voice in Jules and Jim.]

In the very beginning of Jules and Jim, while the screen is still black, a woman's voice is heard. No musical background, no other artificial sounds accompany this voice so crisp and clear that it sounds like an earnest statement purposely isolated to underscore the intensity of a vocal feminine presence from the start. "Tu m'as dit: je t'aime. Je t'ai dit: attends. J'allais dire: prends-moi. Tu m'as dit: va-t-en." ("You said to me: I...

(The entire section is 3994 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Curry, Dan, and Peter Lehman. "Interviews with Nestor Almendros." Wide Angle 7, Nos. 1-2 (1985): 118-25.

Interview with Nestor Almendros, focusing on his work with Truffaut.

Durovicova, Natasa. "Biograph as Biography: François Truffaut's The Wild Child." Wide Angle 7, Nos. 1-2 (1985): 126-35.

Considers issues of history and autobiography in The Wild Child.

Gillain, Anne. "The Little Robber Boy as Master Narrator." Wide Angle 7, Nos. 1-2 (1985): 108-17.

Argues that the key to...

(The entire section is 426 words.)