Article abstract: A film critic whose auteur theory helped revolutionize film analysis, Truffaut was a leader of the New Wave directors who changed filmmaking itself.
François Truffaut was born February 6, 1932, in Paris, the only child of Roland Truffaut, a draftsman, and Janine de Montferrand, a typist. Young Truffaut was neglected by his parents, who were either working or engaged in his father’s enthusiasm for camping. Truffaut spent his first eight years with his maternal grandmother, and, when she died, his parents reluctantly took him back. He frequently skipped school with his friend Robert Lachenay to go to see films, and, in 1943, he ran away from home but was eventually retrieved by his father.
Truffaut later ran away again and lived with Lachenay for a time. In 1947, they bought a print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and launched a club for film enthusiasts. When this venture failed because of competition from another nearby club, Truffaut met its head, André Bazin, who became the most important influence on his life. They remained inseparable until Bazin’s death at forty on November 10, 1958, the first day of shooting on Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959; The 400 Blows). Bazin’s club folded shortly after Bazin and Truffaut met because of Bazin’s poor health, and Truffaut became a petty thief. His father sent him to a reform school at Villejuif, but in March, 1948, he was released into the protective custody of Bazin, who had legal responsibility for him thereafter. After being rejected by a young woman, Truffaut joined the French army in December, 1950, but soon deserted. Bazin helped him obtain a dishonorable discharge in 1952.
Truffaut lived in the attic of the home of Bazin and his wife for the next year. Bazin helped Truffaut become film critic of the cultural magazine Arts, and Truffaut also began writing for Cahiers du cinéma, founded by Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze while Truffaut had been in the army and soon to be the world’s most influential film journal. In his articles, Truffaut praised low-budget American films for their honesty and attacked recent French films as pedantic and artificial. These essays established his reputation as a confrontational critic and clearly stated his critical principles, influenced not only by Bazin but also by Henri Langlois, cofounder and director of the Cinémathèque Française. At the Cinémathèque, Truffaut and such friends as Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette, all future directors, saw silent films, the works of the German Expressionists and the Italian Neorealists, and the American films that had been banned during the Nazi Occupation. They were particularly impressed by the American films noirs of the 1940’s.
Truffaut’s passion for the cinema showed in his approach to reviewing, treating each film as if he were personally involved in determining its fate. In Truffaut’s most famous essay, “Une Certaine Tendance du cinéma français;” (a certain tendency in French cinema), in January, 1954, he ridiculed the work of such directors as René Clement and Jean Delannoy as being too literary and for failing to recognize the visual aspects of film. According to Doniol-Valcroze, “What many uttered under their breaths he dared to say out loud.” In contrast, Truffaut championed the efforts of such American B-film directors as Samuel Fuller and Edgar G. Ulmer for exploiting the relative freedom that low budgets provide to create films bearing the imprints of the director’s personality and style.
Truffaut’s affection for films was such that criticism could not satisfy him. Truffaut worked briefly for Max Ophüls during the making of Lola Montès (1955) and spent two years collaborating on three unproduced screenplays with Roberto Rossellini, the latter experience particularly helping him make the transition to filmmaker. He was to continue writing about films even after becoming a director. His best-known publication is Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock (1966; Hitchcock, 1967), based on fifty hours of interviews in 1962 with his favorite Hollywood director.
On October 29, 1957, Truffaut married Madeleine Morgenstern, daughter of Ignace Morgenstern, one of the most powerful film distributors in France. Their daughter Laura was born in 1959, and another daughter, Ewa, was born in 1961. They were later divorced.
After directing two short films and codirecting a third with Godard, Truffaut made his first feature, The 400 Blows, for slightly less than eighty thousand dollars. Because he had criticized people like his father-in-law so much, he was given a third of his budget by Ignace Morgenstern, who challenged him to prove he could make a theatrical film. This highly autobiographical account of the life of a young delinquent won the Grand Prix at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. The 400 Blows stars thirteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, chosen from sixty boys who answered an advertisement in France-Soir. The son of a screenwriter and an actress, Léaud had a difficult childhood and developed a relationship with Truffaut similar to that between the director and Bazin. He was to appear in six additional Truffaut films, playing the Antoine Doinel character from The 400 Blows in four.
Truffaut did not savor this success and that of his friend Godard’s à bout de souffle (1960; Breathless), which he cowrote, as much as he might have, because of the loss of his mentor. He was depressed by Bazin’s death throughout the making of Tirez sur le pianiste (1960; Shoot the Piano Player), based on an American pulp novel by David Goodis. Packed with allusions to other films, especially American films noirs, and more visually experimental than The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano...
(The entire section is 2449 words.)