(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Authors Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana are both affiliated with Les Cahiers du Cinéma, the film journal for which Truffaut wrote for as a film critic. They had, of course, ready access to all his film essays, his correspondence, and his notes for an unpublished autobiography. In addition to perusing published Truffaut interviews, they interviewed many of Truffaut’s associates, friends, and lovers. As a result, their work draws from a considerable amount of research and may be considered the definitive biography of Truffaut. The book also contains a filmography, an exhaustive bibliography, copious notes, and dozens of well-chosen photographs of Truffaut, his associates, and his work (stills and film scripts).

De Baecque and Toubiana stress the close relationship between Truffaut’s life and his work, which they read as primarily autobiographical. Truffaut’s “clandestine childhood,” also the title of their first chapter, provides the key to understanding his films and to defending, even justifying, his behavior. The illegitimate child of Janine de Monferrand, he was unwanted and unloved, living with a wet nurse until his grandmother Geneviève de Monferrand took him in. When he was almost two years old, he was legally adopted by Roland Truffaut shortly before Roland married Janine, but the couple did not really want Truffaut to live with them. It was not until his grandmother passed away that the ten-year-old Truffaut would live with his parents. Then he was “left to his own devices in a more indifferent, not to say hostile, world.” Attracted to his mother, who did not return his love, he began to turn to young women and had his first sexual experience at fourteen. Throughout his life he was a philanderer incapable of fidelity, and he had his first case of syphilis at seventeen. When he learned that Roland Truffaut was not his biological father, he also began a search for a surrogate father, a role played by writer and rebel against bourgeois morality Jean Genet, with whom he had much in common, and by André Bazin, a mentor responsible for furthering his career in film criticism.

His childhood, according to the authors, also motivated two quite different kinds of behavior. On the positive side, his interest in reading, fostered at his grandmother’s home, became a means of escape when he went to live with his parents. In addition to becoming a voracious reader, he became an avid filmgoer, attending two or three movies every day at the age of twelve. Film became another means of escape as he identified with screen actors. These two interests led almost inevitably to his career as a film critic and, eventually, a director. On the negative side, his awareness of himself as unwanted and unloved led to his behavior problems at school, chronic lying, petty theft, desertion from the army, and, eventually, two suicide attempts before he was twenty years old. For Truffaut, “life was the screen” in a double sense: He lived film, but his troubled childhood also became the content of his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), just as many of his experiences were incorporated into his other films.

Becoming a film director was almost inevitable for Truffaut, who, with friend Robert Lachenay, wrote film notes, traded in stolen film stills, and organized Cercle Cinémane, a film club that failed financially. Despite personal and financial disasters, Truffaut was becoming well known in film circles, which his biographers describe in great detail, stressing his relationships with other film aficionados, many of whom became famous film directors (Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, as examples). André Bazin, who hired him as his personal secretary at Travail et Culture, helped him make additional contacts. After writing for Elle, a women’s magazine, he began in 1953 to write film criticism for Les Cahiers du Cinéma, a job with which Bazin also helped. In fact, he wrote so many pieces for the journal that he published some of them under pseudonyms, one of them Robert Lachenay. His most significant essay at Les Cahiers du Cinéma was “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” (1954), in which he attacked the French tradition of adapting literary works to films, an attack that plunged him into critical debate.

Truffaut, a “hitchcocko-hawksian” (Bazin’s term), began writing essays about his beloved American films and his favorite directors: Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles. These led to his celebrated politique des auteurs (the auteur theory),...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)