Remembrance of films past
Robin Buss looks back at the work of the idiosyncratic French director, Francois Truffaut, now on A-level syllabuses. Who remembers Francois Truffaut? The question will seem odd to anyone who grew up around the time of the New Wave and was the slightest bit interested in cinema: of course, everyone remembers Truffaut, whose name is synonymous with French film, and everyone surely will be excited by the idea of this major, comprehensive retrospective at the NFT. But a whole generation has arrived which had not seen inside a cinema when Truffaut died (in October 1984) and which is bound to find his work, at the least, old fashioned. Perhaps the question should be: why remember Truffaut?
A select few in that post-Truffaut generation will have an answer: he's on the French A-level syllabus; and that's as good a reason as any for mentioning the NFT season in this paper. But one may wonder how long the AEB and other examining boards will continue to offer the topic of Truffaut or the New Wave as an option, to students for whom French cinema means Carax, Beineix and Besson (directors whose concept of their art is at more or less the opposite extreme from Truffaut's). No doubt the examiners themselves still thrill to the memory of Les 400 coups or Jules et Jim - so "touching", so "fresh" - but even they must eventually be replaced by younger examiners for whom these films possess no nostalgic charm.
There is another thing that endears Truffaut to the examining boards: from Les Mistons, his first short film, onwards he repeatedly returned to themes of childhood and adolescence. As a boy, he himself became obsessed with films, finding in the cinema some compensation for an unhappy home life; and, before directing his own work, he gained a reputation as the enfant terrible of French criticism. Truffaut the critic attacked most French directors of the 1950s with a savagery born of youthful moral fervour. He could accept the unpretentious B movies of Hollywood - in fact, he relished them and pays homage to the genre in much of his own work. But he felt there was something fundamentally dishonest about the routine productions of postwar European cinema, amounting to a lack of integrity that, for him, was an ethical as much as an aesthetic matter. Cinema, to Truffaut, was almost literally a religion.
He worshipped it throughout his, life, though with less fanaticism after he started to make his own films, later admitting that, as a reviewer, he had been too harsh with some of his targets. The youthful enthusiasm, however, did not die. Indeed, a frequent criticism of Truffaut's own work is that it continued to reflect a degree of adolescent immaturity, especially in relation to women - all the more so since many of the films have an autobiographical element, and there is a temptation to identify the attitudes of the central male character with those of his creator.
The interest in young people went along with a belief in education, in the widest sense (which may not be the case with all A-level examiners). The classroom scenes in Les 400 coups are an object lesson in how not to teach. L'Enfant sauvage though it acknowledges the price that must be paid for socialisation, is still an extended argument in favour of humane and affectionate pedagogy. And Fahrenheit 451, a story about the transmission of culture, foresees a world with no books as unbearably bleak and oppressive. Perhaps Truffaut's respect for writers comes from a sense that his own education was deficient, as well as being the product of a culture that attaches great importance to literature: the absent figure of Victor Hugo looms behind his daughter in L'Histoire d'Ad le H. Truffaut had a marvellous feel for period, whether the Enlightenment France of L'Enfant sauvage, the early 20th century in Jules et Jim, Les Deux anglaises et le continent and La Chambre verte, or the Nazi occupation in Le Dernier metro, but he shrank from literary adaptations, except when dealing with American pulp thriller writers.
He belonged to what we can now see as a distinct period in European cinema history: the age of the great directors. Like his contemporaries, Fellini, Godard, Tarkovsky, Pasolini and the rest, he created an oeuvre, a body of work that, despite its diversity of subject matter and the collaboration of cameramen, writers and technicians, bore the mark of a single creator. It must, if nothing else, count as significant evidence in the argument about the director as auteur.
Here is a chance to engage in that argument. There have been screenings of Truffaut's films on television and many are available, even in this country, on video. But the season at the NFT is a unique opportunity to experience his entire output in the cinema, to rediscover and to reassess. Not that most people will even contemplate seeing every film.
So, for those of normal capacity and ambitions, it is worth trying at least to catch the double bill of L'Enfant sauvage and Truffaut's episode in L'Amour a vingt ans, "Antoine et Colette" (July 12); the appearance of photographer Pierre-William Glenn to introduce the screening of La Nuit americaine (July 14); Susan Hayward's seminar leading in to Les Deux anglaises et le continent (July 15); the hard-to-find historical drama, L'Histoire d'Ad le H (July 18); an invitation to reassess La Chambre verte (July 21), which the season's organisers feel has been unjustly neglected; and Ginette Vincendeau's seminar after the showing of Le Dernier metro (July 25). For a month at least on the South Bank Truffaut will not be forgotten and we will have the material evidence to decide how to remember him.