Thirty years after his death, Francois Truffaut remains one of the most respected and celebrated innovators of world cinema. A major force of the French New Wave movement, Truffaut was never afraid to take risks in his work, either artistically or politically. In the spirit of his fellow defiant New Wave colleagues, Truffaut endowed cinema with an impressive body of work still every bit as revered as when audiences first experienced them.
Truffaut may have been, and continues to be, a bit overshadowed by fellow French filmmaker and close friend Jean-Luc Godard. While they were both strong conductors of the commercial and critical success of the French New Wave, Godard is typically more commonly known as its face. It could be argued that Godard had a more bold, brazen, recognizable style than Truffaut.
However, the more subtly stylized touch Truffaut gave to films was by no means less important. He was a true artist in every sense with a deep passion for the art of film, and revolutionized filmmaking with his philosophy of Auteur Theory. For those wanting to experience the art of Truffaut for the first time or the twentieth, these are his essential works.
1. Les Quarte Centre Coups (The 400 Blows) (1959)
Commonly claimed to be Truffaut’s opus, The 400 Blows is a beautifully heart-wrenching story of a troubled young boy, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud), struggling to find his place in the world and lured to delinquency in the streets of Paris. Told through episodic narrative, the film follows the boy through his difficulties in school, poor home life and increasingly pessimistic view of life.
While Antoine begins as a silly class clown and dissolves into a convicted and incarcerated thief, Truffaut brilliantly builds sympathy in the audience by exposing both his crimes and the reasons he commits them. What’s most striking about Antoine is his sensitivity, a characteristic typically not found in criminal characters by this point in cinema. He’s not a bad kid by nature, rather he’s acting out of the poor circumstances which have followed him all his life. He lives in a cramped apartment with an overbearing mother and loving but weak father.
They have so little money that Antoine doesn’t even have his own bedroom, rather a pull-out bed in the living room. He’s routinely mocked and talked down to by his teachers. He has no guidance or anyone to show him the way to live in contentment, since every adult he knows is so unhappy. What Truffaut so brilliantly does here is give the audience the chance to look into the mind of a lost child, and encourages us to take greater care in improving our society by protecting our youth.
2. Jules et Jim (1962)
Taking place shortly before WWI, Jules et Jim is a dark look into the complexities of romantic and platonic love. The story begins with Jules (Oskar Werner) emigrating to France from Austria. Reserved and easily intimidated, Jules finds comfort and a thriving social life through his quickly-formed friendship with gregarious extrovert, Jim (Henri Serre). Their friendship is tested when they both fall in love with the beautiful and alluring Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Once they are sent to fight in the war, both fighting on opposite sides, their friendship is unconsciously healed out of their great concern for each other’s wellbeing. However, their rivalry is once again refueled after the war ceases. Their brotherly love, no matter how strong, cannot withstand the torment of their aching hearts.
This story, as tragic as it sounds, was actually inspired by a true story. Henri-Pierre Roche, a French novelist, wrote of his misery in this love triangle in his 1953 novel by the same name. While Roche took artistic license to embellish the narrative, it was by and large an accurate account. Truffaut was so moved by the book, and Rouche’s final novel Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent, that he translated both into two of his finest cinematic works.
3. Tirez Sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist) (1960)
A fascinating portrait of the perpetual human struggle against fate, Tirez Sur le Pianiste follows Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), a brilliant but washed up classical pianist through his bleak nights as a bar musician. Through Truffaut’s careful unfolding of the narrative, we learn a great deal about Charlie’s past and present, and his fear of the future. We begin by assuming he’s simply lazy and wasting his talent, but we discover he’s hit rock bottom professionally after a devastating personal tragedy.
While Tirez Sur le Pianiste is a suspenseful crime drama, it is also a sensitive look into the human psyche. What we eventually learn about Charlie, which I’ll refrain from spoiling, makes all of his struggles make sense. An exciting score, sharply-written script and a brilliant performance from Charles Aznavour make this one of Truffaut’s finest works.
4. Fahrenheit 451 (1960)
Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 novel about a dystopian society in which all books and printed words are banned comes alive in this 1966 adaptation. Truffaut was so affected by the political statement and frightening vision of the Western future Bradbury made, that he created a visual adaptation so exciting and suspenseful that you may be physically worn after viewing it. Oskar Werner plays Guy Montag, one of the most complexly sensitive protagonists in modern literature. 60’s icon Julie Christie takes on two roles, one of Guy’s shallow-minded wife Linda, the other of his politically passionate mistress Clarisse, who joins him in his fight against the oppressive dictatorship.
Truffaut’s love of literature and knowledge made him particularly committed to this work. He brilliantly expresses the inner struggle of Guy’s beliefs and passions, creating for us visual polarization with Julie Christie’s two characters. She is, metaphorically speaking, both his fearful obedience and his instinctual thirst for freedom. Casting the same actress to play both of these roles is a touch of subtle genius. Also, look out for yet another subtle touch Truffaut gave to this film a copy of Cashiers du Cinema, the film criticism magazine he wrote for prior to his filmmaking career, going up in flames in a powerful scene of book burning.
5. La Nuit Américaine (Day For Night) (1973)
One of the most famous films about the making of a film, Day for Night (a cinematic term used to describe the practice of shooting in daylight and creating the illusion of nighttime) looks behind the camera to various personal conflicts of the stars on the screen. Truffaut himself plays Ferrand, the director of a mediocre drama far less dramatic than what is happening behind his lens. As he tries to conduct his actors amidst a sea of crisis and heartache, he painfully realizes he could never create any film narrative nearly as powerful or moving as the tribulations of life. Truffaut was greatly inspired by Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 while he wrote the Oscar-nominated script.
While the creative and critical success of Day For Night is due in large part to its powerful cast, English beauty Jacqueline Bisset gives the finest performance as an emotionally unstable actress, Julie. Not only does Bisset light up the screen with her strikingly flawless features, she brings a raw depth to her character and great tension to the narrative. A must-see for any lover of the art and business of film, Day For Night deservedly won many major awards, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Feature in 1973. It is commonly claimed by many film critics and theorists to be one of the greatest and most important in films in cinema history.
6. L’Histoire d’Adèle H. (The Story of Adele H) (1975)
A biographical account of mentally ill Adele Hugo, daughter of French author Victor Hugo, The Story of Adele H is one of Truffaut’s finest period pieces. Isabelle Adjani masterfully plays the disturbed Adele in a brilliantly understated performance, never stepping over or under the needed emotion to convey the grave mental disturbances of this troubled young woman.
The story begins with Adele coming to Nova Scotia from France during the American Civil War. She meets and immediately falls deeply in love with a British soldier, Lieutenant Pinson (Bruce Robinson). Pinson feels no emotion for Adele, but she is by no means deterred by his rejection. Her love for him quickly turns to obsession, and she eventually dissolves into madness over this unrequited emotion. Adele begins to stalk Pinson and tell people they’ve gotten married, which she eventually believes herself. She convinces herself of every lie she tells about her love interest, eventually destroying his reputation in the military and society.
Truffaut sensitively tells this story without abusing the emotional distress of Adele, who was said to be diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young girl. She is tastefully and sympathetically portrayed as a frightened and vulnerable person. This film is not exploitation, it is art. The gifted Isabelle Adjani was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in 1975 for her riveting portrayal of Adele, but lost to Louise Fletcher for her legendary performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.