How New Wave was François Truffaut’s cinema?

In its 18th edition, Colcoa (City of Lights, City of Angels) Film Festival, which is considered the biggest French film festival
outside of France, screening this year 61 films this year, celebrated the legacy of iconic French director, François Truffaut, who passed away 30 years ago, with a screening of one of his movies The Man Who Loved Women (1975), ensued by a panel discussion that injects doubt into his allegiance to the New Wave movement that he had spearheaded.

Like in many of Truffaut’s films, The Man Who Loved Women, a comedic tale of a serial womaniser, Bertrand, whose obsession with the opposite sex leads to his demise, has an underlying autobiographical resonance. In this case, the flashback sequence of Bertrand as a child struggling to connect with his mother clearly refers to Truffaut’s own loveless childhood, which was the topic of his feature debut The 400 Blows (1959), which garnered him the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival in 1959.

Ironically, it was his difficult childhood that impelled him to seek refuge in cinemas from the exigencies of reality, and later became a source of inspiration for his films. Speaking at the panel discussion, his daughter Laura Truffaut said that she had met her grandparents only once when she was 8, because they didn’t like children.

Truffault began his professional career as a film critic  for Cahiers du Cinema, where he lambasted the contemporary traditional French cinema, for its overt sentimentality and lack of innovation. Panelist Oscar-winning director Claude Lelouch, whose film We Love You, You Bastard opened the festival, said that Truffaut’s writing often dismayed him because it disparaged some of his favourite classic directors.

Soon, the young critic swapped his pen for a camera and became one of the pioneers, alongside other critics most notably Jean-Luc Godard, of the New Wave Cinema movement, which rejected the conventional filmmaking methods and espoused shooting on location and using natural light.

He became the face of the New Wave movement, because the world became aware of it thanks to the sensational success of his film The 400 blows at Cannes Film Festival in 1959.

Lelouch, though, insists that the New Wave movement would’ve not existed had it not been for the new developments in film technology, particularly fast film ASA 400, which enabled filmmakers to shoot in natural light, as much as paint tubes had enabled impressionist artists to paint outdoors. “It was not new cinema; but rather a new cinematography,” he stresses.

New Wave cinema, however, was also as innovative in its style and storytelling as Jean-Luc Godard demonstrated in his revolutionary, Trufault-scripted,  film Breathless (1961), which featured jump cuts, hand-held camerawork, a disjointed narrative, an improvised musical score, dialogue spoken directly to camera, frequent changes in pace and mood, in addition to the use of real locations.

“Godard, not Truffaut, personifies the New Wave,” said Lelouch, who is seemingly not fond of the Godard. “I learned from Truffaut how to make use of the camera and from Godard how not to use it,” he chuckled. “Truffaut directs the camera as if it were an actor, an invisible one, but for the Godard the camera is just an extra.”

Lelouch’s comment about Godard was met few groans from the audience. Nonetheless, one couldn’t deny the evident disparity in the two new wave directors filmmaking, in form and substance.

While Godard continued to audaciously experiment in his films, Truffaut retreated into classical methods of filmmaking, following the commercial failure of Shoot The Piano Player (1960); Godard’s cinema was poetic and rebellious and Truffaut’s was lyrical. Furthermore, Truffaut fiercely rejected Godard’s use of cinema to promulgate his radical political views, while the latter accused him of telling lies in his movies. The relationship between the two men reached a breaking point following the release of Truffaut’s Oscar-winner Day for Night in 1973, and they never spoke to each other again.

“My father’s movies were sentimental,” Laura confirmed. “They dealt with real people and their daily life, human relations and love.”

Lelouch nods his head in agreement. “It’s interesting that Truffaut ended up embracing the classic cinema that he had so aggressively attacked.”

Considered one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation and an inspiration for the younger ones, Truffaut made 25 films, 5 short of his declared goal. He still had numerous films in preparation when he died from a brain tumor at the age of 52.