Book Review: The Films in My Life
François Truffaut was in his early twenties when he wrote much of the film criticism that first made him famous. Soon after being encouraged to pursue the profession by his mentor André Bazin in 1953, the year he returned from a stint in the army, the young critic published a string of incendiary reviews and polemics—including his famous manifesto “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”—that earned him a public profile as, in his words, “the demolisher of French cinema.” Truffaut, however, always seemed to regard his mission as fiercely, aggressively constructive. In 1975, when he belatedly compiled The Films in My Life—a collection of his film writings that covers several decades, but focuses predominantly on the mid-fifties—he selected positive reviews almost exclusively. To justify that decision, he quoted his hero Jean Renoir: “I considered that the world, and especially the cinema, was burdened with false gods. My task was to overthrow them.” It was a task given him, presumably, by the “real” gods—the films that mattered—to end when he replaced the false gods with the true ones.
On this point, history has more or less borne Truffaut out. If, of the New Wave critics, Bazin was the great theorist, Truffaut now seems like the great enthusiast. He was a prototypical cinephile, for whom lists of venerated titles held an almost mystical power to inspire and evoke. Some of his best reviews are saturated with superfluous praise; perhaps no great critic has generated so much impassioned hot air. Surely none would have closed a review with a protective jeremiad of the sort Truffaut leveled against those of his readers who didn’t care for Hawks’s The Big Sky or Ray’s Johnny Guitar: “Anyone who rejects either should never go to the movies again, never see any more films. Such people will never recognize inspiration, poetic intuition, or a framed picture, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself.”
Truffaut’s Paris adolescence had been restless. He dropped out of school in his early teens and, by his account and those of others, spent much of his youth watching or thinking about movies. By 1953, he had developed a preternaturally confident prose style and a rich knowledge of film history. It was these qualities, mixed with the revolutionary optimism of youth, that equipped him to set himself up as the “destroyer”—or, if you prefer, the re-inventor—of French cinema. Much has been said about Truffaut’s opposition to the French “Tradition of Quality”—literary adaptations of the kind churned out by the screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, and against which Truffaut often railed as stodgy, inert, or award-grubbing. But Truffaut’s deeper, more radical fight was against the concept of masterpieces as such. “The question,” he wrote in a review of Abel Gance’s La Tour de Nesle,
is whether one can be both a genius and a failure. I believe, to the contrary, that failure is a talent . . . A film that succeeds, according to the common wisdom, is one in which all the elements are equally balanced in a whole that merits the adjective “perfect.” Still, I assert that perfection and success are mean, indecent, immoral and obscene.
It’s important not to miss the irony of these lines: Truffaut had a talent for cribbing the priggish, moralizing language of his critical opponents—“mean, indecent, immoral and obscene”—and turning it against them. It’s equally important to place them in the context of Truffaut’s often-overlooked capacity for self-mockery. From a few paragraphs earlier: “If you don’t see immediately [after comparing Assia Noris’s performances in Gance’s film and someone else’s] that Gance was a genius, you and I do not have the same notion of cinema. (Mine, obviously, is the correct one.)”
Truffaut’s deploring of “masterpieces,” his preference for the noble failure over the timid, “reasonable” success, was, in fact, a fairly brilliant rhetorical move. His intention was to redefine the masterpiece, not to overthrow it—less to embrace failure than to unmask it as success (and vice versa). After the gauntlet-throwing passage above, he went on to list over four lines’ worth of film titles, some marginalized today, others safely canonized: L’Atalante, Metropolis, Sunrise, The Rules of the Game, Intolerance. No matter which film is under consideration, Truffaut tends to reverently invoke the same handful of directors like a pantheon of saints: Renoir, Sternberg, Welles, Chaplin, Gance, Rossellini, Vigo, Cocteau, Murnau. His was a canon of films chosen based on the extent to which they resisted being reified in, or pinned down by, a canon—but it was, he knew, a canon nonetheless.
That loaded word “genius” appears often, usually unironically, in Truffaut’s writings from 1954 and 1955, the year in which he made his first short, Une Visite. Its usage peters out—though its watered-down synonym “greatness” still recurs—after Truffaut had started to devote himself more seriously to filmmaking. Possibly a kind of doubt was setting in at that point for Truffaut over his own innate capabilities as an artist, like the doubts of a Calvinist over his place in the elect. By 1956, at any rate, age and experience had tempered some of Truffaut’s absolutism. He began to view greatness in filmmaking less as an inbuilt aptitude, solid and indivisible, and more as something cultivated: a strenuous enhancement of one’s abilities and a working-out of one’s limits over time. The old faith, however, never vanished for good. “I speak of what can be learned,” he wrote in a 1968 piece on Lubitsch. “But what cannot be learned or bought is the charm and mischievousness . . . of Lubitsch, which truly made him a prince.”
That piece, “Lubitsch was a Prince,” is one of Truffaut’s finest moments: a sharply observed reflection on the filmmaker’s relationship with the audience—“the prodigious ellipses in his plots work only because our laughter bridges the scenes”—that ends on a thrilling close reading of a single scene in Trouble in Paradise. Lubitsch was, in many ways, an ideal subject for Truffaut, who gravitated towards the worldly, warm-blooded, skeptical, free-spirited, and (in Griffith and Gance’s case) monomaniacal. Truffaut never knew what to do with Ford, to whom he devotes one oddly insubstantial page-long piece in The Films in My Life. (“And, since Ford believed in God: God bless John Ford.”) In his uncharacteristically tentative piece on Dreyer, he suggests that it’s only when Johannes—the mad brother in Ordet who carries out the film’s climactic miracle—“comes to recognize his delusion [that he] ‘receives’ spiritual power,” effectively denying with a pair of scare quotes the miracle whose reality the film emphatically asserts. He was greatly concerned with historical, documented evils—he returns over and over in these pages to Resnais’s Night and Fog—but baffled by Evil as a concept. In his review of The Night of the Hunter, he inexplicably suggests that “all the characters are good, even the apparently evil preacher.” (I shudder to imagine what character, by these standards, he would consider evil.)
Every critic, of course, has his particular limitations. If Truffaut now comes off as more limited than most other critics of his caliber, it is at least partly on account of his youth. The Films in My Life is a document of wild, irrepressible energy that, accordingly, lacks a certain degree of structure, discipline, and rigor. Reading it, you start to suspect that the short review was a form well suited to Truffaut’s early-blooming talents; any longer, perhaps, and he would have started to burn out. But then Truffaut surprises you, giving the piece a jolt of humility or a frisson of insight seemingly out of step with his age. His deeper limitation was his undeniable chauvinism, for which there is no excuse; witness his cringe-worthy description of the wife in Bigger Than Life, “who feels things but has given up trying to express them, since she cannot handle the language.” (“She is,” he continues, “like many women, intuitive, governed above all by love and sensitivity.”)
One of the more poignant aspects of The Films in My Life is that it reads like the brilliant early work of a critic whose voice would, if the volume’s lengthy, wonderfully candid autobiographical introduction is any indication, have grown wiser and more refined with time. (After hinting at a desire to take up writing again, Truffaut died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 54.) But Truffaut rarely seemed drawn to the wise, wistful detachment of late style. His sympathies lay with the reckless, spontaneous, and daring: the filmmakers, as he once put it, who were willing to make sacrifices. And it’s not clear that time would have preserved Truffaut’s own recklessness. “I am no longer a film critic,” he wrote in an admiring 1967 piece on Claude Berri’s The Two of Us, “and I realize that it’s presumptuous to write about a film one has seen only three times.” There is, to be sure, some of the old irony here, but there is also an increased cautiousness, a risen inhibition that would, perhaps, have stamped out some of the youthful Truffaut’s most thrilling provocations. Better, then, to let these early spark-plug reviews stand for what they are: some of our most essential accounts of what it’s like to be young, in love with movies, fiercely critical, and generously endowed with the talent to fail.