François Truffaut was, on the face of it, the straight edge of the Nouvelle Vague. If Godard was obsessed with the form of cinema, then Truffaut was concerned with its storytelling make-up. His innovations were of the dramatic sort, with a large proportion of his filmography dedicated to the boundaries between cinematic language and real life. He was just as enamoured by the American filmmakers of old Hollywood as his contemporaries were but, as a director, he strove to reconcile genre with our everyday emotions. In this sense, his films are – along with those of fellow countryman Claude Chabrol – the most immediately accessible of the movement, focusing as they do on life’s narratives.
Truffaut’s greatest project was the Antoine Doinel cycle, a series made up of four features and one short spanning three decades, in which Jean-Pierre Léaud played the titular character (essentially a surrogate for the director). Like John Updike’s Rabbit novels, the films themselves each deal with specific periods, but the thematic richness is in the suggestion of what has passed in the intervening years. The first instalment – and one of the most iconic films in French cinema – is Truffaut’s debut picture, The 400 Blows (1959). The story of Doinel’s time as a young tearaway, it’s a masterful depiction of childhood that captures the rebellion, the uncertainty and, crucially, the possibility of the time.
The world certainly doesn’t need another rave review rehashing the merits of The 400 Blows, but it is worth considering where it now stands; the year in which Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) – a film very much indebted to the Doinel cycle – became such a phenomenon on the indie circuit. One of the great paradoxes of cinema is that we go for escapism, but we are so often profoundly affected by the films that accurately reflect our own experience. To a certain generation, this is what The 400 Blows is; a distillation of youth just before the dawning of youth culture. An heartfelt expression of adolescent frustration before the culture emerged to channel it. Of course, the iconic Nouvelle Vague stylings looks as fresh today as they ever did, but what truly resonates here is that sense of something new beginning.
As the cycle progresses, time becomes the defining element but, for a brief moment, it seemed to stop for Truffaut in The 400 Blows. He even froze the frame to prove it. A mere five years later, Truffaut made one of the defining French relationship dramas with The Soft Skin (1964). On paper – with a man torn between his wife and his mistress – it sounds like an Eric Rohmer work but, in practice, it couldn’t be more Truffaut. Barring a terrible ending that’s reminiscent of the movement’s love affair with American genre, the picture’s sophistication is striking to this day. The director lets the events unfold slowly and surely. These are the minutiae of an affair; the phone calls, the excuses, the missed engagements. Jean Desailly as the adulterer cuts a plain enough figure for the film to feel universal.
The affair runs its course in the usual way, but Truffaut doesn’t give us easy answers. Desailly’s Pierre has treated his wife (Nelly Benedetti) horribly, yet we can see the irresistible attraction of Françoise Dorélac’s Nicole. The emotional fallout is an equal and opposite force to the initial spark. This tangled moral universe results in a sense of fatalism. We can try and love the way we want to, but life itself is a cunning form of obstructive bureaucracy. No matter how naturalistic Truffaut makes The Soft Skin, there’s no escaping the infinite cool of Raoul Coutard’s cinematography. His camera created icons of the women of the new wave, and not even Truffaut’s emphatic humanity could stop Dorélac’s transformation during the film from air stewardess to screen goddess.