The French film director and critic François Truffaut (1932-1984), together with Jean Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, created the "New Wave" in French motion picture production in the late 1950s.
François Truffaut as film maker and esthetician was instrumental in formulating a new cinema language. In its visual spontaneity and narrative discontinuity, the style he helped to originate provided a sharp contrast to the studied academicism of older and established directors. Although elements of his innovative methods can be found in works by his brilliant colleague and early collaborator Jean Luc Godard and in later productions by other directors, few have been able to capture the lyrical warmth, infectious exuberance, and textual luminosity that distinguish the finest of Truffaut's efforts.
Truffaut was born in Paris and spent much of his unhappy childhood working in menial factory and office jobs. Sent by a juvenile court to a reformatory when he was 15 years old, he was rescued from prolonged confinement by the noted film critic André Bazin, who had been impressed with the youth's enthusiasm for motion pictures and his regular attendance at local cinema clubs. After completing service in the French armed forces, Truffaut was introduced by Bazin to the editors of the influential cinema review Cahiers du cinéma, where he worked as a critic for the next 8 years.
Truffaut attacked all that was stale and conventional in French films and admired the low-budget American productions that could be undertaken with less pressure on the director from "businessmen." In 1954 he made his directorial debut with a short, Une Visite, followed in 1957 by another short, Les Mistons, a technically adventurous lyrical idyll of childhood innocence. In collaboration with Godard, he then composed the script for and directed Une Historie d'eau (1958), a slapstick comedy reminiscent of early Mack Sennett silents.
The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut's first full-length film, established him among the most subtly evocative and imaginatively inspired creators of cinema. A touching yet deliberately unsentimental autobiographical work, of an unwanted 13-year-old boy driven to desperation by insensitive parents and tyrannical officials, The 400 Blows alternates between subjective lyricism and cinéma vérité objectivity. That same year Truffaut provided the original story for Godard's intellectual crime thriller Breathless. In 1960 Shoot the Piano Player represented Truffaut's tribute to the Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930s. The sardonically amusing plot—a lonely barroom piano player tries to save his two brothers from mobsters they have double-crossed—contains a compendium of "New Wave" cinematic techniques. The film's technical exuberance—such devices as the frozen take, the iris shot, and comic-strip images were employed—reflects a portion of the work's moral and philosophical statement.
With Jules and Jim (1961) Truffaut produced the film that most critics consider his finest effort and a cinematic masterpiece. A tragically humorous story of an endearing love triangle, suffused with the nostalgia of its early-20th-century Parisian setting, the film projected, wrote critic Stanley Kauffmann, "an exhilaration, tenderness, wonderful rhythmic variation, understatement, and an un-American innocence-in-sex, " which young audiences accepted as a way of life as well as a style of film making.
The Soft Skin (1964), a romantic melodrama about a professor of literature who leaves his wife for an airline stewardess he loves, contained some striking sequences but could not transcend its banality of theme. Even more disappointing was Fahrenheit 451 (1966), an uninspired science-fiction parable about a future society in which reading is prohibited. The Bride Wore Black (1968), a revenge tale, was a rather depressing tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. In 1967 Truffaut published Hitchcock, an illuminating analysis of his fellow auteur.
Stolen Kisses (1968) was a sequel to The 400 Blows and successfully recaptured much of the earlier film's incandescent charm. This film history of the character Antoine Donel was continued in Bed and Board (1971), another charming and lightly mocking semiautobiographical effort. The year before, Truffaut wrote, directed, and performed in an austere film relating a doctor's attempts to civilize a child who had grown up in the forest. Based on a true incident, The Wild Child was resoundingly successful, showing a new facet of Truffaut's versatile talent.
Truffaut was acclaimed for his rich characterizations of two females in Two English Girls (1971), which deals with the relationship between making art and suffering love. Day for Night (1973) won an Oscar for Truffaut as a homage to filmmaking. In 1975, he produced The Story of Adele H., in which the daughter of Victor Hugo tells her story, and two years later released The Man Who Loved Women, about a hopelessly adolescent hero who encounters sympathetic women. In 1979, Truffaut returned to his series featuring the character Antoine Donel in a movie entitled Love on the Run.
Truffaut produced several films in the 1980s, including The Last Metro (1980), the story of a theater troupe in Paris during the German occupation. Two films, The Woman Next Door (1981) and Vivement Dimache (1983) were very heavily influenced by Truffaut's admiration of Alfred Hitchcock, and included the ingredients of suspense, murder and obsessive love.
Truffaut died on Oct. 21, 1984, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.
Further Reading on François Truffaut
The most perceptive criticism of Truffaut can be found in Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies (1965) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968); Stanley Kauffmann, A World on Film (1966); the sections on Truffaut in John Russell Taylor, Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear (1964) and Dwight MacDonald, Dwight MacDonald on Movies (1969); and Annette Insdorf's François Truffaut (1979).