Essays (book reviews)

Totally Truffaut: 23 Films for Understanding the Man and the Filmmaker
by Anne Gillain, translated by Alistair Fox
(Oxford University Press, 2021, 310 pages)


Anne Gillain has never seen a film by François Truffaut that she doesn’t like.

In Totally Truffaut – her second major analytical work on the director, after François Truffaut: The Lost Secret (1991, translated 2013) – she is full of praise, as expected, for the canonical masterpieces: The 400 Blows (1959), Jules and Jim (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Day for Night (1973). She carries a special torch for certain key works that she feels to be, for various reasons, somewhat underrated: Mississippi Mermaid (1969), Two English Girls (1971/1984), The Man Who Loved Women (1977), The Green Room (1978), The Last Metro (1980) and The Woman Next Door (1982). For her, The Soft Skin (1964) is “profound’” (I agree), The Wild Child (1970) possesses “semiotic power”, and Small Change (1976) is “a wholly successful tour de force”.

Yet even those titles that critical consensus (for whatever that’s worth!) rates as resolutely minor bring forth surprisingly passionate defences: A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972) is “a work of incomparable vigour, one that deserves rehabilitation”; the “failure” of Love on the Run (1979) “imparts a certain substance” to it; while Truffaut’s final testament, Confidentially Yours (1983), has “an utterly outlandish story” that is nonetheless “enchanting”.

The key to Gillain’s approach to signalled by her remarks on the very few entries in Truffaut’s filmography that she considers relatively slight. (For, in her view, there are no entirely bad films in this pack of 23!) Even here, she can whip up her interpretative enthusiasm.

The early short Les Mistons (1958) “is a small film no doubt, but one that is infinitely graceful and precious, and for anyone interested in the dynamic of Truffaut’s imagination, a prototype of the work to come”. The Bride Wore Black (1967) may be “well-made but inconsequential”; nonetheless, it “includes a marvellous segment that makes it worth our while”. In the case of Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Gillain offers a still more strenuous assertion: “There is a way of watching Fahrenheit 451, however, that makes the work, whose formal beauty is undeniable, profoundly engaging”.

What is this “way of watching” Truffaut’s work as a whole? Gillain is after more than a merely identifiable signature style, or a set of recurring themes (and variations) – things that previous writers have covered to the point of tedium. She is on the track of something much stronger and, well, total: a unique logic that can grasp the interaction of both content and form, small details and general structures, constant factors and evolutionary currents.

The good news is that she achieves this considerable goal superbly and persuasively. Few film books are such a sheer, infectious pleasure to read; like a Truffaut movie, it drives you from chapter to chapter in an unstoppable rhythm.

For all her invocation of the semiotic power at work in these films – a dexterous cinematic art and craft that should be, by rights, entirely evident on the surface, at least once it has been skilfully pointed out – Gillain insists on something contrary and paradoxical in the overarching, Truffauldian logic. There is a secretive, cryptic, private aspect to his work; a particular sort of richness that does not overtly or immediately announce itself.

It takes a patient work of multiple viewings and analysis to really feel this richness, in all its dimensions. Without the attentiveness that Gillain teaches us to apply, we can too easily fall into the well-worn traps of dismissing Truffaut’s work as just charming, entertaining, old-fashioned and academic in its classicism, or (horror of horrors) bourgeois – tags that she is intent on dismantling from the very first sentence of her text (which follows the more workmanlike Forewords by Martin Scorsese and Michel Marie): “Truffaut’s films have always attracted clichés the way evening gowns, brushing the floor, attract dust”. A great way to begin!

Totally Truffaut swiftly draws together many threads and ties them into a tight, organic unity. First, there is the role of personal experience, the way that grave experiences of grief, unhappiness and depression shaped the filmmaker’s life, and found constant expression in his work – not directly but indirectly, transformed through imaginative transposition. On this plane, Gillain adds to her store of knowledge the rich insights offered since 1991 by Truffaut biographers Antoine de Baecque & Serge Toubiana, and archivist Carole Le Berre in her indispensable tome François Truffaut at Work (2004).

Second, there are properly cinematic techniques, to which Gillain shows a special sensitivity: the poetic use of architectural space; the command of narrative time with its pointed, uncanny repetition of key moments; music and voice-over narration as counterpoints to visible action; and the primacy of physical gesture over spoken dialogue. Plus, above all, movement of the camera or bodies, organised around the central motifs of ascending, falling, breaking through or breaking down …

Third, Truffaut’s commitment (inspired by Hitchcock) to engaging, enchanting, even (in a non-pejorative sense) manipulating or playing the spectator – all to the end of inciting and sustaining emotion.

That emotion is the ultimate key. Gillain makes an arresting distinction between metaphor – which Truffaut’s films arrived at instinctively and intuitively – and symbolism, which is a rational, cerebral system. The metaphors in Truffaut’s cinema are pre-rational, pre-linguistic (hence his attraction to the historic source material of The Wild Child), and always tied to the experiences and sensations, confusions and doubts, of savage childhood (no wonder he helped out Maurice Pialat as producer on the pitiless L’enfance nue of 1969).

Add to that Truffaut’s personal, primal trauma of family ties – the mystery of his biological father’s identity, intense ambivalence toward his mother – and we are privy to a dark, fairy tale world of enigmatic women and death-driven men, a world of obsession, passion, and what Truffaut called “the places of madness” – a world in which any integration into so-called normal society is a virtual impossibility.

Gillain follows a self-chosen format: a film per chapter, arranged chronologically, with each containing analysis of a specific sequence amidst more general discussions of production circumstances, subject, narrative and form. Readers are well advised to have a stack of DVDs at the ready, for Oxford University Press have done us no favours on the level of appropriate screenshot illustration (and the French edition from Armand Colin in 2019 is not much better on this score): one measly image per chapter, to be precise. Why are publishers these days so scared of screenshots? Fair use legislation allows, in many territories, a lot of leeway now.

Thirty years ago, The Lost Secret exhibited a more upfront theoretical drive on Gillain’s part. Her inspiration and tools derived mainly from psychoanalysis, in particularly the object-relations school of D.W. Winnicott and associates. Theory is still on her agenda today, but updated to Raymond Bellour’s work on emotion and its quasi-hypnotic role in cinema (the best guide to which, in English, is 2018’s Raymond Bellour: Cinema and the Moving Image), grounded in Daniel Stern’s path-breaking book on developmental psychology, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985). This theoretical line is woven into the book gently, in instalments, never turning the films into the illustration of a pre-given thesis.

Totally Truffaut is a book that gives auteurism a good name. One should be aware, however, of its unapologetic limits before diving in. It is not really about the man and his times; the director’s reactions to and involvements in political events (from his flirtation with groovy right-wingers of the 1950s, to his obsession with watching the Watergate hearings on American TV) receive little attention here, beyond the obligatory nod to May ’68. For that and related contextual matters, as I am certain Gillain would point out, we have the biography by de Baecque & Toubiana, and a splendid volume of letters, Correspondence 1945-1984, translated by Gilbert Adair (1944-2011) in 1990.

It is not a book about the collaborative process: many who worked with the director are respectfully name-checked, but there is no doubt that Gillain considers every important decision to have been made by Truffaut himself. And it is not a comparative book attempting to ascertain the filmmaker’s place among his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries, or his global influence on those who came later (from USA’s Wes Anderson and Australia’s Bob Ellis to Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang). Gillain has her own, distinctive, original account to spin, and she rigorously sticks to it.

Nor is it a book about the history of film criticism – whether the style of writing which Truffaut himself practised as a young reviewer, or the many approaches that have been wielded upon his work during his lifetime and ever since. Gillain makes few references to other books or articles on Truffaut, and those she does cite (by Jean-Louis Bory or Cyril Neyrat, for example) make for rather easy, flimsy targets, easily dispatched from consciousness. Although Gillain was co-editor with Dudley Andrew of a splendid Companion to François Truffaut for Wiley-Blackwell in 2013 (full disclosure: I’m in it), she does not draw upon the approaches therein of Alain Bergala, Hilary Radner or Junji Hori, among its many starry contributors. Tellingly, there is a scant bibliography and no footnotes in Totally Truffaut; quotations are unsourced (this perhaps aligns with the original publisher’s intention for it to be a type of easily accessible guidebook rather than an academic study). Previous commentary on Truffaut is a lost memory! And sometimes, to be sure, that is a mercy; in this instance, at least, I prefer Gillain’s tabula rasa approach over a dutiful scholarly scan.

It is often a folly for a translator to comment on the work of another translator – since no two renditions of a text will ever be exactly the same – but I did find myself, at moments, a little dissatisfied with the English prose here. Both a translator (Alistair Fox, whose previous work includes the aforementioned The Lost Secret and Raymond Bellour) and an editor (Barry Lydgate) are prominently credited, but further pairs of eyes may yet have improved the manuscript further. Don’t get me wrong: all of Gillain’s ideas, all the nuances of her thought, are there, perfectly clear, lucid and intact. But a common translation problem is evident: sticking too closely to the shape and idioms of the original French sentences.

In English, for example, we do not usually repeat a complete name in paragraph after paragraph, once it has been established: Moreau will do just fine after Jeanne is mentioned the first time through. A standard way of condensing a film title in French just looks weird when repeatedly reproduced in English: “the Piano Player” instead of Don’t Shoot the Piano Player. And sometimes the parts of a sentence simply needed to have their order knocked into a more natural and flowing English order. The ultimate version of any decent translation always requires a decisive, transformative leap into its new, host language! I’m not sure that has always happened here.

In one particular respect, however, this English version is inspired: that title, derived from Tout Truffaut. I can just picture the cool cinephile kids of the 21st century striking a pose in cafés and exclaiming to each other: “Totally Truffaut!” At any rate, I hope so.


© Adrian Martin December 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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