Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977): Sci-Fi, Spielberg, and Truffaut

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Close Encounters is built on a mystery and Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws starts off in a jarring fashion challenging us to stay with him. Because he quickly throws us into the action and suggests this is a sci-fi tale on a global scale.

Bob Balaban, a cartographer-turned-French translator, speaks for all of us trying to figure out what’s going on, yelling out against whirring old WWII fighter engines, “I don’t understand!” Two lines of juxtaposed dialogue are all we need. The planes were reported missing in 1945. But they look brand new! It takes a moment to tease out the dramatic situation, but there we are. The question is how did this happen? As this is a Spielberg creation, we must point our gaze heavenward or more precisely to the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Francois Truffaut somehow feels like a special piece of casting. The Nouvelle Vague director and hero of Spielberg is cast as Lacombe, a French scientist leading a surprisingly cooperative international team.

It’s not simply because this is the only film he acted in that he didn’t also direct. It has to do with his temperament and the subject matter. There’s something serene and utterly profound about Truffaut. He’s deeply human and engaged and yet feels implacable even as everyone else — the Americans especially — seem frantic and harried. He’s a calming force in a literal maelstrom.

Because Spielberg immediately sets the picture up as not only a national but a global storyline with implications for the entire world. It’s not just higher-ups and government officials covertly working on the issue. Extraterrestrial life would mean potential hysteria, especially for the common man. In this regard, he introduces a few stand-ins.

One is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). He loves to tinker, isn’t a particularly devoted father or husband, and he’s a staunch believer his kiddos should grow up with the quality entertainment he had as a kid like Pinocchio, instead of vacuous putt-putt games.

If we are to be honest, Dreyfuss can be a perfectly genial hero in something like American Graffiti or even Jaws, but within this narrative, reflected by his family life, he often comes off whiny and obnoxious, and it hurts his rapport with the audience.

In this particular instance, there’s some difficulty in feeling a true human connection with him even as we are drawn and fascinated by what forces he might have witnessed because that is the million-dollar mystery propelling the picture and keeping humanity agog with visions of UFOs and the great unknown of outer space.

Yes, we are planted in the 70s so if you want to blame his wife (Terri Garr) for not being a particular understanding or his children for being exasperating you can, but today it just makes him out to be a selfish dolt. This isn’t the same whimsy of some of his cinematic predecessors; it just feels like immaturity.

Sadly, without a substantial protagonist, a Hollywood blockbuster like this can feel intermittently detached and impersonal. It’s not based on lack of effort by the director or the actor. We simply don’t like the man.

It’s much more agreeable to stick with the sci-fi elements because this is where the film really has its deepest successes. Special effects hardly feel like a detriment. They are simple, practical casting just enough a spell to hold up. But they are not there to do all the heavy lifting.

The first encounter happens when Roy is driving down a country road in his truck only to be ambushed by the most spellbinding sight he’s ever witnessed in his life. It’s greater than any Aurora Borealis and sends his car into a state of zero gravity. The only indication he has after the fact of what he’s just seen is a burning sunburn across the side of his face.

From that point on Roy is doggedly firm in his resolve. It’s almost a primordial urge. He has to see the beautiful lights again, he has to understand them, he needs everyone to appreciate them as much as he does.

One person who does is a single mother, Jillian Guiller, whose little boy Barry has some transcendental encounters in the evening hours, drawn to forces outside of himself — the same forces pulling Roy to something unnameable. In fact, they are the same forces Lacombe is so intent on learning more about. It leads his team traipsing around Mexico, India, Mongolia, etc. all on the trail of this great unexplainable mystery.

For Roy, unadulterated obsession sets in. He can’t get the image out of his head. His wife is frightened. His kids think he’s crazy, and they have every right to. He drags all the family out to stare at the sky. He loses his job. He starts shoveling dirt through the kitchen window with the whole neighborhood watching the spectacle.

With his wife driving off in a tizzy, trying to rescue her family from a maniacal husband who needs mental health, he goes back inside. They fail to see the final destination, the symbol so many people have subconsciously remembered. It’s a clue of where our story must travel.

That leads us to a family road trip — at least one my family took while I was in high school. One of the stops was Devil’s Tower, christened the first National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Like Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest — which I coincidentally saw on the same vacation — Devil’s Tower is an iconic American symbol. Natural and still somehow mystifying even otherwordly. The perfect seat for our finale.

It’s a mesmerizing experience sitting atop Devil’s Tower taking in the bright lights, the musical patterns of communication putting John Williams’ talents to the best possible use. Though it would be lying to say it didn’t verge on monotony in patches, at its very best, Spielberg has an unabashed appreciation for the wide-eyed spectacle and his stroke of genius is taking a very concrete relic and making it so integral to this encounter.

There’s something totem-like, it is a monolith in its own right, and suggests something as ancient as time itself. His other choice is to make the creatures on the other end the most amiable beings imaginable. Years of watching The Thing from Another World and Body Snatchers taught a different paradigm, but Spielberg is an optimist at heart. It shows through and through as the story is carried away by the exponential magic of the final climactic moments.

In many regards, it is a taste. For those still capable of awe where special effects or time or comprehension don’t get in the way of enjoyment, those final moments can indeed be spellbinding. It’s true their trance-like grip reached out to me. The only regret is some of the momentary distractions leading us on this road. It takes a whole lot of roadblocks and digressions to finally get us to our close encounter.

There’s something else nagging inside me. Dreyfuss fulfilled his unerring obsession like an angelic pioneer sent off to the great unknown. He reached the apex as he conceived it. There is nothing more for him to do. Still, one must wonder how exactly are the wife and kids doing at his sister-in-laws? It seems Spielberg has conveniently left the problematic issues of earth behind for the extraterrestrial. Too bad we are not afforded the same luxury.

4/5 Stars

 

Note: I viewed the Director’s Cut although there is also the previous theatrical cut and the special edition featuring an extended “mothership” scene.

Small Change (1976): A Story of Love and Adolescence

Argent_poche.jpgFrancois Truffaut has a knack for understanding children in all their intricacies. One suspects it’s because he’s never really grown up himself. He is a child at heart with even his earliest films of the Nouvelle Vague channeling the joy and the passion of a younger individual.

First, there was The 400 Blows, most literally, as an autobiographical docu-drama of youth and then Jules et Jim brimming with the freneticism to tell a historical romance with frolicking verve. I feel much the same energy as the boys hurtle through the streets of their little town of Thiers against the opening credits.

He accents it with the scoring of Maurice Jaubert and later on applies the crooning of Charles Tremet to give it an unmistakably French spirit. It’s a different time, a different generation even, but Truffaut has not lost any of his passion or lust for life, once again managing to tap into the exuberance of youth.

It’s nothing spectacular mind you. Small Change is mostly vignette-driven. It subsists off minor pieces of observation and scenes that might easily have a place in real life. Truffaut takes interest in the daily activities of kids and the important business that takes up their time. We are afforded the opportunity to sit back lazily and appreciate the mundane aspects of the community as they happen.

The local school is a humble place, but its admirable pursuits in the name of academics are as old as the Greeks. Resources are one thing certainly. It helps to have means and yet more crucial is a safe space for incubation where young minds can lean into their curiosities. Mediator thy name is teacher, and what a delight to find some of these individuals are more than up for the task.

Boys struggle to memorize and offer the proper feeling to their assigned passages until Ms. Petit ducks out and one of their members can be heard out of the second story window giving a rendition that would make future thespians everywhere proud. It’s moments like these that surprise us magnificently.

If you will, they’re like anti-400 Blows moments or more exactly triumphant answers to the earlier film. Where teachers aren’t authoritarian tyrants all the time nor kids untethered hooligans. Sure, there’s some of both intermittently, but Truffaut finds time to make both factions gel and feel human.

Mostly it comes with living in a neighborhood where everyone knows everybody else. Patrick gladly takes a neighbor’s young son back home and stops by to say hello to the teacher Mr. Richet and his wife, who live down the hall.

Movie theaters are communal spaces where everyone shows up. Ms. Petit’s even there in the back with her boyfriend. It’s a reminder to all the younger generation, adults — even teachers — are real people too.

There is one new boy in town whom nobody knows and his personal life is all but invisible. He doesn’t talk much, his personal hygiene leaves something to be desired, and he seems to lack all the materials they’re supposed to bring to class. He’s one of those kids some might term a “bad influence,” but even he can get in on the latest episode of Columbo making its round through the corridors of the school the night after.

Julien, with his shaggy mop of black hair, is one of them even as he plays at the outsider and shows signs of a tumultuous home life. Youth can be tender even as it’s also shown to be mean-spirited and crude at times. What’s joyous about Small Change is how affection and quality relationships are allowed to take center stage. They are present with teachers and parents too.

But there’s space for humor too. A single mother scrimps as she takes care of her baby and looks eagerly for love. Her little boy is a precocious one wandering into all the open doors, terrorizing the cat and such trifles. In one death-defying stunt, he takes a fall and comes away from it giggling while leaving his mother with a near-heart attack.

Sylvie is a little girl who uses the water from her fishbowl ( inhabited by Plic and Ploc) to brush down her favorite bag, dirtied with age and similar means of upkeepI’m reminded of a hilarious incident where the resourceful little girl balking at going to dinner with her parents commandeers her father’s bullhorn and manages to have an all-included dinner pullied to herself through the open window.

In a concerted effort to save some pocket money, the rambunctious De Luca boys go into the haircutting business, maiming their friend’s head in the process with the most grotesque results.

Meanwhile, Patrick is smitten with the mother of a classmate, Madame Riffle. The lavish advertisement of a man and woman on the wall of a shop fills his mind with dreamy ideas (Comfort on the rails). Still, unlike one of his cocksure peers, he’s tentative when it comes to necking in the theater with their classmates. It’s not the right environment for puppy love. He doesn’t know the girls they’ve met up with. There are too many people around. It’s all forced.

He gets his chance later on with a pretty girl at camp named Martine who causes his heart to go pitter-patter. They only have eyes for one another even amidst the teasing of their peers. You can tell how genuine and sweet it is in the clumsy, bright-eyed manner of youth.

With Truffaut’s own views of adolescence, trauma, and innocent love, one is reminded of descendants like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. This is where he gets it from. There is not one without the other. What makes Small Change intermittently wonderful is how it captures the specificity of its unique time and place. In its own way, it’s an unadulterated descendent of The 400 Blows from a brighter, happier time.

It’s as if Truffaut and the rest of the world has found the love they’ve been craving.  At the very least, they have enough hope to keep on trying. That’s one of the beauties of youth: indefatigable naivete, at times, yes, but more so, relentless optimism.

On the last day of school, before the bell rings for summer, Mr. Richet gives his attentive pupils one final rallying cry:

“Time flies. Before long, you will have children of your own. If you love them, they will love you. If they don’t feel you love them, they will transfer their love and tenderness to other people. Or to things. That’s life! Each of us needs to be loved!”

4/5 Stars

Note: The film is also known as Pocket Money in English-speaking countries, although due to the release of a Paul Newman movie of the same name a few years prior, Steven Spielberg suggested the alternative title for the American release.

The Story of Adele H. (1975): Starring Isabelle Adjani

L'histoire_d'Adèle_H.I didn’t think about it until the movie began, but the only person I’ve ever known to only go by the initial of their last name was for the sake of keeping their anonymity. If you’re a nobody, it doesn’t matter who knows your name.

In this case, if you’re the great Victor Hugo’s daughter, they stand up and take notice. Especially if you run off to Halifax Nova Scotia to pursue a British soldier named Albert Pinson of some dubious repute. Hence Adele H.

This is her story based on the diaries she left behind. It’s during the American Civil War. It’s still left to be seen if the Confederacy will be able to succeed. Adele’s father is currently exiled from his homeland, and she is intent on receiving the invitation of marriage from the man she once rebuffed.

When she lands in the new environment, there’s a timidity furled about her to go with her obvious affluence. She picks up a coach and converses in impeccable English with the driver looking for adequate lodging for someone like herself.

The place settled upon is a boarding house run by a Mrs. Saunders, and there she finds a welcoming albeit humble abode, the perfect home base to begin her inquiries. It seems a noble mission in the service of love.

I’ve come to like Francois Truffaut’s brand of economical period piece. Because usually we come to equate them with ballooning budgets and grand narratives, but Truffaut seems more interested in the character studies. If The Wild Child and now The Story of Adele H. are any indication, it’s the personal relationships he’s invested in and this allows the director to step into the cultural moment and still somehow make them highly resonate with us in an altogether different era.

Isabelle Adjani is the portrait of youthful innocence and she is so young, so beautiful, and full of emotional fervor. It’s hard not to be carried away by the passion of her performance.

Her first meeting with her beloved Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson looking like a British incarnation of Alain Delon) blooms with this candor even as it becomes obvious he’s moved on — he no longer has feelings for her, if he ever did — and what’s even more heartbreaking is how madly she still desires to be with him.

Even as the film cuts back and forth between French and English, one is reminded how French really is a romance or romantic language. English sounds so blunt and harsh, at times, in comparison. Maybe as a native French-speaker Truffaut’s not attuned to his actor’s tones in English. Maybe he’s playing off these very elements. No matter, the French is quiet, melodious, and even rapturous in the most passionate declarations.

I don’t understand the literal translation (without subtitles) but the underlying feelings are crystal clear and devastatingly powerful. Her zealousness, the pleading professions of love, met by a soldier whose stoic aloofness only draws out her urgency even more.

One is reminded of a scene where she enters a party — dressed in the hat and tails of a gentleman — but she doesn’t seem to bother hiding the fact she’s incognito, and she gets inside. We see in through the glass as someone goes to fetch Pinot, and he’s forced to make a show of the whole thing by pulling Adele outside and trying to make her listen to reason. Through Nestor Almendros’ fluid cinematography and Truffaut’s intentionality, we understand the whole dynamic without hearing the words spoken.

Or there’s another instance where Adele is presented with a couple volumes of her father’s works by a bookkeeper who is more than a bit smitten with her. But her eyelashes flutter in the most mesmerizing manner, and she proceeds to lash out at him. She doesn’t want to be reminded of who she is and where she comes from.

By now Adele has crossed over to the point of desperation, tears, and, ultimately, obsession. The story begins to sink and devolve into something else entirely. For the first time, we realize what might really be going on.

This might be the most propitious time to insert a morsel about the real Adele Hugo. She most certainly would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Truffaut doesn’t actually make his film about mental illness per se, and that is problematic if we are clamoring for a wholly authentic biopic.

Instead, we must watch Adele’s descent without much explanation. At night she’s overtaken by terrors and during the day she doggedly pursues any means to bring her eternal back to her. First its vague thoughts of hypnotism, then deceit, and character assassination, effectively besmirching her lover’s reputation with anyone else who tries to wed him.

It’s these interludes which somehow evoke the possessiveness of Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven and yet far from being vindictive, Francois Truffaut casts them in the most pitiful of lights. The film is spellbinding for much of the outset, and Adjani remains steadfast through it all. She carries it along based on her immense graces alone.

However, as the dirge-like rhythms drag on, it can hardly maintain its running-time, following Adele through events that feel like foregone conclusions as she becomes more dismal and delusional. It feels like most of the ideas have been expressed to their full potential, and now we must wallow in her trail of unrequited love.

Finally, she follows her man to Barbados only to be left as a shell of her former self escalated by her complete and utter deterioration. When the film ends it feels like a courtesy to all parties. To Adele because she needn’t suffer anymore and for the audience because we could hardly be more woebegone.

If anything, The Story of Adele H. touches on the darker caverns of Truffaut’s creativity, and yet maybe it’s simply because we always remember the youthful giddiness in his pictures instead of the forlorn aspects. More than anything it makes one appreciate how eclectic his body of work is and the through-line connecting every picture is authentic humanity — even humanity unhinged — in some way, shape, or form.

It just so happens Adele Hugo’s humanity was a bit more depressing. The sad thing is, probably few people actually know her name or, frankly, care about it. In spite of this, Truffaut manages to cast her as a creature of unwavering love on the scale of Wuthering Heights or other comparable works.

At 20 years of age Adjani already had completed a role for a lifetime. If you didn’t get the impression already, she has a magnificent aura about her, half spectral beauty, half tragic heroine.

4/5 Stars

The Wild Child (1970) and Truffaut’s Empathy

Wild_child23.jpgThe Wild Child (L’Enfant Sauvage in French) is based on “authentic events,” as it says because Francois Truffaut became fascinated by a historical case from the 1700s. A feral boy was discovered out in the forests and then taken under the tutelage of a benevolent doctor.

Although he had initially wanted to adapt The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn got to it first and released the rendition of Helen Keller’s story to much acclaim. Instead, Truffaut pored over the medical observations of one Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard relating to the curious case of the aforementioned Victor of Aveyron. Somehow this effort follows in the same vein of The Miracle Worker but feels entirely organic and indigenous to Truffaut’s roots.

There are several immediately striking elements about The Wild Child that become immediately apparent. At first, I wasn’t expecting the black & white cinematography, but somehow it makes so much sense. It’s an intuitive expression of the world and frequent Truffaut collaborator, Néstor Almendros, shoots the world with a stark, no-frills tintype aesthetic proving quite extraordinary.  The pictorial simplicity is impeccable. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is equally spare, all but scoreless, aside from interludes of Vivaldi when appropriate.

The second notable aspect was the opening dedication to Jean-Pierre Leaud. This only makes sense if you consider the lineage of Truffaut and where he has come from. Certainly his first and greatest achievement was The 400 Blows, which starred Leaud as a wayward youth — not far removed from Truffaut’s childhood or Leaud’s own.

Their relationship remained closely intertwined even as it charted the course of the Nouvelle Vague with the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the resurgence of the Antoine Doinel character in Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, and the still forthcoming Bed and Board.

Of course, in following the historical discovery of a feral boy in the woods of 18th century France, the environment and context could not be farther removed. The opening moments are a striking wilderness chase scene with the naked boy living off the land and fleeing from a pack of hunting dogs, looking to smoke him out and earn the good graces of their masters.

It’s the story of civilization impinging on the natural world even if it is under unusual circumstances. The narrative isn’t an altogether novel one if you remember any historical examples of Native Americans who were shamelessly paraded through so-called “enlightened” western society, like sideshow attractions, only to be decimated by their diseases.

Still, Truffaut films are nothing if not personal, and The Wild Child fits into this personal collage. Each one of his films, individually and together, is sculpted by his ideas into vessels of art and creativity — ways in which to see the world and make sense of it.

If nothing else, somehow he seems to empathize with the circumstances. First, from the child’s perspective, to be left for dead, without parents until the age of 1,1 and then thrown into a world you cannot comprehend. But he has also evolved into the adult — in this case Dr. Itard — who, in a show of sympathy, makes the boy his charge, if not a pet project.

Truffaut is so invested in this role he throws off all pretense of merely being behind the camera and takes on a role in front of it. Both cinematically and practically, he is the boy’s mentor and guide without an intermediary of any kind.

You can see how deeply he empathizes with other human beings and somehow the good doctor seems like a fitting stand-in for Truffaut himself, on multiple accounts. In a society that looks down at this boy, seeing him merely as an outcast, an idiot, a pariah, Truffaut/Dr. Itard sees someone worth salvaging. He won’t give up on the creature’s intelligence nor his primal urge toward morality  — some latent iteration of the noble savage.

And yet he can still be an exacting, obsessive taskmaster. All for the creature’s own good mind you, but there you are. Whether it be the acquisition of language, intelligence, or cinema, you can easily see how any of the three could overlap. He has the end goal in mind, and he’s so unswervingly devoted to the success of his pupil, even to the point of feeling callous at times.

Was this the way it would have been with a wayward, youthful Leaud? Was this Truffaut with his mentor and father-figure Andre Bazin? All seem to be hinted at and as an audience, we can only surmise. Because you have this complicated tie between teacher, antagonist, and friend underlying this film, regardless of its period context.

Someone who opens up the world to you in their infinite wisdom, but no doubt causes you to want to rebel at other times. This is integral to our nature, not only as children but when we grow up too. Only when we’re older are we granted the full lucidity to see everything clearly with the benefit of hindsight. To see the motives behind discipline, tough love, and the implementation of rules.

If I’m to search my own heart, it is not always noble. It is not inclined toward good and has a predilection toward selfish and petty ideas. It takes some framework, some discipline to rein in, but not with the dismissiveness of the civilized elite from Paris and the learned academics. The honest to goodness humanity of Dr. Izard/Truffaut and the maternal affections of Madame Guerin are a fine place to start for reference.

Victor isn’t a miraculous case study during his time in their home by any means. He’s a work in progress. But isn’t he a far cry from where they found him — naked, wild, and living in a hole — self-sufficient though he may have been? As children, we are often content making mud pies in the sand when he could have something far better.

As someone who has dabbled often unsuccessfully in the field of education, you realize it’s the little victories that feel like moving mountains. Thus, when Victor begins to retain information, return home of his own accord, and spell at the word “LAIT” when he wants milk, these are miraculous in themselves.

Still, it takes the adult to have the foresight to know what will be in the child’s best interest. Things get more convoluted when the dynamics change. That, folks, is what we call the teenage years. Because it’s true sometimes, what people think is in their best interest differs greatly.

4/5 Stars

 

Review: Jules and Jim (1962)

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Jules and Jim breaks out of the gates with a frantic burst of energy giving off the effect of a comedic circus act or a whirling carousel and at times it functions as both. Champion of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut, at 29 years of age injects the film with this kind of frantic lifeblood tearing through the material and time with almost reckless abandon. If Breathless (1960) was not the title taken by one of its contemporaries, this picture could have just as easily taken the name.

You see, Truffaut takes Henri-Pierre’s Roche’s autobiographical novel, the work of an old man, and transforms it into a period piece shot by a young man. The distinctions reveal themselves in full force.

It’s a cinema of attraction with whips, tracks, freezes, jumps, and flies constituting a fluid adventure that’s given free reign to go in so many directions thanks to the versatile camerawork of Godard regular Raoul Coutard as well as connecting voice-over narration (provided by Michel Subor) and a score courtesy of George Delerue.

Still, as Truffaut lets us sink into his story things come more clearly into focus but never so they reach a point of complete clarity. He never dwells too long on a moment or an idea. Instead, choosing to move through the lives of his protagonists touching on so many moments and relationships and ideas. Thus, in one sense Jules and Jim never slogs but it also still functions as a fairly compelling work of historical drama covering a lot of terrain in a condensed amount of time. Some may find that off-putting others will welcome it as a refreshing permutation of the Hollywood status quo.

The year is 1912. An Austrian named Jules (Oskar Werner) and a Frenchman named Jim strike up a friendship that feels like the perfect representation of the deep lasting bond that can form between two individuals. They are young men with a great many of the same interests and a comparable outlook on life.

They’re always benevolent toward one another, they never fight, and they share a mutual satisfaction in the arts while diverting their time at the gymnasium, playing dominoes, and of course, in the company of women. From there one of the great cinematic friendships is forged for life. Though tested, not even a woman can tear their bond asunder…completely. At least not in the way we might expect.

It all begins when they become enamored with a statue, an opaque figure with a pleasant smiling face that captures them so much so that they must go and see it for themselves. But far more striking is the woman they meet back in France who embodies that same bewitching quality.

They meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) as they have met many other women in the past for tea or an afternoon of trivialities and conversation. Except Catherine is one of the few that stays with them. Of course, she is personified by none other than Jeanne Moreau that monumental beauty and one of the undisputed queens of the Nouvelle Vague alongside Anna Karina in Godard’s early works.

There’s a frisky and lithe vivacity that carries her through the film’s earliest scenes as she dons her disguise as Thomas frolicking through Paris in one of the most iconic and enduring sequences of the cinema. An overwhelmingly attractive abandon radiates out of her. Truffaut has set Moreau up as such with his narrative and she does the rest.

However, still, as the story continues to progress and she marries Jules and they make a life together with a daughter named Sabine, there are other qualities that come to the fore. Namely, her maturity with a hint of sophistication that still leaves space for that same carefree vigor continually coursing through her and garnering the undivided attention of the camera.

In the complete inverse of the film’s title, you find its true attraction and the figure who makes the whole story what it is.  Jules so aptly puts it that she’s “a force of nature that manifests itself in cataclysms.” She’s so very uninhibited.

Thus, Jules will love her for a lifetime and Jim will count her among his very closest companions but still, she is a complicated creature and perhaps Truffaut is playing out his own mesmerization and subsequent befuddlement with women. Catherine is an epitome of that. She has other lovers. She openly cavorts with Jim who wants to love her even as he wants to stay true to his best friend. She constantly does what is least expected but that goes with the territory of Truffaut’s invention.

As such, it is less of a conventional love triangle and more precisely a menage a trois as the French might say. This is not so much about dramatic conflict as it is tragically sad in the end. Because this is a film about friendship as much as it is love and it’s a dream friendship as much as it is a romantic fantasy. Maybe it’s possible for both to exist partially in the forms projected onscreen and yet Truffaut fills both with so much that we easily yearn for.

There’s the song “Le Tourbillon” that Moreau sings and it quite remarkably ties into this film. The words come from her lips gayly, describing a woman who could very much represent Catherine and then a lover who are both “Each blown their way by the whirlpool of days.” There’s not a better way describing the course of this film.

It’s consumed with so many interludes and subsequent shifts that are almost matter-of-fact from the breakout of the Great War to its ultimate resolution or the marriage of Jules to Catherine and her eventual affectionate advances toward Jim.

Within these segments, it occurs to me that the film hardly comes off like a drama. Still, there are moments of comedy and undoubted tinges of bitter tragedy. But what we’re left with is what Truffaut best described himself — a bit of a knowing paradox of tones.

“When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it’s just wonderful.”

It is another of the great tragicomedies of cinema like a Citizen Kane (1941) or 8 1/2 (1963) but there’s no doubt that this is Truffaut’s own rendition and it remains the heart & soul of the Nouvelle Vague for its defining visuals that have ingrained themselves in the cultural landscape the world over.

4.5/5 Stars

The Soft Skin (1964)

the-soft-skin-1There might be an initial predilection to call The Soft Skin Francois Truffaut’s most conventional film to date, but for me, it shows at this fairly early point in his career he seems to have grasped the main tenets of traditional filmmaking. Because his first films are full of life, energy, and idiosyncratic verve that easily charm their audience but here we see a film that in most ways looks like other classic works, well constructed and still quite engaging. Because within this very framework Truffaut is able to play around with issues that in themselves are still quite compelling. Love, intimacy, infidelity, and the like. Even with familiar names like Truffaut and Raoul Coutard, it feels very un-Nouvelle Vague. And that’s okay.

We often expect comedy from Truffaut as he shows in many of his other films but here everything is fairly reserved and understated dictated by our gentlemanly protagonist Pierre (Jean Desailly) and accentuated by most everyone else. They are not inserted into the story line to make light of issues but to actually grapple with these real life circumstances in ways that feel quite candid in their humanness.

Furthermore, Truffaut’s films are often, cinematically speaking, very self-aware but aside from a brief foray into a documentary on Andre Gide, our characters seem very much absorbed in their own world with the problems at hand and Truffaut seems to realize that. As audience members, we too become implicit accomplices to this tryst and that’s where the story comes into being.

Pierre is a managing editor of a prominent publication with a lovely wife and sweet little girl. He’s well off and travels across France in high demand at lectures and cultural galas. People want his autograph.

But in a moment he meets someone. Truffaut allows them to interact and pass each other by without anything happening. That’s the key. As I imagine it is with real life, moments go by and it’s in those passing moments that things begin to unfold. Pierre is taken by the stewardess (Francoise Dorleac) he now sees in the elevator and then invites her for a drink awkwardly. It begins there. He’s clumsy about it but his respectability and candidness probably attract the girl.

The title, of course, implies the very physical nature at the core of an affair. It’s the touch, the feel, the intimacy that is longed for. But it runs awry because that very thing that is craved becomes muddied by deception and infidelity that threatens to tear relationships apart. Not just with spouses and friends but the very people who are caught up in the throes of the affair. There’s the necessity to keep them hidden, skip out on them at a moment’s notice so as to not raise suspicion.

Everything is clouded and nothing is pleasurable anymore. There’s a moral repugnance that often goes with the territory. Of course, the one individual that we might do well to feel the sorriest for is the one we rarely see, the third party who is deceived, in this case, Pierre’s wife.

Still, Pierre is so sincere and Nicole much the same that it’s somehow easy to feel sorry for them as well as Franca. As Nicole notes to Pierre, “you made a real mess of things” partially because he’s having trouble leaving his wife after 15 years and he still wishes to see his little girl Sabine every day. He’s not much good at the whole affair business. Whether it’s leaving his wife or staying with the girl he’s found.

Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with Nicole on the balcony confiding in Pierre because we understand what she’s trying to hint at. And we don’t see Pierre but you can guess where his thoughts are at that very moment. In not so many words she is saying this thing they have won’t work anymore and that’s the end of it — at least in the way he envisioned it all, with marriage, a home, etc. It cannot exist.

And of course he has no recourse but to return to his wife and beg her forgiveness and it seems like a road worth the risk but in his unassertiveness, Pierre puts it off just long enough for it to be too late. There’s no getting it back. Because infidelity, no matter the strain, can be thoroughly insidious undermining trust and planting seeds of doubt and bitterness. That is rocky soil to maintain a relationship on and in cases like this, it can only end in tragedy. It’s true that The Soft Skin blows us out of the water in the end but what makes us stay is the great care it takes in getting there.

4/5 Stars

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

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Shoot The Piano Player begins thrillingly with a car chase. The man being pursued flees down a street corner, his assailants disappear into the night, and he subsequently bounces off a streetlight like an idiot. The man who brings him back up on his feet proceeds to regale him with stories about how he met his wife before walking off, never to be seen again.

In fact, none of these characters are our main protagonists but it perfectly encapsulates the glories of Francois Truffaut’s stroke of genius in this early emblematic film of the New Wave.  It’s a petty crime story with a comical streak. The two tough guys aren’t tough guys at all but with their hats and pipes they look like a pair of Monsieur Hulot doppelgangers or something. That is until they pull out a gun. But even then, they’re hardly thugs.

Listed out as simple plot summary, it has certain flourishes fit for a Hitchcock thriller. A man on the run. Lurking criminals, kidnapping, murder, romance, humor, but there’s no doubt, even with this being only his second feature, that this is very much Truffaut.

It’s all a wonderful front for Truffaut’s own explorations. And the bottom line is not simply homage to film-noir and the Master of Suspense but more broadly all his fascinations of men, women, love, and everything that intrigues him about putting a mirror up to humanity–cinema itself. However, as the director long suggested, he preferred film to reality because he could orchestrate it, make it to his liking, with touches of humor and tragedy.

This pseudo-storyline starts with Charlie who placidly knocks out honky tonk for the public’s enjoyment. It’s hard to know if he’s content or simply biding his time. The latter seems more likely. Except when his big brother Chico busts into the joint with a couple of hoods on his tail, in some small way it brings everything rushing back on Charlie.

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It’s not much but the ensuing events have him wrapped up in his own bit of intrigue as he navigates his romantic inclinations and every other thing that is thrown his way.  A Hollywood reference point would certainly be Out of the Past and similarly sinks back into a flashback. But here it is used in a way that’s completely jarring, hardly convenient for those seeking comprehension. And Truffaut’s character utilizes voiceover as well but this is not the laconic, cynical speak of film-noir, instead the nervous inner monologue of a timid piano player.

His sometime bedmate and the housekeeper for his kid brother is Clarisse. Meanwhile, the waitress at his work Lena has his heart going pitter patter, not quite a Hitchcock blonde but a woman who is willing to get involved with his drama. But there was also another important woman in Charlie’s life: His wife.

It’s from these three women in their relationships with Charlie and all the other male characters that some very blatant realities become evident. There’s a conscious separation of the woman into parts whether it is her heart or her body. In one sense, the aforementioned women are strong characters. Meanwhile, the men are all fairly passive, their main outlets include objectifying, ogling, even ridiculing their female counterparts.

At least Charlie’s candid about it but he’s still part of the problem. In many ways, in looking at the women as the tragic figures often used by men as a cinematic object, Truffaut could very easily be wrestling with his own issues of love and romance. What does that actually mean? What causes people to marry? What causes them to love and fall out of love, break up and come back together or even commit themselves to death?

All that can be found within this film although it is obviously veiled by scenes masquerading as crime and comedy. The crowning joke of them all is really a kind of tragedy. Amid the strangest turn of events, Charlie or Edouard (as we now know he is called) is resigned to play behind his piano once more.

The final moments at the snowcapped cabin are madcap and still almost surreal with some stunning sequences captured vividly by iconic New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard. In breaking so cleanly with his initial effort of The 400 Blows, Truffaut simultaneously positioned himself as a very special filmmaker. He’s beholden to drama, comedy, crime, and romance, but most of all, he’s beholden to the magic of the silver screen.

4.5/5 Stars

Claude Jade as Christine Doinel

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As often happens in the life of a classic movie aficionado, I became acquainted Claude Jade quite by accident and it happened at a random point in her filmography. In Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller Topaz (1969) she has a small part to play but the Master of Suspense was pointed to the actress by Francois Truffaut the French critic and director who had undertaken an immense interview with Hitch that has remained a treasure for cinema fanatics.

But still, that in itself has little bearing on Claude Jade. Jade came to the forefront of my mind after watching several entries in Truffaut’s famed Antoine Doinel saga starring Jean-Pierre Leaud, the first of these being Stolen Kisses (1968). And she immediately left an indelible mark on this viewer because she seemed the complete antithesis of our main character. Antoine was always a bit of a troublemaker, a vagrant, a malcontent, and whatever other negative descriptors you want to throw out. In some respect, it’s difficult to like him.

Yet from the first moment we see Christine Darbon, the wide-eyed ingenue, Antoine, and the audience are immediately taken with her for those very reasons. She’s so kind and sweet in ways that Antoine never manages to be. There’s an innocence and a playfulness behind her eyes that’s disarming. If we knew any better, we would say that he had no right in pursuing a relationship with a girl such as this. But to his credit, he does eventually get his life figured out just enough to begin to see her.

It’s these interludes of Stolen Kisses that we might say puppy love is bubbling up. There are furtive glances. Breakfast at the kitchen table. Walks through the neighborhood park together. It feels like a little slice of paradise and even in their utter differences, it seems that Antoine and Christine might make a life together. Perhaps they were even made for each other after all.

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In Bed & Board (1970), the next installment in the series, the couple is now married and rather happily so. They have a baby and he has a flower shop and she teaches violin lessons. But they have each other and they are content. Reading in bed together after the day’s activities are over or eating a dinner of baby food because going to the store like adults is far too difficult.  How could Antoine not be happy with a wife such as this?

However, he is always plagued by inner demons and infidelities. In this case, dismantling his marriage and all that is good with his life with another woman. But part of what makes Christine phenomenal is the immense grace in which she handles Antoine. Again and again, we are reminded of just how much he does not deserve her and yet she sees something in him that is worthwhile and worth staying with. If nothing else, she makes us appreciate Antoine as a protagonist, blessing him with a human side, and suggesting there are still some redeeming qualities left in him.  So by the film’s end despite the turmoil and turbulence, they went through, they still have enough affection to stay together.

In Truffaut’s final installment Love on the Run (1979), the passage of time is not so kind to them as is often the case with life. But what stays the same is Christine (and unfortunately Antoine too). She remains a caring figure lighting up the screen with her charm, youthful exuberance, and quiet dignity even with she is slighted.

I will end by quoting the eminent critic Pauline Kael who noted in one of her reviews that Claude Jade was “a less ethereal, more practical Catherine Deneuve.” If I’d have to wager a guess on what she was getting at, it would probably be something along these lines. Deneuve was always this aloof beauty who exists in almost a different stratosphere and if we might be so bold to make the assumption, she feels almost unattainable. Maybe she doesn’t live in the same world that we do. Hers is a cinematic existence. But Jade in her playful winks and everyday interactions makes us feel like we know her well.

Because her life with Antoine is not unlike our own in some respects. That makes us appreciate her immensely and adore her even moreso because she feels like one of us. Deneuve is revered because she is beautiful in an elegant way. She would never be one to get her hands dirty. But with Jade, there’s that immediate connection. Rather than create a dichotomy however between “ethereal” and “practical” I’d much rather say that I appreciate them both and the impact that they both had on French cinema.  Antoine Doinel, sometimes I think you’re an idiot. In fact, I know so. How could you not remain true to a woman with a face like that?

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This is my entry in the Reel Infatuation Blogathon….

 

Review: The 400 Blows (1959)

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Being a great believer in context,  it was a wonderful thing watching 400 Blows once more because I felt like I knew this man behind the camera so much better and I knew this character Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) even better than he knew himself. After all, he was just coming into his own in this initial film.  I was also aware of some cameos including Francois Truffaut himself, Jean-Pierre Brialy and of course Jeanne Moreau, all important forces in the French New Wave movement.

However, one the most powerful things is the degree of foresight we gain about Antoine Doinel. All the things that make up his life at this juncture in time have repercussions later on that Truffaut continued to examine as he matured. We can see the gears turning as the boy develops as an adolescent. He skips out on class to go to the cinema and the carnival. He purloins a bottle of milk out of thirst, steals little trinkets from the ladies room and finally a typewriter from his father’s work. He receives the ire of his teacher and goes home to the cramped conditions and turbulence of his home life. His mother and step-father are constantly bickering. His mother is having an affair. It’s not a very happy life or a firm foundation for a boy to grow up in. And it shows.

In many of these moments, the autobiographical aspects come to the fore. Before Antoine’s story was simply a depiction of realism but as time goes on it becomes more obvious that Truffaut is being very transparent in showing bits and pieces of his own experiences. What’s striking is that this is hardly a bitter film. Somber and melancholy, yes, but it hardly ever seems to cast blame. It shows the brief moments of reverie along with the pain and that’s why I am a great admirer of Truffaut. He’s a deeply heartfelt and personal filmmaker, no more evident than in The 400 Blows.

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Antoine Doinel is a vagrant and pretty dismal kid, getting in all sorts of trouble and yet Truffaut makes us sympathize with him and to an extent we see the director’s point of view too. He’s the one trying to fall asleep while his parents bicker about what to do with him. He runs away from home and relies on the charity of a friend. He’s being locked up in a jail cell on his way to juvenile detention. He talks to a psychologist candidly about his parents never trusting him. All those moments have the power to move.

And the film is so easy to watch, so simple and wonderful and honest and unassuming, it’s almost hard to remember how influential this film was for not only jump-starting the French New Wave but for rejuvenating cinema in general. Hollywood didn’t make movies like this. That’s all I had ever seen for the longest time. But the likes of Truffaut, Godard and even Renoir, De Sica and Rossellini revealed to me that there are numerous ways to make an impassioned cinematic experience.

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As always, my mind returns to the climatic freeze frame of The 400 Blows. It remains with me and part of its iconic status is undoubtedly due to how it sums up this boy so perfectly. There’s a sadness in the eyes that without saying anything denotes all that we have already seen. It’s the perfect summation of his story thus far and with that look, it’s difficult to forget his hardships–his flaws too. Perhaps it allows us to extend grace to him because we can see firsthand that he’s in dire need of some. He has not been offered much his entire life with true love and affection being traded for punishment and biting remarks. True, his story does not end here but it’s a telling chapter of his life. Arguably the most formative years for the rest of his existence.

Within the storyline, Truffaut includes passing references for his love of the cinema and even suggests his promise with his writing composition though his teacher accuses him of plagiarism. But from these troubled roots came a man who loved movies to an extent that few others could claim. He was passionate both as a critic, champion, and creator.

Thus, it makes perfect sense that this film was dedicated to the memory of Andre Bazin, the noted founder of Cahiers du Cinema. Truffaut undoubtedly owed a tremendous debt to the magazine and its editor but he also elevated it with his own amount of passion. That same passion comes out in The 400 Blows and really all the subsequent films he made before his death. His movies are wonderful because each one shows that he genuinely cares about the material on its own individual merit. That is the kind of director that I want to watch.

5/5 Stars

Love on the Run (1979)

love on the run 2You can’t just do anything at all and then say ‘forgive me!’ You haven’t changed a bit.” ~ Colette

The prospect of watching Love on the Run saddened me and not for the reasons you might expect. Not because it’s noted as the weakest film in Truffaut’s famed Antoine Doinel series, although that it is. Not because it utilizes a clip show rather like a lazy sitcom as some will undoubtedly note (although this does actually give way to some rather entertaining reminisces as Antoine crosses paths with two old acquaintances). And it’s not even because this is the last film in the series and Truffaut never got around to any more installments before his death in 1983. Though that is sad.

The truly heartbreaking thing about this film is not even the fact that Antoine and Christine (Claude Jade) are getting a divorce although that is at the core of it. It’s that Antoine, who has long been the focal point of these films with his certain brand of charming charisma, really has not changed a great deal.

Time and time again, his superficial relationships with women are explored and time and time again his self-destructive habits hardly seem playfully entertaining but if you want the most honest answer, it’s all rather disheartening.

He has a new girl who we meet in the opening credits. Her name is Sabine. She’s young, radiant, very pretty and works in the local record shop. If we didn’t know any better we could easily make comparisons between her and Christine.

We see that little boy from 400 Blows and even that same young man looking to win the affection of a cute brunette named Collete. However, now a few years down the road, none of that panned out. He’s terribly selfish, undeniably a cad and always trying to say he’s sorry to save face. Sabine says it well when she calls him a pickup artist (You sure have a strange idea about relationships. You seem to only care about the first encounter. Once they’re together it’s all downhill).  

However, if we look again we remember that Doinel’s home life was hardly a prize, schoolmasters were unfeeling and his mother passed away — the only real family he had in the world.
Maybe, love on the run 1Antoine Doinel is a character who thinks only in the cinematic and it is true that he often functions in a bit of a faux-reality. He seems normal but never quite is. He seems charismatic but we are never won over by him completely. Still, we watch the unfoldings of his story rather attentively.

Like all the women who he tiptoed around with, as an audience, we have liked him but never truly loved him — an important distinction to make. And coincidentally, we also see right through him. Perhaps because he’s often too much like us or other times not enough like us. It’s hard to put a finger on which one it is exactly.

We leave the film essentially where it began. Antoine has once more been scolded by his girl and made up. It’s difficult to know quite precisely how to feel about that. Love on the Run is worth its nostalgia, woven in between the most recent moments of Doinel’s life. While his character is trying, he is still strangely compelling. But at this point, it’s hard to know what to do with him. Nevertheless, Francois Truffaut was unparalleled in the continuous narrative he was able to craft — flawed, personal and most certainly memorable.

3.5/5 Stars