Review: Jules and Jim (1962)

jules et jim 1.png

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)

shoot-the-piano-player-1

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.

shoot-the-piano-player-2

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

claude jade

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.

bedandboard1

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?

claude jade 2

This is my entry in the Reel Infatuation Blogathon….

 

Review: The 400 Blows (1959)

400 blows 1.png

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.

400 blows 4.png

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.

400 blows 3.png

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

Bed and Board (1970)

bedandboard1Arguably the greatest French comic was Jacques Tati and like Chaplin or Keaton he seemed to have an impeccable handle on physical comedy, combining the human body with the visual landscape to develop truly wonderful bits of humor. Bed and Board is a hardly a comparable film, but it pays some homage to the likes of Mon Oncle and Playtime. There’s a Hulot doppelganger at the train station, while Antoine also ends up getting hired by an American Hydraulics company led by a loud-mouthed American (Billy Kearns) who closely resembles one of Hulot’s pals from Playtime. Furthermore, there are supporting cast members with a plethora of comic quirks. The man who won’t leave his second story apartment until Petain is dead and buried at Verdun. No one seems to have told him that the old warhorse has been dead nearly 20 years. The couple next door that is constantly running late, the husband pacing in the hallway as his wife rushes to make it to his opera in time. There’s the local strangler who is kept at arm’s length until the locals learn something about him. The rest is a smattering of characters who pop up here and there at no particular moment. Their purpose is anyone’s guess, and yet they certainly do entertain.

In other ways, Francois Truffaut is a very different director than Tati when it comes to his filmmaking. His protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a bit autobiographical, but he still seemingly functions outside of normal time and space as he continues to float easily in between jobs and doesn’t seem to worry much about anything. First, it’s a flower shop that doesn’t get much traffic and then the American company where Doniel hardly does anything but pilot remote control boats. But like before in Stolen Kisses (1968), it is Christine (Claude Jade) who still gives him the edge of humanity. Early on we notice that they go to the cellar — the same cellar he made advances on her two years prior — except now things are a little different. They are married now and happily so. He experiments with dying flowers while she takes on a violinist pupil. Soon enough follows a baby boy with his loving parents dueling on what to name him. They even have a dinner of baby food, because who wants to go to the store like a grown-up? At night they cuddle up and read together in bed.

bedandboard2But as Truffaut usually does, he digs into his character’s flaws that suspiciously look like they might be his own. Antoine easily gets swayed by the demure attractiveness of a Japanese beauty (Hiroko Berghauer), and he begins spending more time with her.  Thus the marital turbulence sets in thanks in part to Antoine’s needless infidelity –revealed to Christine through a troubling bouquet of flowers. It’s hard to keep up pretenses when the parent’s come over again and Doinel even ends up calling on a prostitute one more. It’s as if he always reverts back to the same self-destructive habits. He never quite learns.

Christine doesn’t deserve a cad such as him, but then again perhaps many people aren’t deserving of love, but we willingly give it to them anyways. The bottom line is that Antoine and Christine still love each other to the end, but that doesn’t make married life with a small child any less difficult. As is his proclivity, Truffaut gracefully touches on what it means to progress from adolescence to adulthood, singleness to married life. He does it with comedic touches that are forever underlined by searing romantic drama. It’s continually engaging just as Antoine Doinel continues to captivate us. Would I ever want to know him personally? Probably not, but I am intrigued by his character. If nothing else it’s a worthy continuation of Antoine and Christine’s life story. Antoine is not the only one smitten with Christine. She wins over the audience as well.

“I’m not like you. I don’t like things fuzzy and vague and ambiguous. I like things to be clear.” – Christine talking to Antoine

4/5 Stars

 

Stolen Kisses (1968)

stolenkisses7Charles Trenet’s airy melody “I Wish You Love” is our romantic introduction into this comedy-drama. However, amid the constant humorous touches of Truffaut’s film, he makes light of youthful visions of romance, while simultaneously reveling in them. Because there is something about being young that is truly extraordinary. The continued saga of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel is a perfect place to examine this beautiful conundrum.

To begin with, Doinel is still a bit of a trouble-making vagrant, and his time in the military was mostly spent being AWOL. He gets dishonorably discharged and the first thing he does when he gets out seemingly fits what we know of his character. He scampers across incoming traffic and finds the nearest brothel. What begins after that is an increasingly long list of odd jobs. First as a night clerk, before he unwittingly gets mixed up with a private investigator and a jealous husband which ends up getting him fired. Next, comes his most prolific phase as a detective and he’s such a horrendous tail it’s hilarious. But an old vet takes him under his wing and Doinel learns how to be a true detective. Soon he becomes a plant at the local shoe store of a Mr. Tabard after a fine showing wrapping shoe boxes — something he proves to be absurdly awful at.

stolenkisses3In fact, all in all, if we look at Doinel he doesn’t seem like much. He’s out of the army, obsessed with sex, can’t do anything, and really is a jerk sometimes. Still, he manages to maintain an amicable relationship with the parents of the innocent, wide-eyed beauty Christine (Claude Jade in her spectacular debut). Theirs is an interesting relationship full of turbulence. We don’t know the whole story, but they’ve had a past, and it’s ambiguous whether or not they really are a couple. They’re in the “friend zone” most of the film and really never spend any significant scenes together. Doinel is either busy tailing some arbitrary individual or fleeing pell-mell from the bosses wife who he has a crush on.

If we look at Antoine’s track record and take another look at Christine, there’s no way they should ever, ever be together not in a million years. But Truffaut does bless Doinel with bits of depth even amidst the everyday comic absurdities. He is a young man always running his hand nervously through his hair. He practices English by record trying to improve himself and he’s obviously looking for intimacy like we all are. In one particularly enlightening turn of events, he begins repeating names in front of the mirror to the point that it becomes taxing. But what young person hasn’t stared at themselves in the mirror or nervously talked to themselves? He truly is a young man still trying to figure things out. He’s allowed to have crushes and make mistakes. Perhaps he doesn’t deserve love. Most of us probably don’t, but that cannot stop him from being ever enraptured by it.

stolenkisses6By the time he’s given up the shoe trade and taken up tv repair he’s already visited another hooker, but Christine isn’t done with him yet. She sets up the perfect meet-cute and the two young lovers finally have the type of connection that we have been expecting. When we look at them in this light, sitting at breakfast, or on a bench, or walking in the park they really do seem made for each other. Their height perfectly suited. Her face glowing with joy, his innately serious. Their steps in pleasant cadence with each other. The hesitant gazes of puppy love.

Before the romantic interludes of the Before Trilogy or the adolescent expanses of Boyhood by Richard Linklater, Francois Truffaut was the master of such topics adeptly mixing drama, comedy, and touches of biography to tell personal, heartfelt tales. Jean-Pierre Leaud continues to make Doinel into a character that is continually watchable, because of the very flaws that we criticize. The days of The 400 Blows seem so long ago now and back then he seemed like such a solitary figure. Thankfully now he has the sweet effervescent beauty of Claude Jade to stand by his side. The eminent Pauline Kael, noted her to be “a less ethereal, more practical Catherine Deneuve.” That is a compliment if I’ve ever heard one, and she is a welcomed addition to Stolen Kisses, a thoroughly riveting journey of young love from one of France’s most accessible masters.

4/5 Stars

Day for Night (1973)

dayfornightposter10 years prior Jean-Luc Godard made his own film about movie-making entitled Contempt (1963). It too delved into what it looked like to make films, as well as the individuals behind the camera because their relationships undoubtedly affect what is revealed in front of it. His colleague Francois Truffaut came out with his own meta-film about film, but Godard was open with his criticism. In fact, their long friendship suffered because Godard accused his longtime collaborator of selling out and telling a lie.

However, if we look at Day for Night today, that feels a little harsh, because while Truffaut’s film is engrossing and different than his earlier New Wave work, he is, in general, a more accessible director on the whole than Godard. That should certainly not take away from what he gifted to his audience. What he does is color the lines between film and real life. Because, while one mirrors reality, it can never quite replicate it and things get messy when the two begin to get in the way of each other.

Immediately we are thrown into a street scene only to learn minutes later that it’s only a set; these commonplace people only extras filling up a cinematic space. It’s the perfect entry point into the meta nature of the film. Ferrand (Truffaut himself) is the director flooded with all your typical problems, setbacks, and deadlines. He must work around his stars, navigating the drama that comes about with so many personalities all gathered together. Severine is a has-been starlet with troubles remembering her lines. Alexandre is her love interest, a fading star in his own right who is aging gracefully. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the young heartthrob, who secured a script girl position for his girlfriend, but their playful romance is not without bumps. All the while everyone waits with baited breath for the arrival of transcontinental star Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown followed by a marriage to a distinguished doctor.

We are privy to series of takes, rushes, and all the decisions that are going on behind the scenes. It is in many ways far fuller and more in-depth than the picture Godard gives, but Truffaut maintains the same respect for his heroes. He goes so far as name dropping: Hitchcock, Hawks, Bresson, Godard himself, Bergman, Rossellini, Lubitsch, Bunuel, Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, not to mention an initial dedication to the Gish sisters. Even Citizen Kane and The Godfather, two of cinema’s landmark achievements, are both alluded to in passing.

But adding an exclamation point to everything is the drama of death, romantic affairs, and even a pregnancy, suggesting that life is a lot messier than a moving picture. All the strips of celluloid get tied together in a nice bow. They can be explained away by a plot point. They can be completely discarded on the cutting room floor. Or a double can be hired as an easy fix for any discrepancy. In this, there is a falseness that fails to perfectly align with reality. There is no perfect way to convey the truth, because everything, even a documentary, can never be complete subjective reality. A mirror image is only a reflection of what is real. That is part of what Truffaut is getting at and that is part of the irony of his row with Godard.

You only have to look at its title, because Day for Night points to the inherent artificiality of cinema, but Hollywood films especially.  So, far from telling a lie, Truffaut seems to riddle the film industry with all sort of holes, pointing out the difficulties that come with such a business. Life and film may meet and overlap, but they can never truly reconcile their differences because there is bound to be contention along the way that cannot be perfectly remedied by even the greatest director.

But far from condemning the art form, it’s important to realize Truffaut is pronouncing his undying affection for the medium. He was the one who famously asserted, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” This man unquestionably loved movies and it shows.

4.5/5 Stars

My Night at Maud’s (1969)

nightatmaud's1I love the forum that is created in international cinema where all things can be debated and discussed without fear of what the audience will say. Hollywood caters to the audience and that more often than not means that thrills are given greater weight than substance. Eric Rohmer worked at Cahiers du Cinema alongside French New Wave visionaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but he joined the game a little later than his colleagues with a different style. Rohmer took his pseudonym from director Erich von Stroheim and British novelist Sax Rohmer. He was a highly educated man and that comes out in his films.

My Night at Maud’s comes from the perspective of a man, who we have a sneaking suspicion might be a lot like Rohmer.  Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a reserved, highly religious, intelligent man. He attends mass on Sunday, bumps into an old school chum on the street, and willfully enters a discussion on all sorts of philosophical topics.

Whereas Godard interest himself in the lowly gangsters, the streetwalkers, or the lovers on the run, Rohmer’s character are in a completely different stratosphere. They are a higher slice of society, and it shows in what they spend there time philosophizing about. In fact, there’s a lot of discussion stemming from Pascal’s wager on whether or not it is beneficial to believe in God. Although he can be a bit of a clown, Vidal is also a philosophy professor and ready and willing to delve into such topics. He holds hypotheses on the meaning of life, and he’s considered where hope comes from. These are intelligent beings and deep thinkers, and by transference, they lead us to think. They drop by on Vidal’s friend Maud (Francoise Fabian), who is a divorcee, irreligious, and most certainly a free thinker. She’s also beautiful, and she likens there little late night convo to the salons of old as they gather around her bed to raise their conjectures.

nightatmaud's4I feel like I have known people like Jean-Louis, and I cannot help but like them. He’s a fairly resilient Christian, but not a perfect example mind you, and yet he feels far from a hypocrite. With his new dialogue partners, he speaks of his past love affairs and how they can exist with his religious convictions. Maud rather matter-of-factly labels him a “shame-faced Christian” and a “shame-faced Don Juan,” because he’s not fully committed or acknowledging of either. And yet she generally likes him a lot. He likes her company too and so they can continue talking in a genial manner. She pokes fun and ribs but never attacks. And she openly brings up numerous different ideas about Christianity. There are things that feel very human, but not very Christian to her. Maud asks if Christians are judged by their deeds? She assumes there is a bookkeeping aspect of Christianity where good deeds are weighted versus sin. Several times the rather obscure term of Jansenism is thrown around a bit in reference to the theology of Dutchman Cornelius Jansen. It surely is difficult to keep up we these folks at times, but it’s well worth it.

Maud has her own preconceived notions about religion, while Jean-Louis has some delusions about romance. He thinks he’ll meet a pretty blonde Catholic gal and fall in love. It sounds utterly preposterous and yet then he meets Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) after his night at Maud’s. She’s the perfect embodiment of everything he’s ever dreamed of in a romantic partner. They seem like a good pair, although she is still in school, they are intellectual equals with similar personal convictions.

nightatmaud's5Sure enough, 5 years down the line they are married with a young son. Jean-Louis has not seen Maud for many years now, but quite by chance they bump into each other on the beach. Both pick up where they left off as if no time has passed because it’s so easy for them to converse. Francoise is noticeably uncomfortable around Maud, but nothing more is said about it. Jean-Louis moves on and plays contentedly with his family on the beach. Maud heads back up the hill as cordial as ever. This is an ending that is made powerful in its subtleties above all else because Jean-Louis and the audience realize something about Francoise. Yet there is no need to voice those conclusions because all that matters to him is that he is happy.  It toes a soft line between romance and drama, instead resorting to a beautiful exchange of ideas. Noticeably, in Rohmer’s film, there is no score so the dialogue is elevated to the level of music. It fills the void using deep, introspective and personal forms of verbal expression.

4/5 Stars