Friday, March 25, 2011

Francois Truffaut - my inspiration and my essay on him

Francois Truffaut was a film critic and director with his directorial career spanning from 1954-1983. He was one of the torch-bearers of French New Wave. He derived his film making styles from the Italian neo-realism but he used the neo-realist techniques to film personal stories and stories about human relationships.
I feel that the most significant characteristic of Truffaut films was the way he captured moments. The moments could be of male bonding, or a couple who are experiencing rumbling of first love, or of children enjoying a puppet show. Truffaut himself believed that the beauty of final film lies not in amount of work done on set or the money spent but lies in the chemistry achieved between the actors. And most of his scenes brimmed with tender moments of chemistry between the key artists.
In this article, I attempt to find out the various elements that Truffaut put in to achieve that chemistry. Since Truffaut’s movies are a personal work of art, discussions about his films will also include Truffaut himself.
When we enter a group of people having conversation at a party, it takes us a few minutes to settle and get an idea of what they are talking about. Initially we feel that we are invading someone’s privacy. But gradually we get to know their complex characters. This is how Truffaut treats his audience when he is filming scenes between people. We feel like voyeurs initially and then we become part of the characters. A lot of this can be seen in Jules And Jim when all three character are there together and also Two English Women when the girls sandwich the boy and do see-saw.

Every scene of Truffaut is rich and multi-dimensional. This is because in every scene he not only brought in one element but multiple elements. His motto was to construct a scene around multiple ideas. This made the scene more interesting. Truffaut collected ideas. In the sense that he collected newspapers cuttings and kept them in a film. He was so meticulous in the study of his films that he maintained files of films and directors. He used the things he liked within various scenes. For example – Soft Skin is inspired from a newspaper cutting. Various characters in his movies were modeled around interesting people he met or himself or childhood friend. This made foundation of the characters very strong.
Earlier films of Truffaut like 400 films, Les Minstons were essentially autobiographical and hence felt extremely honest as there were no holes left out in their telling. For developing the scripts he deliberately chose writers (As he didn’t want them to be total autobiographical). His writers were mostly the people who had deep understanding of the theme being dealt with and he refused to take industry script writers. Taking authors well-versed with the  subject insures the movie from any false representation of reality.
Truffaut was a great admirer of form. Though he employed lots of existing film making techniques, he never invented one. He was not keen on it. He delved more on the emotions. The emotions used in his movies were universal since the relationships he created on the screen were universal and honest. He dealt with everyday relationships of child and his parents and teachers and of man and woman that stimulated reflections in relationships that affect us. That is the reason why Truffaut’s movies stay with us as they make us think about our own life stories.

Truffaut believed in building real characters and his characterization formed a very strong base in all his movies. Even when there were large number of characters, like in “Day for Night”. He gave each of them a clear role and clear motivation - like the assistant producer’s wife who waits for him and eventually shouts at everyone for having affairs. Truffaut laid a huge stress on working with actors. He devised ways (like scriptless acting for Antonio in the psychiatrist scene of 400 blows) or giving physical movement to the characters. Infact Truffaut felt that an actor is good and comfortable when he is given physical movements and his movies are replete with characters going from one place to another. He felt that when there is movement then the audience is engaged. Truffaut was wary of audience getting bored (he would feel discomforted if the audience got bored in other people’s movies also). Also movement symbolized harmony and things moving. Characters moving from one place to another especially in the open space gave lots of space and fluidity to his movies.

Truffaut’s movies have lyrical quality to them. They have a mix of happiness and lingering sadness. The happiness is never felt in extreme and very rarely we see a character have a hearty laugh that seems long lasting. Even the humour in his movies are suttle. This is seen in all his movies right from 400 blows to Jules and Jim to Stolen Kisses. Truffaut effectively uses music to create that haunting mood of sadness. Sadness seems more permanent in life than happiness.

Truffaut had said very beautifully: “Happiness is hard to recount. It is used up before one has perceived it”. In all his movies the principal characters are looking for happiness but never get it permanently. Infact no moment in life is permanent. This is best shown in the movie Stolen Kisses were the character Antonio keeps going from one job to another, one relationship to other – back and forth. He says a dichotomy exists between provisional and permanence and they never seem to co-exist in life. And almost all of the movies of Truffaut I have seen, there is none that has a “happily everafter” ending. Life is unstable. Death is stable, permanent.
Truffaut, maybe because he saw death of his grandmother with whom he lived till the age of 10 in his childhood, feels death as an integral part of life. Death is integral to all his stories. Sometimes like in Jules and Jim, Soft Skin, Two English Women, they come as solution or salvation of the characters. Death seemed to be part of most of his scripts but he almost all the time avoided the gory violence and blood.

Truffaut used lots of motifs across his movie like fire (400 blows, Farenheit 451), caresses, sudden and unexpected slaps, protagonist looking through or talking through a window, women legs (As discussed earlier) and the character in the movie enjoying watching cinema in theatre.  Truffaut struggled a lot with the endings of his movies and considered them to be the most challenging part during the writing. Several of his films are characterized by sudden endings.

Truffaut and childhood: Truffaut didn’t have a normal childhood. He felt that adolescence should be compensated for with the things that were not present in the childhood. He craved to be part of a family, he craved to remain innocent, vulnerable, child-like. Infact in all his auto-biographical movies he has strived for the above things. He has shown that character always looking for an anchor and struggling against a authority.

Truffaut and women: In his various movies, his women are identical regardless of the character they play. He doesn’t even spare the character of a mother who is shown perceived as being sensuous by her child (400 blows). Infact Truffaut claims that relationship of a man with woman is same as relationship of a man with his mother. Women for Truffaut are headstrong individuals around whom the life revolves. The women are both angelic and selfish. They repel and attract simultaneously. The best illustration is in Stolen Kisses where the shoe owner’s wife looks angelic and unattainable initially and later on she is degraded to someone offering herself to Antonio. All the women are shown having both these elements in varying proportions. The women are like river, cannot be controlled. But most of the times they are shown directionless with no clear intent. Right from Jean Morreau’s character in Jules and Jim to the two sisters in “Two English Girls”, the women are shown fickle when it comes to choosing their object of affection. Loyalty is a virtue that does not rest in women.
At the same time, Truffaut didn’t see loyalty as a virtue. He never upheld it or advocated for it. However, he always showed that disloyalty or moral confusions lead to doom, not because of the moral dilemmas involved but because of the emotional entanglement they lead to.
The underlying theme with women in all Truffaut’s movie was the compelling need to love but much above it, the compelling need to be loved.
Truffaut was fascinated by women.  Since he felt that the world circled around women and so did his characters and movies. However, he could never fathom women and most of his movies deal with the male protagonist fumbling in their understanding of love and even understanding of women. “Are women magic?” – most of his characters would ask. He didn’t see any permanence in any relationship with women (though he has shown lots of permanence in male bonding) and if any relationship did culminate into marriage, Truffaut has shown boredom and later adultery seeping into the marriage.
Nonetheless, Truffaut has shown beautiful love making scenes. Love for him meant passion. A feeling that makes a man totally lose control. This also means that these intense moments are temporary but their temporariness makes one enliven it even more rather than refute it. The love making scenes that are shown are beautifully choreographed, replete with caressing of face with hands. Truffaut considered women’s legs as the most beautiful part of her body. Like in “Man who Loved a Woman” , Morane says that “The legs of women are points of compass that bestride the terrestrial globe in all directions, giving it its equilibrium and harmony”.
Truffaut picturizes his women with graceful smooth movements and provide them certain lightness, by making them float on a bicycle. He chose camera stylistics also accordingly to give them a fleeting angelic movement.

Truffaut lived and breathed cinema. He felt that he grew through the movies he made. At the same time his movies were huge expression of himself. Truffaut and his movies hence are an integral part of eachother.

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