François Truffaut was born on February 6th, 1932 to a young unwed mother who initially kept him a secret from her family. He was raised by his maternal grandmother and, when she passed away, spent many of his formative years with his mother and adoptive father. Truffaut’s childhood was full of neglect and a distaste for structure and authority. Many of the storylines featured in his debut film The 400 Blows (1959) were taken straight from his childhood experiences.
Young Truffaut sought solace in the cinema, often playing hooky from school with his best friend Robert Lachenay to watch the latest movies at the Cinematheque Francais in Paris. Truffaut read countless books and got a film education by watching and rewatching movies by filmmakers such as Jean Vigo, Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and many more. When Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief came out, he entered Pathe’s contest to promote the film and came in second place, winning a bicycle. He and his friend Lachenay started a film club and while his soon-to-be contemporary Jean-Luc Godard was taking film classes, Truffaut’s education came from observing the masters’ work on the big screen.
Connections were everything to Truffaut. He befriended French critic Andre Bazin who was crucial in getting him a job as a film critic at Cahiers du Cinema, the famed French film magazine. According to Truffaut’s daughter Laura, “Andre Bazin believed that a film should represent a director’s personal vision”, something her father agreed with and led him to write the legendary article “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.” He worked for the better part of a year on this essay, with the guidance of Bazin, and it eventually served as the manifesto for “auteur theory.” The article was published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954. This and some of his rather harsh criticisms of new film releases caused such a stir that he was eventually banned from the Cannes Film Festival in 1958.
Being a film critic was only a stop gap for Truffaut, whose real goal was to become a filmmaker. He worked for a couple of years for Italian filmmaker Robert Rossellini on projects that never came to pass. And after making two short films, Truffaut, at the age of 26, got special permission from the Center national de la cinematography in France to surpass the prerequisites for becoming a director in order to make his debut feature film.
The fact that Truffaut’s first three films are considered masterpieces in their own right is quite astonishing and speaks to how talented he truly was. His autobiographical drama The 400 Blows (1959) was the first of 5 films in the Antoine Donel Cycle starring Truffaut’s muse Jean-Pierre Leaud. The film was a hit. The irony of having been banned from Cannes in 1958 only to be celebrated there the following year was not lost on Truffaut. At the festival he won Best Director and the OCIC award and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. The 400 Blows would also be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing. His next film was Shoot the Piano Player (1960), a tribute to American film noir starring musician Charles Aznavour. His third film, Jules et Jim (1962) is by far his most celebrated and most beloved from his filmography. Years earlier, Truffaut came upon Henri-Pierre Roche’s novel in a used bookstore and read it over and over again. He befriended the author and got the rights to the book. Truffaut knew this was an opportunity to do something different and radical.
Much of Truffaut’s genius was in how he both appreciated conventional filmmaking but also defied it at the same time. He was a hands-on filmmaker who wrote, produced, directed his films. He didn’t use storyboards and instead worked off a basic script and only wrote the dialogue with his screenwriting team, including frequent collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, the Sunday before shooting. He didn’t believe in group rehearsals and preferred one-one coaching. He thrived on disorder, preferred not to film in chronological order and felt that repetition made his actors numb to organic expression. Many of his films were shot in real homes and often include an inside joke that only he would understand. Truffaut adored working with children and thrived on discovering new talent. Books and writings were prominent in many of his films and served as a form of communication. Truffaut was very involved in the editing process and would edit the last 15 minutes of a film first so it would get as much care and attention as the opening scene. For Truffaut, filmmaking was an intimate experience and his films were all extensions of himself.
After the success of Jules et Jim, Truffaut went on to make films in the Antoine Donel Cycle including Antoine and Colette (1962) and Bed and Board (1970). His adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) was his first film in color and his only one in English. Day for Night (1973) which starred Jacqueline Bisset and Jean Pierre-Leaud, was recognized by the Academy with two nominations and one win for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. According to his biographers, with Day for Night “Truffaut was fulfilling a lifelong dream, that of showing the inside workings of a shoot.” Truffaut starred in the film himself and along with Wild Child (1970) and an appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) added acting to his resume.
In 1966, Truffaut wrote and published the book Hitchcock / Truffaut which transcribed his lengthy conversations with filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. It’s still in print and considered one of the best film books ever published. Truffaut’s last film was The Last Metro (1980) starred his partner Fanny Ardant and was a tribute to Hollywood film noir. Unfortunately, Truffaut was taken from us far too soon when he died at the age of 52 in 1984. He left a legacy behind one that film lovers will cherish for generations to come.
Explore François Truffaut’s life and work with these films available to rent from DVD Netflix.