If Godard is the most difficult, Truffaut is the most elusive of all the directors of the one-time New Wave. As a man and as a director he seems given over to self-contradiction, and his career to date appears to be an intricate web of unresolved paradoxes. He started out as a critic and as a leading propagandist of the politique des auteurs. But since he took up film-making he has done everything he can in his films, and in interviews with guileless journalists, to abjure both the theory and practice of authorship as propounded in his criticism. As a critic, he began by violently attacking the old ‘quality tradition’ of the French cinema, as exemplified by Carné, Duvivier, Delannoy. His latest film, La Peau Douce, looks however, at first sight, almost like a run-of-the-mill production of the hated Delannoy—with the difference that, whereas Delannoy has nothing to say and says it badly, Truffaut at least by common consent says his nothing extremely well. More serious is the apparent inconsistency of his films with each other, the variations of style and thematic material which seem to resist the attempts of interpreters to reconstruct a coherent picture of a personality behind the series of masks which the films create.
The usual assumption about Truffaut is that he is at heart an honest and occasionally brilliant craftsman with a multi-form craftsman’s talent, saddled with an unfortunate past as a polemicist for an inappropriate cause which he has done well to try and forget. The apparent contradictions in his behaviour should therefore be discounted as ingenuous attempts to extricate himself from the consequences of an intellectual position which he once adopted but was never really his by intimate conviction. That he is trying to do just this I would not deny. But not in any ingenuous way. It is the critics who are ingenuous while Truffaut is, in fact, the opposite. He is a faux naif. What he would like us to believe is that he is a kind of showman, not because he is one but because there are particular reasons why for the moment the pose happens to suit him. To begin with, his name has for so long been coupled with that of Godard that the opposite pose—as an innovator of cinematic language, or as philosopher-poet of the image—would only
The reasons why Truffaut clings so desperately to this condition of his freedom are, one suspects, partly psychological. But there is also an artistic justification for it, in terms of his personal aesthetic and of his views of the cinema and of the relation of art to life. Even his pose as a showman is not purely a pose, for in the metamorphic and unstable world of his films the artist is just that—a manipulator of illusions. There are no eternal verities for him to pronounce, even if he wanted to. Every statement is provisional, and liable to contradiction. The safest thing therefore is to ring up and down the curtain on a fleeting display, and if there is contradicting to be done, to do it yourself before you are held to account for what you say.
Hence Truffaut’s much-quoted comparison of the cinema (or his kind of cinema) with the circus, a spectacle compounded of elements which provoke diverse emotional reactions, and which it is the director’s job to fuse into a balanced and satisfying whole. Tears, laughter, fear, thrills, ecstasy and even bathos must be cunningly alternated so as complement each other. Each act must compensate, though not cancel out, the last. Such a procedure, in the circus, is a necessary protection against monotony. In the cinema it is rather more. It is a guarantee against that kind of falsehood which consists in a one-sided commitment to any particular view of the human condition. Truffaut made this comparison apropos in particular of Tirez sur le Pianiste, which is entirely built up on this pattern, and he meant it to apply to the internal construction of a film, which is an artificial closed circuit, but it can profitably be extended to cover the whole of his work and to the relation of each of the films he has made to the one that came before it.
The relation here is one of apparently intentional contradiction. Unlike a single film, a director’s output cannot be an entirely closed circuit, since the end can never be known in advance. Each new film can only begin where the last one left off. Rightly or wrongly Les 400 Coups attached to itself the label of social—or, to avoid ambiguity in the use of terms, public—realism. It was read as an assertion of humane values in a setting of obvious psychological and material deprivation. The small boy was taken as a prototype of all small boys in a similar situation, rejects of petit-bourgeois civilization. Truffaut’s second film, therefore, Tirez sur le Pianiste, sets out to provide a corrective. It is consciously private and idiosyncratic, and avoids public generalities. It was also, on the level of conventional motivation and plot, incoherent and obscure, and was a commercial failure. In reaction, Jules et Jim was
Put in this way, the principle governing Truffaut’s artistic development may seem perversity raised to the status of a system. Some qualifications are therefore necessary. The first is that his reasons for seeming to change tack all the time are not, and could not be, quite as simple and schematic as just suggested. If, after the commercial failure of Tirez, Truffaut felt it necessary to make more money with his next enterprise, it was not just to prove that he could if he tried make a popular film. It was also, partly, because he needed the money, and partly because he genuinely believes that cinema should be in the most obvious sense popular. Box-office receipts represent successful communication with the public. Besides, Jules et Jim is not merely a pot-boiler: it is a film which he would have wanted to make in some form anyway, and which as made evinces all the hallmarks of Truffaut’s authorship. It remains a work of personal expression whatever the external motivation behind its making.
This connects with a second qualification. There are constants in Truffaut’s work, to which he is, in spite of everything, deeply committed; and there are signs of a development other than the purely zig-zag dialectic described above. La Peau Douce represents neither a regression nor a deviation in Truffaut’s career, thematically or stylistically. Critics have lamented the absence in La Peau Douce of the visual pyrotechnics of the earlier films and the conventional ring of the subjectmatter. In so doing they show a curious insensitivity to the processes of style and to the necessary relation of style to matter, and consequently total misunderstanding of what the film is about. Reading the film simply as a psychological study in adultery, expressed in a conventional way with conventional plot machinery, and considering it out of the context of Truffaut’s other work, this becomes inevitable. The relationship with the earlier films is, in fact, complex and ambivalent. La Peau Douce has its starting point in the same general vision of the world, but it both extends and to a certain extent modifies and corrects the particular realization of this vision in Tirez and Jules et Jim.