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Truffaut's Timeless Gifts for Film Fans

As the 40th anniversary of his first film, 'The 400 Blows,' is observed, many of his best return to home video.

April 29, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most American filmgoers know the late French director Francois Truffaut for his endearing performance as the small, intense and kindly French scientist in the 1977 sci-fi classic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

But to true cineastes, Truffaut was one of film's greatest directors. An influential, often feared film critic in his early 20s, he became one of France's most successful "New Wave" directors. Truffaut's films were personal explorations of three of his passions: the cinema, children and the tumultuous relationships between the sexes.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of his first feature, the extraordinary semiautobiographical "The 400 Blows," starring Jean-Pierre Leaud as the troubled youth Antoine Doinel. This October also marks the 15th anniversary of Truffaut's untimely death from a brain tumor at age 52.

Fox Lorber Cinema is paying tribute to Truffaut this week by releasing the restored versions of "The 400 Blows"; "The Last Metro"; his final film, "Confidentially Yours"; "Love on the Run," the fifth and final installment in his Antoine Doinel series; "Shoot the Piano Player"; and "Two English Girls." All are available on video and DVD ($30 each).

Then in August, Fox Lorber is scheduled to bring out "Jules and Jim"; "The Woman Next Door"; "The Soft Skin"; the two shorts "Antoine and Colette" and "Les Mistons"; and two of the most popular Doinel entries, "Bed and Board" and "Stolen Kisses." Both of these Doinel films have been out of circulation in America for nearly two decades.

The company is also sponsoring the touring film festival "Francois Truffaut: A Celebration," which arrives in Los Angeles on May 14 for a two-week engagement at the Nuart in West L.A.

Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University and author of the critical study "Francois Truffaut," believes all of his films have a timeless quality.

"In showing the films to my students this semester, I am reminded again how Truffaut's own movies fulfill something he once wrote about the cinema in the '50s when he was a critic," she says.

"He said, for him, a great film had to have an idea of the world and an idea of the cinema. And Truffaut's movies do work on at least two levels."

His films, says Insdorf, "tell stories of engaging people in compelling situations. But they also have a secondary level of being about cinematic storytelling. They let you in on the very way that Truffaut is telling the story. Whether it is his lyrical camera or his voice-over narrations or, in 'Shoot the Piano Player,' his abrupt shifting of tone, they make you think about how movies tell stories at the same time they follow the characters' tales."

"His work is so unique and so unusual, it will never be old-fashioned," says legendary French actress Jeanne Moreau, who had a cameo in "The 400 Blows" and starred as one of Truffaut's most complex heroines in "Jules and Jim."

"Jules and Jim," offers Moreau, was made at "such a deep, full moment in his life. I don't mean that his other films are not as meaningful, but it is when something very special happens with a certain amount of people. It is like '400 Blows.' There is a special grace [to it]. One cannot explain it. It is like when you meet people--it is quite a chance meeting--and something opens up inside of you. It's magic."

Moreau says they all knew during production that "Jules and Jim" was going to be special. "All the worries we had were only the worries of creation," she says.

That wasn't the case, though, six years later when she teamed up with Truffaut for his Hitchockian thriller, "The Bride Wore Black."

"It was not pleasant," Moreau says, adding that there was a "very big tension" between Truffaut and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard.

"But [the film] worked," she says. "Films are made not only out of pleasure. Beautiful things can be born out of antagonism. The sense of pressure can bring forth something very special on the screen."

Truffaut, Insdorf maintains, was the first filmmaker "to enable us to watch a character and an actor grow before our eyes. The ability to rediscover Antoine Doinel from adolescence to young adulthood to almost middle age in 'Love on the Run'--what a cinematic treat that is."

Insdorf says that every year she has a different favorite film of Truffaut's.

"In certain years, I like the relatively unknown 'Two English Girls,' " she says. "That is a far more difficult film than most of his others. Its treatment of love is extremely dark and painful, or it treats love as an extremely dark and painful process. I always embrace '400 Blows' and 'Shoot the Piano Player.' Certain years, it will be 'Jules and Jim.' Other years it will be 'Day for Night.' In a given moment, [it is] 'The Wild Child'--in its austerity, which is so moving. I really like most of them. Like is too weak a term; I really love most of them."

Insdorf describes the underlying tone of Truffaut's films as bittersweet. "From his first film to the last, love is never treated in a facile way. Even when there are happy endings, there's a question mark. Even when there are rather sad endings, there is a bit of lightness, as in 'Jules and Jim.' There is always a mixed tonality like life itself."

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