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Francois Truffaut, Cinema's Wild Child

Getty Images / Gamma-Rapho / Giancarlo Botti / Contributor

Is the cinema more important than life? For Francois Truffaut, they were one and the same.

“Is the cinema more important than life?”

Perhaps only a French cineaste could get away with issuing such a query, but for Francois Truffaut, the question he asked was less a provocative rhetorical pose than the result of a lifetime spent creating some of the most personal films the cinema had ever seen. Decades after his death, he remains a towering figure in the history of the film.

Born to a 19-year-old unwed mother, Truffaut had a confusing and troubled childhood. Until the age of 10 he was raised by his grandmother, but when she died he was forced to live with his mother and her husband. Truffaut felt unwanted in the home and spent as much time as he could outside of it, getting in trouble for petty theft and truancy. His unhappy upbringing would later inform much of his work, most notably his breakout film "The 400 Blows" and later "The Wild Child."

Movie theaters provided a form of refuge, and after dropping out of school at age 14, he set a goal for himself of seeing three movies a day and reading three books a week. The cinemas of Paris became his classrooms, exposing him to the works of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as the low-budget crime dramas he’d later pay homage to with his film noir works "Shoot the Piano Player" and "The Bride Wore Black."

At 16, Truffaut started his own film club, and its formation eventually led to him meeting leading critic and theorist André Bazin, a respected figure 14 years his senior. Bazin became both a mentor and father figure to Truffaut and helped disentangle him from various legal and financial problems, most importantly when Truffaut left the French Army and was imprisoned for desertion.

Bazin helped win Truffaut’s release by giving him a job with the fledgling Cahiers du Cinema, a journal which would re-invent film criticism and become the most influential theoretical voice of the 20th Century. Truffaut would pen more than 170 pieces for Cahiers, many of them scathing, angry young man reviews of old guard filmmakers, earning him the nickname “The Grave Digger of French Cinema” and a ban from the Cannes film festival. In 1954, he penned his most explosive essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” which not only lambasted certain writers and directors by name, but laid the groundwork for the auteur theory. Adapted and expanded by American critics like Andrew Sarris, the auteur theory holds that the director of a film is its chief author and visionary, and is largely the reason we refer, for instance, to the 2001 version of "Planet of the Apes" as “a Tim Burton film” even though it was shot from a screenplay credited to three different writers and inspired by the 1968 version of the movie (scripted by two other writers), which was itself based upon a novel by Pierre Boulle.

Despite the impact of his criticism, Truffaut would largely be forgotten today had he never made the decision to get behind the camera — a move that required considerable courage given the number of industry figures who would surely have relished nothing more than to see “the gravedigger” excavate his directorial career’s final resting place with his very first feature.

Instead, Truffaut created a masterpiece.

"The 400 Blows" follows the misadventures of Antoine Doinel, an adolescent outcast growing up in Paris. Less a narrative vehicle than a feature-length character study, the film offers an intimate portrait of its auteur as a troubled young man. Like Truffaut, Dionel is raised by his grandmother, has a difficult relationship with his cold and distant mother, runs away, and is betrayed to the police by his adoptive father. With "The 400 Blows," Truffaut stated that he had set out to make a film that didn’t “depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia” but revealed it for the painful experience that it was. But by taking what might be depressing subject matter and filming it with a warm, offhanded and true-to-life style, Truffaut elevated what might have been just another troubled urban youth melodrama to nothing less than a celebration of life, with all its joys, frustrations and injustices.

In one of the most famously ambiguous movie endings of all time, Dionel is shown running towards the ocean, finally free of his parents, teachers, and child psychologists. But just as he reaches the shoreline, Dionel abruptly turns around as if to confront the viewer and the frame freezes on his dispassionate expression, leaving audiences to wonder about his ultimate fate. (Dionel — and actor Jean-Pierre Léaud — would prove such a fascinating stand-in for Truffaut that he would return to the character in four subsequent films over the next 20 years).

The film took the world by storm, earning Truffaut the best director prize from the same Cannes festival that had banned him a year previously. Its debut launched what would come to be known as the French New Wave — an informal movement that included directors as diverse as Jean-Luc Goddard, Claude Chabrol, Agnes Varda, and Alain Resnais. Though their careers would go off in all sorts of interesting directions, what the early "nouvelle vague" directors shared was a love of daring visual style, a distaste for rigid narrative structures, and a passionate love for a medium whose possibilities they believed still largely unexplored.

Truffaut’s third feature, "Jules and Jim," is widely regarded as his second masterpiece and one which perhaps best encapsulates the "nouvelle vague" aesthetic, breezily incorporating an encyclopedic mix of visual styles and techniques. On its surface, it’s the story of a love triangle, but Truffaut turns what could be a clichéd premise into a meditation on love, youth, friendship, and freedom. It begins with whimsy and exuberance and ends, as critic Roger Ebert wrote, as a poignant story about “three people who could not concede that their moment of perfect happiness was over, and pursued it into dark and sad places.”

The perfect happiness of the French New Wave came to an end too, and as happens in most revolutions, the revolutionaries eventually turned on each other with critical jabs, denunciations and even lawsuits. Truffaut would go on to produce a number of memorable films — including his Oscar-winning "Day for Night" (a film about the making of a film) and the Academy Award nominated "The Last Metro" — but his legacy lies just as much in those he inspired as those he created.

The so-called second Golden Age of American cinema in the 1970s — shaped by figures like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Martin Scorsese — was hugely influenced by European art films of the 1960s. Warren Beatty had approached Truffaut about directing "Bonnie & Clyde," but Truffaut declined (his only Hollywood film, "Fahrenheit 451," failed to catch fire). He did later work with Spielberg, turning in a memorable performance in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Today, Truffaut’s influence continues to be felt chiefly in the indie film world — which makes use of many nouvelle vague features like improvised dialogue, non-professional actors, location shooting, and handheld camerawork. Contemporary international filmmakers often linked to the French New Wave include Quentin Tarantino, Wong Kar Wai, Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Michel Gondry.

By the time he died of a brain tumor in 1984, Truffaut had made 25 feature films, including deeply autobiographical works and those featuring onscreen appearances by his lovers, his wife, himself, and even his children.

Is the cinema more important than life? For Francois Truffaut, it’s a false dichotomy — they were one and the same.