François Truffaut: 10 essential films

The gentlest of the major directors of the French New Wave, François Truffaut made some of the movement’s best-loved classics, from Jules et Jim to Day for Night.

David Parkinson
Updated:

François Truffaut on the set of Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

François Truffaut on the set of Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Gérard Depardieu reportedly resisted starring in The Last Metro (1979) because he thought director François Truffaut had gone bourgeois. Truffaut may no longer have been the fiery critic who had denounced ‘cinéma du papa’ in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s or even the fearless auteur who had been in the vanguard of the French New Wave. But he remained a consummate filmmaker, whose love of cinema and respect for its past masters was evident in every frame of his oeuvre. Later pictures may have been less stylistically ambitious and even contained traces of the despised ‘tradition of quality’. But Truffaut never really changed at all, as he was always the last of the poetic realists.

Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)

Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)

Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)

Intended to be an anthology vignette set during the occupation, the shoestring feature that ignited the nouvelle vague is rooted heavily in Truffaut’s own experiences. Indeed, the 27-year-old’s relationship with teenage star Jean-Pierre Léaud would come to reflect his own with mentor André Bazin, as the Antoine Doinel cycle continued. Belying Truffaut’s reputation as a firebrand critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, this study in juvenile alienation is conventionally linear and owes much to neorealism, film noir and idolised auteurs like Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini. But Henri Decaë’s visceral handheld imagery and the ambiguous climactic freeze-frame made it an instant classic whose raw power remains undiminished. 

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Lacing David Goodis’s hardboiled novel Down There with the frantic zaniness of the Marx Brothers and Raymond Queneau, Truffaut’s sophomore outing was a gleeful grab bag of tropes, tones and techniques that came closest to translating his critical theories into cinematic practice. There’s more than a hint of Truffaut in Charles Aznavour’s taciturn concert pianist, who becomes embroiled with gangsters after he starts playing honky tonk in a Parisian dive. Comedy and tragedy jostle for position, as Truffaut stuffs the unpredictable action with self-reflexive sight gags that seem all the more audacious given the austere realism of Raoul Coutard’s imagery. Irresistible and unrepeatable. 

Jules et Jim (1962)

Jules et Jim (1962)

Jules et Jim (1962)

Accompanied by the exquisite melodies of Georges Delerue, this timeless adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roche’s novel surprisingly suggested the compatibility of the nouvelle vague and the ‘tradition of quality’ that Truffaut had railed against in his 1954 Cahiers essay, ‘A Certain Tendency in French Cinema’. The exuberance of the Belle Époque section is intoxicating, as inseparable friends Henri Serre and Oskar Werner become besotted with free spirit, Jeanne Moreau. However, Truffaut slows the pace in the postwar sequences to convey the changing mood, as the ménage heads inexorably towards tragedy. Some accused him of betraying his critical ideals, but this sublime melodrama demonstrates Truffaut’s directorial maturity.

La Peau douce (1964)

La Peau douce (1964)

La Peau douce (1964)

A delay in shooting his sole English-language venture, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), afforded the opportunity to make this adulterous saga, which reveals the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, with whom Truffaut had just conducted a book-length interview. Although the narrative was based on newspaper stories, autobiographical details fleck the action, which turns on prim wife Nelly Benedetti’s discovery of academic husband Jean Desailly’s affair with air hostess Françoise Dorléac. The cool elegance Truffaut displays in turning a Sirkian melodrama into a Hitchcockian thriller is beguiling. Yet contemporary critics branded it cynical and sordid and it has only comparatively recently been recognised as an astute dissection of middle-class mores.

Stolen Kisses (1968)

Stolen Kisses (1968)

Stolen Kisses (1968)

Truffaut had never intended Les Quatre Cent Coups’ Antoine Doinel to become a recurring character. But he returned four times to the alter ego who seemed to serve as a safety valve after particularly demanding projects. Coming off the revenge thriller, The Bride Wore Black (1968), Truffaut clearly felt the need to revisit his earlier cinéma libre style and he pitches Jean-Pierre Léaud into a series of comic misadventures that begin with his dishonourable discharge from the army and involve hapless stints as a hotel clerk, a private detective and a TV repairman. Romantic entanglements with Claude Jade and Delphine Seyrig further complicate matters, but Truffaut’s passion for film remains charmingly pure.

Day for Night (1973)

Day for Night (1973)

Day for Night (1973)

Managing to reconcile auteur theory with his affection for the communality of filmmaking, Truffaut cast himself as a half-deaf director in this highly personal paean, which he packs with anecdotes, in-jokes and homages to convey the pleasure and pain of creating cinema. No one would pretend that film-within-the-film Meet Pamela is a work of art, but Truffaut uses its studio shoot to celebrate and satirise the chaos, insecurity, artifice, egotism and lust that moil away behind the scenes. He earned nominations for his direction and screenplay, as well as the Oscar for best foreign language film, but probably derived greater satisfaction from authentically depicting his world on screen.

Small Change (1976)

Small Change (1976)

Small Change (1976)

Having endured such a chastening childhood, Truffaut returned to the theme of growing up in pictures as different as Les Mistons (1957) and The Wild Child (1969). However, this episodic collage set in the provincial town of Thiers is his sunniest insight into the psyche of kids confronted with a range of everyday issues. The principle focus falls on Geory Desmouceaux and Philippe Goldman, who respectively have to cope with a disabled father and an abusive mother. But, once again mining his own memories, Truffaut deftly juxtaposes moments of longing, discovery, peril, rebellion and reprisal to reinforce his contention that children exist in “a state of grace”. 

The Green Room (1978)

The Green Room (1978)

The Green Room (1978)

Henry James’s short story ‘The Altar of the Dead’ preoccupied Truffaut for much of the 1970s, as he collaborated with screenwriter Jean Gruault in incorporating ideas from Tolstoy, Chekhov and Proust to convey the reverential melancholy he felt towards the growing number of friends and inspirations who were passing away. The loss of Roberto Rossellini and Henri Langlois finally goaded him into action and, having enlisted co-star Nathalie Baye and cinematographer Nestor Almendros, he cast himself as the guilt-wracked, obituary-writing Great War survivor who builds a shrine to his late wife, in order to give the film the sincere, if imperfect feel of “a handwritten letter”.

The Last Metro (1979)

The Last Metro (1980)

The Last Metro (1980)

Truffaut was frequently denounced for failing to address political topics and some accused him of ducking issues still traumatising France in this sombre but romanticised depiction of the Nazi occupation. He insisted, however, that his memoir of wartime Paris reflected the childhood incomprehension with which he had viewed events. The tension between innocence and experience is evident throughout a story that centres on Catherine Deneuve’s efforts to mount a production while hiding Jewish husband Heinz Bennent under the stage of their Montmartre theatre. Maquis agent Gérard Depardieu and gay director Jean Poiret also have secrets to hide, but wry wit dapples the intense drama as delicately as Nestor Almendros’s lighting.

Vivement dimanche! (1983)

Vivement dimanche! (1983)

Vivement dimanche! (1983)

Pulp fiction was a recurring source of inspiration throughout Truffaut’s career and he reworked Charles Williams’s The Long Saturday Night for what proved to be his final feature. It was conceived as a billet doux to new partner Fanny Ardant, who excels as the Provençal secretary who turns private eye to clear estate agent boss Jean-Louis Trintignant of murdering his wife and her lover. But this was also a homage to the screwball antics of Howard Hawks and the MacGuffins of Alfred Hitchcock, and the relish with which Truffaut laces the action with sly cinematic allusions is as enchanting as the evocative monochrome imagery. A bittersweet goodbye.

The next 11…

  1. Two English Girls (1971)
  2. The Wild Child (1969)
  3. The Story of Adele H. (1975)
  4. Bed and Board (1970)
  5. Une belle fille comme moi (1972)
  6. Love on the Run (1979)
  7. The Bride Wore Black (1967)
  8. Mississippi Mermaid (1969)
  9. The Man Who Loved Women (1977)
  10. The Woman Next Door (1981)
  11. Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

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