Why this might not seem so easy

Time and critical favour can be unkind to the former young firebrand who becomes middle-aged and middlebrow. When François Truffaut won best director at Cannes in 1959 for his first feature The 400 Blows, the 27-year-old was blazing a trail pointing the way to a new kind of cinema. An unschooled teenage misfit turned maniacal cinephile, he took to print in the groundbreaking Paris magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, lambasting the mainstream quality French films of the day and promoting the conceit that a great director is the auteur or author of a film – a then-outlandish notion that later became a world standard for thinking about cinema. 

Certainly, he talked the talk, but, remarkably, as his instant-classic autobiographical debut more than demonstrates, the critic-turned-creator really could walk the walk as well. This startling achievement lit the way for his Cahiers colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette to carve their own extraordinary celluloid pathways, and the combined creative impetus of what became known as the French New Wave gave the movie world a chic stylistic and intellectual shake-up whose long-term ripple effect is still being felt.

Twenty features later, a brain tumour ended his life in 1984 at just 52 years of age. By which time, understandably perhaps, he was no longer on the cutting edge, but an admired working director turning out assured if more conventional fare like 1980’s The Last Metro, a stirring tribute to the Paris theatre community under the occupation. Justly laden with awards, it was nonetheless the kind of project of which his younger self might have disapproved. It would be unfair to suggest that Truffaut sold out, though his later offerings arguably lack that bracingly individual attack that Godard, Rivette and even Rohmer sustained through lengthy careers, for good or indeed audience-baiting ill.

Jules et JIm (1962)
© Les Films du Carrosse-SEDIF

There were sundry ups and downs between pillar and post, yet while the peaks of the Truffaut filmography – notably The 400 Blows, 1962’s bittersweet love triangle Jules et Jim and 1973’s moviestruck insider portrait Day for Night – are more beloved by broader audiences than almost any other New Wave title you could mention, at the same time there have always been persistent whispered critical caveats. Too uneven, too shallow, too in thrall to Hitchcock but never quite matching his great master. Often utterly charming, yet somehow not as substantial as Godard, Rivette or Rohmer.

Surely, it’s time now to lay yesterday’s received opinion aside and come to Truffaut on his own terms. The current BFI season gives us the opportunity to forget that he’s not Godard or Hitchcock, allow him to have the odd slightly below-par outing, and appreciate the films on their own terms – suffused with a love for cinema, beguiling for their pained romanticism, haunting for their emotional ambivalence. Could it be that a filmmaker already known to generations of cineastes is actually ripe for rediscovery?

The best place to start – The 400 Blows

It’s one of the great films about adolescence, and it’s also Truffaut’s own story. Yet perhaps the first thing to say about The 400 Blows is how misleading the English title is. It sounds like it’s about a kid coming to blows, yet when the French say “faire les quatre cents coups” they actually mean something like “Give ’em hell!” Hence the original French actually points up the teenage protagonist’s youthful exuberance – the movie’s on his side.

The 400 Blows (1959)
© André Dino-MK2

Fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, himself a ‘problem child’, proves an absolute natural on camera, and Truffaut knew he had something special just by allowing the audience to watch him set the table or put out the rubbish. There’s an unfiltered, almost documentary quality to the early stages as Léaud’s Antoine Doinel shares a tiny Paris apartment with his hassled mum and the affable type he’ll soon discover is not his biological father. Uneasy at home and in school, where rote learning fails to stimulate his imagination, his curiosity and free spirit lead him into varying degrees of mischief – and a looming clash with parental and ultimately legal authority.

Truffaut’s identification with his wayward protagonist is total, not least because the complex parental set-up here accurately mirrors the director’s own troubled upbringing. Yet it’s the incredible assurance with which the film moves from light to dark that’s key to its timeless quality. It’s captivating to see the kids behave like kids – not least in a delightful aside capturing entranced young viewers at a Punch and Judy show – before we gradually realise the degree to which the adults are letting Antoine down. 

While the score is all carnivalesque smiles, the story tightens its grip, leading to a famous freeze-frame final image whose defiant ambivalence sears into the memory. Even if he’d never made another film, Truffaut would be a celluloid legend for this one title.

What to watch next

Truffaut and Léaud made another three Antoine Doinel features (as well as a short), with 1968’s Stolen Kisses finding a whimsical tone to match the mature actor’s distractedly airy screen presence as a demobbed soldier finding romantic intrigue in an unlikely new gig as a private detective. It’s filigree stuff, shaped by a characteristically gentle touch also evident in its engaging follow-up, Bed and Board (1970), following the central couple on the adventure of married domesticity. 

L’Enfant sauvage (1970)
© Pierre Zucca

Elsewhere, the focused simplicity of The 400 Blows finds an echo in the 19th-century case-study L’Enfant sauvage (1970), with Truffaut himself playing the kindly dedicated doctor trying to civilise a feral young boy found in the forest. Drawing on the essential storytelling power of silent cinema, it has a galant quality that underlines Truffaut’s unerring feel for period drama.

The period tendency in Truffaut’s work stretches back to 1962’s Jules et Jim, in which he exquisitely delineates a three-way romance across the decades around the First World War. It’s based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, whose work he returned to for Anne and Muriel (aka Two English Girls, 1971), with Léaud (but not as Antoine Doinel) involved with two different sisters in the first decade of the 20th century. Meanwhile, 1975’s The Story of Adele H. chronicles the true-life romantic obsession that engulfed one of Victor Hugo’s daughters. 

Back in the modern world, Day for Night (1973) remains an absolute pleasure, revealing both technical tricks of the trade and a certain psychological cajolery as Truffaut himself plays a director trying to keep his latest shoot from heading off the rails. There’s also 1964’s underrated La Peau douce, which melds sharp social satire and romantic melancholy in its astringent vignette of bourgeois infidelity.

Where not to start

Love on the Run (1979)
© Dominique le Rigoleur

Nine years after Bed and Board, the final Antoine Doinel offering, Love on the Run (1979), looks like a reunion too far, with much of its running time devoted to clips from the earlier Truffaut-Léaud collaborations on the pretext of illustrating Antoine’s upcoming autobiography. It’s pretty thin, and perhaps the single obviously dispensable title in the filmography. 

There are outliers elsewhere, notably his only English-language effort, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), adapted from Ray Bradbury’s dystopian fable about a future where books are banned. It struggles to bring the plot to life, but has an affecting undertow about characters out of touch with their own emotional inner lives. 

The larkish elements of The Man Who Loved Women (1977), following the comedic philandering of a skirt-chasing protagonist, haven’t worn that well. But behind the bravado lurks a sense of the elusiveness of genuine connections – pointing to a thread of damaged male sadness running throughout Truffaut’s disarming back catalogue.

François Truffaut: For the Love of Films runs across the UK in January and February 2022.

Watch François Truffaut films on BFI Player.

The 400 Blows is back in cinemas from 7 January 2022.