François Truffaut

Don Allen: Would it be true to describe your feelings about the New Wave or what remains of it as pessimistic?

François Truffaut: Not really. As you know, there are no pessimists and no optimists, as the moralist said, there are only sad fools and happy fools. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying I am pessimistic. But there has been a lot of talk recently about the New Wave because it is the 20th anniversary of the collection of films which began to appear in 1959. And in all such movements, quite apart from any artistic considerations, there is the phenomenon of friendship and individual and group relationships and their inevitable deterioration.

Les quatre cents coups (1959), François Truffaut’s debut feature

In France the picture is especially complicated, and not only as far as the cinema is concerned, by the watershed of May 1968. If one thinks of those of us who used to meet together in one another’s homes at a time when the future seemed to offer happy prospects for everyone, well, relationships have rather deteriorated since then. Some are in worse health now than 20 years ago. Some had high hopes which remain unfulfilled. Friendships have been betrayed. There are a few people whose beauty increases with age but these are the exceptions. So my thoughts about the New Wave are not uplifting. Exaggerating a little, you could say that at the time we were young, handsome and likeable. And it’s anyone’s guess whether the last part of the phrase still applies.

Are the opportunities to make a first film now in France any greater than they were 20 years ago for a young person with no money and no connections?

No, in that in 1959 there was a sudden opening up of possibilities and anyone could make a film. Now the situation has stabilised, but there are still some 30 first films made in France each year by unknowns thanks to the financial support system of loans repayable against the film’s future receipts.

The situation of the film is more and more like that of the book. It’s not very difficult to get a book published. The difficult thing is to get the book into the bookshop window and to get it bought and read. It’s the same with the cinema. More and more good films are being made but their fate is less happy than they deserve. It seems to be the case that even the most intelligent and cultured filmgoers frequently prefer a film which is simple but slickly made to one which is intelligent but clumsy.

For me, the film that marks the beginning of the period of decadence in the cinema is the first James Bond – Dr. No [1962]. Until then the role of the cinema had been by and large to tell a story in the hope that the audience would believe it. There had been a few minority films which were parodies of this narrative tradition, but in the main a film told a story and the audience wanted to believe that story. And at this point we might reopen the old polemic about Hitchcock. For years English critics were reluctant to accept that the films Hitchcock made in America were superior to those he had made in England. The difference for me lies in the fact that Hitchcock’s desire to make the audience believe the story is stronger in his American films than in his English ones.

But the reason I talk of a period of decadence ushered in by the Bond films is that before that parody had been of only minority or snob appeal, but with the Bond films it became a popular genre. For the first time throughout the world mass audiences were exposed to what amounts to a degradation of the art of cinema, a type of cinema which relates neither to life nor to any romantic tradition but only to other films and always by sending them up. What’s more, Hitchcock’s career began to suffer from the time of the arrival of the first Bond films, since they were a sort of plagiarised version of North by Northwest [1959], his finest thriller. He could not compete with the Bond films and after this he was increasingly obliged to make small-budget films. Perhaps he was also getting rather too old. For instance, had he been ten years younger he might well have made disaster movies. Don’t forget he went to America to film ‘The Titanic’ but this was replaced by Rebecca [1940].

François Truffaut

Don’t you think that disaster movies and super-productions are also in a sense a degradation of cinema – or at least of your concept of cinema?

No, they mark a return to the origins of cinema, to the first ten or 15 years. This doesn’t worry me at all. The cinema is condemned to produce remakes because too many films are being made and there are too few dramatic situations available. So the whole history of the cinema is studded with remakes, and this is fine as long as the remakes are better than the originals. Six-reelers were better than three-reelers. There was a loss of quality at the beginning of the talkies but the introduction of sound did not prevent a film like King Kong [1933] from being very beautifully designed and very ambitious visually. But the problem now is the need to combat colour. How wrong we were to think that colour was an improvement and not a handicap.

Surely this is just part of your general nostalgia?

No. Perfection in the cinema consists in the knowledge that whatever happens there is a barrier between the film and ‘reality’. Colour has removed this last barrier. If there is nothing false in a film it is not a film – one is in competition with the documentary and the result is very boring. Like much of the film shot for American television, which I find lacking in any fictional dimension, anti-dramatic, over-documentary and very boring. And a large part of modern cinema is like that.

Colour is the enemy. For me it is now much more interesting to construct a flat on the set than to film in a real flat. Because in the studio one at least has the possibility of winning the battle against the ugliness of colour, for example by the use of a lot of night shots or by concentrating on the artificial aspects.

We must return to artifice if we are to stop our films looking like documentaries. This is probably what first attracted me to Hitchcock. If there has been one constant thought throughout my life it is the conviction that the enemy of the sort of cinema I personally like is the documentary. I have never filmed a documentary in my life and I hope I never do. Not that I cannot admire some of those who have made documentaries, like Marcel Ophuls with The Sorrow and the Pity [1969]. But what first attracted me to the cinema was my love of fiction and what led me to want to make films was the desire to structure a fictional story.

The Green Room (1978)
© Dominique le Rigoleur

A criticism which could be levelled at you is that you haven’t really made much progress in your films. I know you endorse Renoir’s dictum that a filmmaker makes only one film throughout his life and that the rest are merely reworkings of the ideas of that first film. But don’t you agree that you do rely too heavily on autobiography, or would you regard this as inevitable? Don’t you feel attracted to the idea of a totally new departure?

It doesn’t worry me if it is said that I am not making any progress. I agree, whatever progress one makes is always very small indeed. One gives the richest part of oneself at the beginning. You could perhaps even say that it’s not worth making the cinema your whole career. You should just make, say, three or four films, which like the first three or four songs of a singer or a songwriter will be the richest. But as it is the activity one most enjoys, one carries on. Even so, I do sometimes make films on difficult subjects.

Like The Green Room [1978]?

Yes, films like that where I ‘get out of trouble’, an expression I prefer to use rather than say I ‘succeed’. Films which turn out fairly well and I can say that perhaps ten years earlier I wouldn’t have managed it, I wouldn’t have ‘won the bet’. Take the case of Adèle H [1975]. This was a bet to be won, and it was not lost, but it needed a certain experience in the ‘business’ before one could attempt a film with so few elements. Nor do I think it would be possible to make Day for Night [1973] as a first film. Experience and film-craft are required and one obviously has less film-craft at the beginning of one’s career. Sincerity is fine for one’s first film, but I don’t think one can base one’s whole career on sincerity. In addition one needs a little technique and a little skill and of course a little luck. Nothing happens without luck.

Shoot the Pianist (1960)

You are still talking of the need to ‘win bets’, as you have been for years now. Nineteen years ago with your second film Shoot the Pianist [1960] you took a lot of risks. Many people in England consider it your most exciting film even though it was a commercial flop. With very few exceptions, you hardly seem to have taken a risk since. You now have a solid financial base. Could you not now risk again a new departure, rather than continue, for example, the Antoine Doinel themes and characters, as you do in Love on the Run [1979]?

I think that the charm of Pianist arises from the element of chance, and this same element is also present in Stolen Kisses [1968]. What these two films have in common is the fact that in each case it is impossible to anticipate what will happen next. And it is true that apart from the Doinel films I always know what is supposed to happen before I begin shooting – at least in general, though of course it is possible to improvise some of the details, because I have confidence in the actors. But during the filming of Pianist I suffered from not knowing what was going to happen to the main character nor what the whole thing was really about. It was a genuine experiment, and it is true that I no longer have the stomach to try something as completely experimental again.

Stolen Kisses (1968)

You remain socially and politically uncommitted?

Yes, partly for autobiographical reasons. I don’t feel one hundred per cent French and I don’t know the whole truth about my origins. I’ve never tried to obtain my voting card so I can’t vote. I would feel I was performing a very artificial act if I voted, as if I were acting a part. So I feel no attachment to France and could well finish my days in a different country. Just as the notion of patriotism has no hold on me, so too when people try to explain their religion to me I remain sceptical and feel they cannot be sincere – which is stupid because they are. I just cannot hold their beliefs. My religion is the cinema. I believe in Charlie Chaplin, etc.

As for politics I think its importance has been greatly exaggerated and overvalued for the last ten years. Politics for me simply amounts to doing the housework; if the dust needs getting rid of this morning we get rid of it without talking about it; if the ashtrays need emptying we empty them, but it is not the most important task of the day. It’s necessary, but if it becomes the sum total of our conversation or of our day, then it is folly. The same applies to politics.

So politics doesn’t change people’s lives or the structures of society?

Only very slowly. And the slower it is, the more effective it is. Changes are not spectacular. What’s more, if it is felt that in 20 years’ time a film with a political content will give a clearer picture of the society in which it is made than a non-political film, this is quite untrue. Some of the sophisticated Hollywood comedies say as much about America years ago as any films aimed at denouncing some particular social abuse. The idea that one must strive to reflect the society in which one lives is false because one will do so in any case, intentionally or not. Salvador Dalí gave painters this advice: above all don’t worry about being ‘modern’ because unfortunately, whatever you do, you will be.

There is a lot of pressure on filmmakers, from the media, to get them to introduce a political dimension, even an artificial one, into their work. It is very important to resist this. Filmmaking should be a pleasure, not a duty. You don’t make a film to please a particular section of public opinion. You make a film for your own pleasure and in the hope that the audience will share it. If filmmaking became a duty I would do something else.

Originally published: 7 January 2022