The deep friendship and eventual falling out between the two most prominent filmmakers of la nouvelle vague, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, is fascinating in part because it hits very familiar themes. For one thing, coming 5 years after the student turmoil of 1968, it encapsulates the breakup of the loose Boomer consensus that obtained until the late 1960s—once upon a time, it all seemed so clear…. oppose racism, oppose the Vietnam War…. but eventually the questions became more complicated, and former compatriots found themselves on the opposite sides of important issues.
But there’s more. The Truffaut-Godard feud involved a resolutely experimental and political artist versus one more attuned to human emotions, a radical and a moderate, a so-called sellout eager to influence (curry favor with?) the mass and a self-proclaimed bastion of integrity who could prove his worth primarily by alienating the average viewer, by taking a vow of poverty, as it were. The questions of “selling out,” so central to Boomers, touch on artists as enduring and controversial as Bob Dylan and the Clash. You can see their disagreement everywhere you look. In a way you can see it in something like the political battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. You don’t need me to tell you which of those two represents the Truffaut and which the Godard, do you?
Godard and Truffaut met in the late 1940s, before either had reached the age of 20, at one of the many cinema clubs that sprang up in Paris around that time. Both Godard and Truffaut wrote for the influential journal Cahiers du cinéma, for which both started writing around 1952. When they began making movies themselves a few years later, their collaborations were among the most important and influential in cinema history. They co-directed a short movie called A Story of Water in 1958, and Truffaut, of course, wrote Breathless, Godard’s breakthrough hit of 1960.
Over the next decade or two, both Godard and Truffaut had significant successes and became renowned the world over. Godard was always the cooler of the two, but both represented the newest edge of a movement, Truffaut with Les Quatre Cents Coups, Tirez sur le pianiste, and Jules et Jim, while Godard captivated (and sometimes alienated) avant-garde audiences with Vivre sa vie, Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle, Week-end, Le Mépris, and Bande à part.
Over time it was becoming increasingly apparent that Godard had cut out some terrain for himself as the experimental true believer, avant-garde cinema’s great last hope, while Truffaut’s need to confront his audiences with harsh truths, if it ever existed, seemed to evaporate. Truffaut’s decision to make a regular English-language feature (Fahrenheit 451) and to continue his Antoine Doinel series with Jean-Pierre Léaud from Les Quatre Cents Coups seemed to Godard increasingly sentimental. In 1972 Godard surely felt himself to be working on the barricades with Hanoi Jane Fonda, filming Tout va bien while Truffaut released a love letter to the process of cinema: La Nuit américaine, known to English-speaking audiences as Day for Night.
It was this latter movie that sent Godard around the deep end. Bitterly disappointed in Truffaut’s mawkish attitude—and perceived need to hide the politically conservative impulses that lurk behind most films—Godard wrote Truffaut a scathing letter in the spring of 1973, after seeing Day for Night.
The letter began, “J’ai vu hier La nuit américaine. Probablement personne ne te traitera de menteur, aussi je le fais.” (“Yesterday I saw Day for Night. Probably no one else will call you a liar, so I will.”)
The original French exchange is at the bottom of this post, but for an English translation I rely on the good offices of Tom Gore. Here’s Godard’s letter to Truffaut:
Yesterday I saw La Nuit americaine. Probably no one else will call you a liar, so I will. Its no more an insult than ‘fascist’, it’s a criticism, and it’s the absence of criticism that I complain of in the films of Chabrol, Ferreri, Verneuil, Delannoy, Renoir, etc. You say: films are trains that pass in the night, but who takes the train, in what class, and who is driving it with an ‘informer’ from the management standing at his side? Directors like those I mention make film-trains as well. And if you aren’t referring to the Trans-Europ, then maybe it’s a local train or else the one from Munich to Dachau, whose station naturally we aren’t shown in Lelouch’s film-train. Liar, because the shot of you and Jacqueline Bisset (sic) the other evening at Chez Francis is not in your film, and one can’t help wondering why the director is the only one who doesn’t screw in La Nuit americaine. At the moment I’m filming something that will be called Un Simple Film, it will show in a simplistic manner (in your manner, in Verneuil’s and Chabrol’s etc.) those who also make films, and just how these ‘whos’ make them. How your trainee continuity-girl numbers each shot, how the guy from Eclair carries his equipment, how the old man from Publidecor paints Maria Schneider’s backside in Last Tango, how Rassam’s switchboard operator telephones and how Malle’s accountant balances the books, and in each case we’ll be comparing the sound with image, the sound of the boom with the sound of Deneuve that it records, Leaud’s number on the sequence of images with the social security number of the unpaid trainee, the sex life of the old guy from Publidecor with that of Brando, the accountant’s own day-to-day budget with the budget of La Grosse Bouffe, etc. Because of the problems of Malle and Rassam who produce expensive movies (like you), the money that was reserved for me has been swallowed up by the Ferreri (that’s what I mean, no one prevents you from taking the train, but you prevent others) and I’m stuck. The film costs about 20 million and is produced by Anouchka and TVAB films (the company owned by Gorin and me). Could you enter into co-production with with us for 10 million? For 5 million? Considering La Nuit americaine, you ought to help me, so that the public dosen’t get the idea we all make films like you. You aren’t a liar, like Pompidou, like me, you speak your own truth. In exchange, if you like, I can sign over my rights to La Chinoise, La Gai Savoir and Masculin-Feminin.
If you want to talk it over, fine,
Truffaut’s response to Godard is a bit too long to print here, but here are some of the highlights. Again, the full translation is here.
Jean-Luc. So you won’t be obliged to read this unpleasant letter right to the end, I’m starting with the essential point: I will not co-produce your film.
Secondly, I’m sending back to you the letter you wrote to Jean-Pierre Leaud: I read it and I think it’s obnoxious. And because of that letter I feel the time has come to tell you, at length, that in my opinion you’ve been acting like a shit.
I don’t give a shit what you think of La nuit americaine, what I find deplorable on your part is the fact that, even now, you continue to go and see such films, films whose subject-matter you know in advance will not correspond to either your conception of the cinema or your conception of life. ...
You’ve changed your way of life, your way of thinking, yet, even so, you continue to waste hour after hour ruining your eyesight at the cinema. Why? In the hope of finding something that will be fuel your contempt for the rest of us, that will reinforce all your new prejudices?
Now it’s my turn to call you a liar. At the beginning of Tout va bien there is the phrase: ‘To make a film one needs stars.’ A lie. Everyone knows how determined you were to get J. Fonda who was beginning to lose interest, when all your backers were telling you to take just anyone.
Everyone seems to agree that Truffaut “won” the exchange, but I can’t help feeling some sympathy for Godard here. I don’t understand what shit he was pulling with Léaud, and it was clearly a mistake borne of incredible arrogance to abuse Truffaut for being such a worthless sellout, and then hit him up for money on a co-production that might salvage whatever was left of his soul. Godard was unforgivable, yes, but ... I don’t know, I think he had a point and was somehow fighting the good fight.
I probably wouldn’t want Godard as a friend, but I’m glad he was out there being obnoxious on art’s behalf.
This month Criterion Collection is releasing a Blu-Ray edition of Day for Night, and has put out an amusing clip of cinema scholar Dudley Andrew discussing the feud.
Après le jump, the original French letters