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‘You’ve been acting like a shit’: The Godard-Truffaut blow-up of 1973
08.25.2015
10:01 am
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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,
                                                                                 
Jean-Luc

 

 
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.

-snip-

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

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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08.25.2015
10:01 am
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Up to no good: Teen actor’s impressive audition for Francois Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’

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François Truffaut was casting for his first feature film The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), the semi-autobiographical tale of Antoine, a rebellious adolescent growing up in Paris. The young director had already cast Claire Maurier as Antoine’s mother, Guy Decombe and comedian Pierre Repp as his teachers, and Henri Virlojeux as the night watchman who arrests the troubled youngster for the theft of a typewriter. But still Truffaut had no one for Antoine.

He placed an advert in the Paris Soir in the Fall of 1958. Hundreds of young hopefuls were auditioned but none were quite right for the role. Then a friend suggested the son of assistant scriptwriter Pierre Léaud and actress Jacqueline Pierreux.
 
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Actor and Director in Cannes, 1959
 
When Truffaut met Jean-Pierre Léaud he knew he had found his Antoine. The director later wrote that he saw in the 14-year-old:

...a certain suffering with regard to the family…With, however, this fundamental difference: though we were both rebels, we hadn’t expressed our rebellion in the same way. I preferred to cover up and lie. Jean-Pierre, on the contrary, seeks to hurt, shock and wants it to be known…Why? Because he’s unruly, while I was sly. Because his excitability requires that things happen to him, and when they don’t occur quickly enough, he provokes them.

 

 
Jean-Pierre Léaud was a pupil at a private school in Potigny, where he was a described by the school’s headmaster as “unmanageable” with a level of:

Indifference, arrogance, permanent defiance, lack of discipline in all its forms.

Jean-Pierre had been caught with pornography in his dorm, and had often escaped with the older boys on their nights out. But the teenager was bright with an aptitude for writing.
 
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An audition was held that confirmed that Jean-Pierre Léaud was Antoine, so much so, that Truffaut made changes in his script, as he later explained:

I think in the beginning there was a lot of myself in the character of Antoine. But as soon as Jean-Pierre Léaud arrived, his personality, which was so strong, often led me to make changes in the screenplay. So I consider that Antoine is an imaginary character who derives a bit from both of us.

The 400 Blows is described as “one of the defining films of the French New Wave.” It won François Truffaut numerous awards, and was his most successful film in France. It also began a fruitful collaboration between director and actor over the following decades, with Jean-Pierre Léaud going on to become one of France’s greatest actors.

As for the title, well The 400 Blows is a literal translation of the French, which doesn’t capture the nuance or double-meaning of the term Les quatre cents coups, which comes from “faire les quatre cents coups” meaning “to be up to no good.”
 

 
Below, an extraordinary interview with Jean-Pierre Léaud at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival:

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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07.18.2014
01:59 pm
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A luminous beauty: The short life and tragic death of actress Françoise Dorleac

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Françoise Dorleac made her first film when she just 15. “A photographer asked if I would model for some fashion pictures and I said fine. A producer saw my pictures in the press and hired me for a small role for a film during the school holidays.” Acting was in her blood. Her father, Maurice Dorleac, was a veteran character actor of stage and screen; her mother, Renee Simonot, was an actress who revoiced Hollywood films, including Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz; her younger sister is Catherine Deneuve.

Françoise was as beautiful, as talented, and as big an international star as her younger sister. However, Françoise wasn’t as ambitious or as wild as Catherine.

“I see myself as a girl who is always dreaming of romance, and the man she wants to marry, a girl who dances when she is happy.”

Françoise made sixteen films during her short career, including Roman Polanski’s classic film Cul de Sac, in which she brilliantly captured the self-obsessed Teresa against the weak and dominated, Donald Pleasance, as George. Françoise gave substance to Francois Truffaut’s tale of adultery La Peau Douce (aka The Soft Skin), and was almost a match for Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in Ken Russell’s greatly under-rated The Billion Dollar Brain .

On 26 June 1967, Françoise died in an horrific accident when she lost control of her rented car on the Esterel-Côte d’Azur freeway. She was traveling to Nice airport to fly to London, where she was to finish filming on The Billion Dollar Brain . The car flipped over and burst into flames. Witnesses saw the actress struggle to escape the vehicle, but she was unable to open the door. Police identified Dorleac from a stub of her check book, her diary and her driving license.

Her early death at the age 25, has often over-shadowed the quality of her work - both as actress and singer - and it robbed cinema of “a tried and true talent and incomparably beautiful mademoiselle who showed every sign of taking Hollywood by storm.”

Here is something to remember her by: the beautiful and wonderful Françoise singing, Mario J’ai Mal. Plus a bonus clip of Françoise with her sister Catherine Deneuve in the candy-colored musical Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (aka The Young Girls of Rochefort), in which they co-starred with Gene Kelly.
 

 
Bonus clip of Françoise Dorleac and Catherine Deneuve, after the jump…
 
With thanks to Tony Vermillion 
 

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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01.26.2011
05:24 pm
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Au Revoir Claude Chabrol, pioneer of the French New Wave

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Our knowledge of French New Wave cinema of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s is generally limited to the names of innovators and auteurs like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard.

But although less well-known outside of France, director Claude Chabrol—who died earlier today at age 80—started the movement with Goddard and Truffaut, and became one of the most prolific filmmakers of his time, averaging a film per year until his death.

A Hitchcock acolyte like his compatriot Truffaut, Chabrol played a key part in mainstreaming La Nouvelle Vague. Although he smoothed out some of the genre’s signature styles—improvisation, quick cuts and scene changes, characters stepping out of roles or addressing the camera—Chabrol retained the sense of alienation that imbued Paris as the Algerian War was coming to its pathetic end.

Dealing in class, desire, and compulsion, Chabrol brought a new view of film to the masses. Check out this scene from his fourth feature, Les Bonnes Femmes (The Good Time Girls, 1960), which follows the travails of four angst-ridden shop girls, each dealing with their drab existences in order to follow their obsessions, whether it’s the city’s nightlife or that mysterious motorcycle man.
 

 
Get: Les Bonnes Femmes by Claude Chabrol (1960) [DVD]

Posted by Ron Nachmann
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09.12.2010
02:46 pm
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