A key influence in modern cinema, his passionate filmmaking still seduces
By MARTIN SCORSESE
» Woman is pure, delicate, fragile, » muses one of the characters in François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. « Women are marvelous, women are supreme. » It’s easy to imagine Truffaut himself making the same exclamations about cinema. His love affair with moving pictures was a profound and lasting one, and you can feel the intensity of it in his criticism, even in his acting. And most of all, in his films. Truffaut’s passion for cinema, the desire that it stirred in him, animates every movie he ever made, every scene, every shot. He spent a very long time in the editing room with each of his pictures, and you can see it up there on the screen: each cut from one image to the next has a sense of surprise, each frame looks like it’s been lovingly scrutinized.
The late ’50s and early ’60s was a great time in international cinema, and there were many, many films and filmmakers who had a decisive impact on me and on my friends. Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Andrzej Wajda, Luchino Visconti, Satyajit Ray, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Cassavetes, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Claude Chabrol, Francesco Rosi: it’s like an honor roll, and the mere mention of those names and the pictures they made brings an entire world, now vanished, back to life. A world of possibility. A world of passion.
And among all those names, Truffaut meant something very special. More than any of his peers, Truffaut stood for a continuity of film history. His book on Hitchcock, for instance, is indispensable to anyone interested in movies. It’s also very unusual: here was one of the world’s most established and celebrated filmmakers taking the time to do a very lengthy series of interviews with a much older director in the twilight of his career. It’s an extraordinary act of homage, almost unthinkable today.
Truffaut carried that sense of history into his moviemaking. Back in the early and mid-’60s, people were always talking about how this movie « quoted » from that older movie, but what almost no one talked about was why the quote was there, what it did or didn’t do for the movie, what it meant emotionally to the picture as a whole. In Truffaut, you could feel the awareness of film history behind the camera, but you could also see that every single choice he made was grounded in the emotional reality of the picture. There are many echoes of Hitchcock in his movies, blatantly so in The Soft Skin (underrated at the time of its release, and a favorite of mine) and The Bride Wore Black, not so blatantly in many other movies, and it’s almost impossible to quantify the importance of Jean Renoir to Truffaut (or, for that matter, of Henry James, of Honoré de Balzac—Truffaut was also a great reader). But if you look at those movies carefully, you will see that there’s nothing extraneous or superficial.
There are things that Truffaut did in those early movies that left a lasting impression: the opening expository section of Jules and Jim, where time and space is abolished and the images flow like music across the screen; the series of shots from Fahrenheit 451 (another underrated picture) where the camera moves in close-closer-closest on a character in imminent danger, which I admit I’ve duplicated many times in my own films. And the character played by Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player, who keeps almost acting but never does until it’s too late, had a profound effect on me, and on many other filmmakers.
Time—the desire to slow it down coupled with the harsh reality of its swift passing … Truffaut had a great gift for giving form to this sensation. In a way, it’s all encapsulated in a moment near the end of Two English Girls—yet another underrated picture, this time a masterpiece—where Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character suddenly glances at himself in the mirror and murmurs the words: « My God, I look old. » And then that moment is over. That’s life. And that’s Truffaut.
Director Martin Scorsese is a seven-time Oscar nominee. His latest film is thriller The Departed