Today at 5:30 PM (and once more tomorrow at 6 PM), the Gene Siskel Film Center hosts a screening of Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (It screens alongside Andrzej Zulawski’s horror classic Possession, part of a dual bill featuring films starring Isabelle Adjani.) Among a certain strand of hardcore cinephilia, Truffaut, a stalwart of the influential French New Wave, is very lowly regarded. True, he didn’t inspire the cult following of Godard or Rivette, or amass a filmography like Chabrol’s or Rohmer’s, but Truffaut played as crucial a role in the formation of contemporary film culture as any of his Cahiers du Cinema peers. Perhaps it’s the perceived sentimentalism of his work (a wistful longing for childhood and innocence is a major Truffaut theme) that tends to turn people off, or the fact that his style ultimately proved the least radical of his cohorts. The fact remains that all of Truffaut’s films spoke eloquently of cinema, its possibilities, its limitations, its past, present, and future. You can catch my five favorites after the jump.
5. The Bride Wore Black (1968) A Hitchcockian riff that gradually resembles something far different (and far more vicious) than a simple Hitchcock homage. Truffaut strips away the literal rhetoric that sometimes accompanies a Hitchcock narrative in favor of something less definable and therefore more mysterious.
4. Stolen Kisses (1968) Probably the most cynical film in his Antoine Doinel cycle, but also the most artfully constructed. As Andrew Sarris notes, “The scenario of Stolen Kisses is a perpetual juggling act by which harsh truths are disguised as light jokes,” a style reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch, but rendered in decidedly Parisian terms.
3. Shoot the Piano Player (1962) Truffaut’s playful B-film pastiche and one of the more famous films to emerge from the Nouvelle Vague. An existential comedy before “existential comedy” became the amorphous term it is today, Shoot the Piano Player presents a playful surface that artfully hides the inner mood swings of its characters and situations.
2. Fahrenheit 451 (1966) Credit Truffaut for not adhering to the strict rules of adaptation. Disassembling what’s already a loose, impressionistic narrative, Truffaut incorporates his own ideas of image consumption and the threat of identity loss, resulting in a film that extols the virtues of Bradbury’s novel, but reorients some of its finer points to better fit (and more properly critique) a visual medium.
1. Mississippi Mermaid (1969) I suppose I’m drawn to Truffaut’s darker work, like this Cornell Woolrich adaptation that features one of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s most interesting and reflexive performances. Hitchcock references abound, of course, particularly in the dual role played by Catherine Deneuve, whose performance also has an air of reflexive inquiry. Truffaut, a great director of actors, had an affinity for performances that said as much (if not more) about the performers than the characters they portrayed.