How Truffaut Became Truffaut: From Petty Thief to Great Auteur

400 blows poster

“Cin­e­ma saved my life,” con­fid­ed François Truf­faut. He cer­tain­ly returned the favor, breath­ing new life into a French cin­e­ma that was gasp­ing for air by the late 50s, plagued as it was by acad­emism and Big Stu­dios’ for­mu­la­ic scripts. From his break­through first fea­ture 400 Blows in 1959–to this day one of the best movies on child­hood ever made–to his untime­ly death in 1984, Truf­faut wrote and direct­ed more than twen­ty-one movies, includ­ing such cin­e­mat­ic land­marks as Jules and Jim, The Sto­ry of Adele H., The Last Metro and the ten­der, bit­ter-sweet Antoine Doinel series, a semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal account of his own life and loves. What is more, along with a wild bunch of young film crit­ics turned directors—his New Wave friends Godard, Chabrol, Riv­ette and Resnais—Truffaut rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way we think, make and watch films today. (We will see how in my upcom­ing Stan­ford Con­tin­u­ing Stud­ies course, When the French Rein­vent­ed Cin­e­ma: The New Wave Stud­ies, which starts on March 31. If you live in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, please join us.)

Almost as inter­est­ing as Truf­faut’s rich lega­cy is the nar­ra­tive that led to it: How Truf­faut became Truf­faut against all odds. And how his unlike­ly back­ground as an ille­git­i­mate child, pet­ty thief, run­away teen and desert­er built the foun­da­tions for the ruth­less film crit­ic and gift­ed direc­tor he would become.

Les 400 Coups, we see a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the defin­ing moments in the young François’ life through the char­ac­ter of Antoine Doinel: the dis­cov­ery that he was born from an unknown father, the con­tentious rela­tion­ship with a moth­er who con­sid­ered him a bur­den and con­de­scend­ed to take him with her only when he was ten, the friend­ship with class­mate Robert Lachenay and the end­less wan­der­ings in the streets of Paris that ensued. The film offers a glimpse of the dearth of emo­tion­al as well as mate­r­i­al com­fort at home and how Antoine makes do with it, most­ly by pinch­ing mon­ey, time and dreams of love else­where: Antoine “bor­rows” bills and objects (Truf­faut, too, took and sold a type­writer from his dad’s office), steals moments of free­dom in the streets, and loves vic­ar­i­ous­ly through the movie the­aters (in the trail­er above, Antoine and his friend catch a show­ing of Ing­mar Bergman’s Moni­ka).

Picture 11

If any­thing, the real Truf­faut did far worse than his cin­e­mat­ic alter ego. Like Antoine, the young François skipped schools, stole, told lies, ran away and went to the movies on the sly. He ran up debts so high—mostly to pay for his first ciné-club endeavors—that he was sent to a juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter by his father. Lat­er, hav­ing enlist­ed in the Army, Truf­faut desert­ed upon real­iz­ing he would be sent to Indochi­na to fight: prison was again his lot. In his cell, he received let­ters from the great pris­on­er of French let­ters, Jean Genêt: it was only fit­ting that the young Truf­faut would become friends with the author of The Jour­nal of a Thief.

But had he been a bet­ter kid, Truf­faut might nev­er have been such a great direc­tor. His so-called moral short­com­ings fore­shad­ow what would make his genius: an impul­sive need to bend the rules, a tal­ent for work­ing at the mar­gins and invent new spaces to free him­self from for­mal lim­i­ta­tions, and a fun­da­men­tal urge to be true to his own vision, at the risk of infu­ri­at­ing the old­er gen­er­a­tion. His years of tru­an­cy roam­ing the streets and movie the­aters of Paris and his repeat­ed expe­ri­ence of prison led him nat­u­ral­ly to revolt against the con­fine­ment of the stu­dio sets where movies were at the time entire­ly made. Instead, he took his cam­era out of the stu­dios and into the streets. On loca­tion shoot­ing, nat­ur­al light, impro­vised dia­logues, viva­cious track­ing shots of the pulse of the city — all traits that made the New Wave look refresh­ing­ly new and mod­ern — befit­ted the tem­pera­ment of an inde­pen­dent young man who had already spent too many days behind bars.

Hav­ing got­ten in so much trou­ble for lack of mon­ey, Truf­faut also ensured that finan­cial inde­pen­dence would be the cor­ner­stone of his film-mak­ing: one of the smartest moves he made as a young direc­tor was to found his own pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny, the Films du Car­rosse. Mon­ey meant free­dom, this much he had long learnt.

But it is Truffaut’s innate sense of fic­tion and sto­ry telling that his younger years reveal most. Like the fic­tion­al Antoine in this clip, Truf­faut seemed to have dis­played a dis­arm­ing mix of inno­cence and decep­tion, or rather an unabashed admis­sion that he had to invent oth­er rules to get by and suc­ceed, and a pre­co­cious real­iza­tion that telling sto­ries would get him fur­ther than telling the truth. “Des fois je leur dirais des choses qui seraient la vérité ils me croiraient pas alors je préfère dire des men­songes” tells Antoine in his gram­mat­i­cal­ly incor­rect French to the psychologist—“Sometimes if I were to tell things that would be true they would not believe me so I pre­fer to tell lies.” Each sur­vival trick, each prank implied new lies to forge, and a keen under­stand­ing of his pub­lic was para­mount for their suc­cess: con­trary to Godard and his avant-garde decon­struc­tion of nar­ra­tive lines and mean­ing, Truf­faut always want­ed to tell good, believ­able sto­ries: one could say he prac­ticed his nar­ra­tive skill by telling the tales his first audi­ence (moth­er, father, teach­ers) want­ed to hear.

One of the most mem­o­rable lines of 400 Blows is a lie so out­ra­geous that it has to be believed. Asked by his teacher why he was not able to turn in the puni­tive home­work he was assigned, Antoine blurts out: “It was my moth­er, sir.” – “Your moth­er, your moth­er… What about her?” –“She’s dead.” The teacher quick­ly apol­o­gizes. But this bla­tant lie tells anoth­er kind of truth, an emo­tion­al one that the audi­ence is painful­ly aware of: Antoine’s, or should we say Truffaut’s moth­er is indeed “dead” to him, unable to show moth­er­ly affec­tion. The mother’s death is less a lie than a metaphor, the sub­jec­tive point of view of the child. Truf­faut the direc­tor is able to allude to this deep­er mourn­ing but also to save the moth­er from her dead­ly cold­ness by the sheer mag­ic of fic­tion. Antoine’s votive can­dle has almost burnt down the house, his par­ents are fight­ing, his dad threat­ens to send him to mil­i­tary school, when sud­den­ly the moth­er sug­gests they all go… to the movies. Unex­pect­ed­ly, mag­i­cal­ly, they emerge from the the­ater cheer­ful and unit­ed, in a scene of fam­i­ly hap­pi­ness that can exist only in films. For a moment, cin­e­ma saved them all.

To learn more about Truffaut’s life and work, we rec­om­mend Stan­ford Con­tin­u­ing Stud­ies Spring course “The French New Wave.” Lau­ra Truf­faut, François Truffaut’s daugh­ter, will come and speak about her father’s work.

Cécile Alduy is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of French at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. She writes reg­u­lar­ly for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New York­er. 

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