Film critics Serge Toubiana and Michel Pascal have made a revealing but far from definitive docu study of the life and career of the late French director Francois Truffaut. Interviews with an impressive lineup of friends, associates and family members peel away layers of the onion to unveil aspects of the subject’s personality that were largely undiscussed during his lifetime. But absence of some of his closest collaborators and, for the most part, Truffaut himself produces frustration along with the insights. Nicely mounted production should find a little niche on the international fest and rep house circuit.
Truffaut’s daughter Ewa points out, “He took great care of his image,” and the filmmakers seem to take their cue from screenwriter Jean Gruault, who states , “Like all men, he was a lie.” Pic then proceeds to snake into areas of Truffaut’s life that he tended to disguise, hide or tidy up while building his reputation as one of the most admired and beloved filmmakers of his generation.
For anyone with an interest in Truffaut, the succession of important figures from his early days — childhood friend Robert Lachenay, screenwriters Jean-Louis Richard and Claude de Givray, Janine Bazin, fellow critic-directors Alexandre Astruc, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer and wife Madeleine Morgenstern — brings a lot of personal history to life, as they tell of an unloved boy who became something of a delinquent, took refuge in the cinema, was imprisoned for going AWOL and began his brilliant career as an outspoken critic.
Film rightly identifies the equally important, serious and mischievous sides of the man, alludes to his seductiveness to women, and uses film clips mainly to illustrate their most overtly autobiographical aspects.
But pic begins navigating in deeper and more mysterious water when it takes on his deeply resentful feelings toward his mother, ambivalent attitude toward psychoanalysis and religion, lifelong search for father figures among great older directors, and ultimately successful hunt for his real father, a lover of his mother’s who turned out to be a Jewish dentist.
Director Bertrand Tavernier tells a damning story of how critic Truffaut vehemently attacked the prominent screenwriters Aurenche and Bost for publicity’s sake, and one of the most fascinating sequences is devoted to the normally reclusive director Rohmer sitting in Truffaut’s office going through his late friend’s meticulously maintained file on him.
Impressive as the participants may be, one deeply misses several of Truffaut’s closest collaborators, most notably actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, perennial assistant and sometime screenwriter Suzanne Schiffman, any of his cinematographers, and other important thesps, such as Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve.
Toubiana, who as a critic was not always terribly sympathetic to Truffaut, and Pascal made a deliberate decision not to incorporate interviews with the director himself into their docu, preferring to create a group portrait painted by others.
As revealing as many of their remarks are, result is a mixed blessing, and what’s ultimately missing here is Truffaut’s unique and engaging voice and personality, as well as explanations of his working methods and evaluations of his talents.
Fine use has been made of private photographs and behind-the-scenes footage, and some of the most potent observations, from his final companion, Fanny Ardant , have been saved for last.