It’s been 15 years since François Truffaut’s death, and it seems that this most emblematic and accessible of the New Wavers is weathering an obligatory backlash. Indeed, compared to the singular voices of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer, Truffaut seems troubled, mired by success, overburdened by genre. He’s been criticized for romanticism, for wanting to please his audience, for being too enraptured with children, for obeying a cinephilia he couldn’t quite control. He is the New Wave’s Steinbeck, beloved by the middle class, formally outbid by his own Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and eventually dismissed by a cognoscenti more enraptured by the restless reinvention of the art than by its heartfelt expression of humanity.
But that is less than half the story, and I think time will see Truffaut’s achievements, convicted though they may be, to be often just as singular, and often more moving. Hopefully, the tide will change with the new retro at Film Forum, which runs for nine weeks and gives each and every Truffaut feature—from his still epochal autobio debut, The 400 Blows (1959), to the affectionate retro-noir, Confidentially Yours (1983)—its day in court. Surely, the lingering ardor felt for the merely snazzy and nostalgia-sodden Jules and Jim (1961) can be supplanted, finally, by a full appreciation of the ambiguities, disquieting narrative distance, and genuine wisdom of Shoot the Piano Player 1960), The Soft Skin (1964), The Woman Next Door (1981), and, most of all, the sublime and all-but-forgotten masterwork of Two English Girls (1974).
It’s easier to discern greatness in an artist whose ambitions follow a single, sometimes unforking track—the careers of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer have been relentlessly of a piece, and films of theirs made 30 years apart are plainly analogous. Truffaut wasn’t so lucky. If his career seems handicapped today, it’s by his divided allegiance to both Renoir and Hitchcock, naturally sharing the warmth and responsiveness of the former and straining, sometimes absurdly, to emulate the icy narrative engineering of the latter. Still, his Hitchcockian action editing turned The Soft Skin‘s melodrama into a leveling study of domestic cataclysm, while The Bride Wore Black‘s cold-blooded psychomania is made bizarrely melancholy by Truffaut’s helpless empathy for Jeanne Moreau’s wounded beauty.
Unlike Godard and Rivette, Truffaut never made an unwatchable film, and indeed, The 400 Blows (the most mature and deeply felt of the New Wave’s first breakers), Shoot the Piano Player, Day for Night (1973), and even Small Change (1976) are among the most effervescent and pleasurable of French films. If the semiautobio Antoine Doinel films that followed Jean-Pierre Leaud’s maturity all the way from that first film to Love on the Run (1979) weren’t what they could’ve been—Proustian in breadth and significance—they still bounced with spontaneity and affection. If Truffaut is to be properly reevaluated, however, it should be upon the crucible of Two English Girls, a sober, exhaustive, heartbreaking inquisition into romance and folly whose cool narrative formalities barely disguise an epic ardor for the tragedies of ephemeral love and youth. Isn’t it time for the people’s New Waver to enter the pantheon?