There is a spectre haunting retired University of Toronto English professor Sam Solecki’s new book about François Truffaut – the spectre of Jean-Luc Godard. Solecki is not the first critic to contrast the twin figureheads of French cinema: writers have been playing them off each other since they collaborated on the 1959 film Breathless. But it’s interesting just how frequently Godard pops up in this study of Truffaut, and usually at the wrong end of a disparaging remark. For Solecki, Godard is a genius – just not one who makes particularly likeable movies – whereas Truffaut is an artist whose work speaks more eloquently to everyday affairs. “I admire Godard’s work and understand his historical importance,” Solecki writes early on. “But it is Truffaut’s films that give me pleasure, consolation, understanding, and artistic satisfaction.”
Even if the book’s sidelong slams of Godard grow a tad gratuitous, Solecki succeeds in laying out the virtues of Truffaut’s comparatively slender body of work. Notorious in his early twenties as a film critic trumpeting the virtues of Hollywood B-movies, then world-famous at 27 after the critical and commercial success of The 400 Blows – the primal nexus of both the French new wave and the modern coming-of-age film – Truffaut remained a creative force for three decades following his debut. A versatile stylist who tended to determine his form on the basis of content rather than opting for a consistent aesthetic program, Truffaut produced his share of landmark films – Jules and Jim (1962) remains a blueprint for movie love triangles – but was gradually outpaced by more radical directors, many of whom would have cited him as an influence, if not an outright hero. By the 1970s, even the critics who had championed him most loudly, like his American patron Pauline Kael, began to claim diminishing returns (the charges of redundancy stuck partly because Trauffaut kept making movies about The 400 Blows’ young hero Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) that seemed to contradict the original film’s perfectly open, freeze-framed final shot).
Solecki doesn’t claim that all of Truffaut’s films are masterpieces, but like any devoted fan – and any practicing auteurist – he tries to make out the director’s signature: easy when it’s a self-reflexive exercise like Day for Night (1973), harder when it’s a sketchy scribble like Mississippi Mermaid (1969).
The book’s methodology is mixed, alternating between short essays about individual films, rangy meditations on its subject’s themes and legacy, and confidently framed historical and biographical materials, including some of Truffaut’s interviews and personal correspondence. None of the entries is longer than a few pages, which means that Solecki doesn’t overextend his analysis, but also that some of his most promising ideas – like the contrast between Truffaut’s flawed, modish adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Godard’s less deluxe science-fiction pastiche Alphaville (1965) – don’t reach their full potential.
A Truffaut Notebook is strongest when Solecki responds to the emotional transparency of Truffaut’s work with his own unguarded autobiographical reflections. The author meditates on his shifting responses to Jules and Jim over the years, and concludes that the outcomes of his own personal relationships have forever coloured his views of the film’s characters: “I realized that I was accepting the common-sense view that we tend to respond very differently to some aspects of films in youth, adulthood, and old age.” Time and again, Solecki refers to the different encounters he’s had with Truffaut’s films over the years – the heady excitement of discovering them as a student juxtaposed against the nostalgic protectiveness he feels half a lifetime later – a bittersweet range of emotions heightened by the fact that old age was one of the subjects Truffaut conspicuously avoided in his own work, preoccupied as he was by the mysteries of childhood and the charged sensations of young love.
One of Solecki’s aptest points is that for all his fame, Truffaut never seemed to embrace the role of the obsessed, visionary auteur. With the exception of the overproduced Fahrenheit 451, his films were all modestly scaled, stopping well short of the epic sweep that carried away so many of the easy-riding, bull-raging American directors working in the shadow of the Nouvelle Vague. “He didn’t have that gene,” says Solecki, and while one senses that he is somehow grateful for this reticence, it also hints at why such an obviously seminal filmmaker has fallen out of fashion: he never styled himself as a titan. Despite Solecki’s reverence, A Truffaut Notebook is not the volume to re-inflate a directorial legend. Such a job requires a surplus of hot air, and Solecki’s book is finally – and fortunately – too breezy to engage in that kind of huffing and puffing.