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What Truffaut Meant by Love: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

A still from Truffaut's short film, Antoine et Colette (1962)


Friday, October 07, 2005

By Nathan Kosub


Once in each of two films by François Truffaut — Jules and Jim (1962) and Stolen Kisses (1968) — a woman is reinvented. In both cases she is responsible for what each protagonist sees. “Jim considered her to be Jules' and didn't try to form a clear picture of her,” the narrator says of Catherine. “Madame Tabard isn't a woman,” Antoine Doinel exclaims in Stolen Kisses. “She's an apparition.”

Jim is compelled to know Catherine better, and Madame Tabard proves flesh and blood. Stolen Kisses and Jules and Jim belong together: Truffaut made Antoine out of Catherine, and the essence of each character is a generous man at his most magnanimous. The point is a small one, but essential to Truffaut's understanding of love.

In Jules and Jim, Jim is asked to accompany Catherine to the train station. It is the first time they have met alone. A love triangle begins but is not sustained. Other lovers come and go. The central players are Jules and Jim — great friends — and Catherine, who “claims the world is rich and that one can cheat a little now and then.”

The movie feels much longer than it is. To allow years to pass — the conception, birth and childhood of a daughter, say — and make the passing seem almost lackadaisical is a reduction of days without the suggestion that time between does not mature or change us. Thus we are asked not to scrutinize these lives — lives made familiar in details — and instead to allow love to be an allegory that includes us, too.

“If Catherine decides she wants something,” Jim says, “and she thinks no one will be hurt — though she could be wrong, of course — she does it for her own pleasure and to learn from the experience. She hopes this way to attain wisdom one day.” There are two points there: that if Catherine is sometimes wrong in practice, her intentions are correct.

In Stolen Kisses, the same Antoine Doinel of The 400 Blows (1959) — now grown — continues to endure absurdities; instead of sustenance or shelter, love affairs and livelihood combat him. He is always at work, but someplace new, and always in love — most consistently with his old flame Christine. Antoine is also sincere; his truths frame him.

Mike Robbins writes in his Senses of Cinema review, “Throughout Baisers voles, Antoine encounters a variety of compromised adult relationships, implying that concession or conciliation, rather than idealization, defines maturity.” Antoine solicits sex all over Paris: in brothels, from old friends, on first dates. Eventually he seduces Madame Tabard, an older woman who reprimands him for making too much of her.

“Before coming here this morning, I put on my makeup,” she says. “And crossing town I noticed every other woman had done the same, to please herself or out of regard for others. You say I'm exceptional. You're right.” Every woman is exceptional, she says.

This is the allegory of Jules and Jim applied to color on the streets of a familiar city, with a pop song in place of Georges Delerue's score (is any soundtrack lovelier than Jules and Jim?). Antoine is much the modern Catherine: the man who loves women a balance to Jim and Jules, who love one. He is easily as impetuous.

“I thought I was your friend,” Christine suggests when he rebuffs her.

“You can do what you want with your friendship, as far as I'm concerned,” he says. He doesn't quite mean that, though, and eventually proposes. In both Jules and Jim and Stolen Kisses, sex is serious enough that it is never seen.


Movies, like the books Truffaut read, were not really a choice after childhood; both had been a part of his life too long. But they are not essential, either — at least in the way that romantics value. He did not “escape” into films, as so many moviegoers do. Too often that sort of flight is synonymous with absolution — a blank slate empty of the rest of the day.

Work makes movies; thus Day for Night (1973). The popular criticism of Truffaut — that the product got worse as the years progressed — is true, insofar as his artistic aesthetic as a director was constant motion. Truffaut always had at least two projects in development at any given moment, as well as scripts from his old standbys to choose from. Completed works accumulated and became a part of movies yet undone. Small Change (1976) could not be separated from Les Mistons (1958) before it. On a boat, a barnacle drags.

Two English Girls (1971), then, is as subdued as Jules and Jim seems outrageous. But it suffers by comparison. Two English Girls skews garish in close-ups and explains, through narration, the expressions on the sisters' faces. When the narrator speaks in Jules and Jim, he describes what we see on a statue in profile; the actors' reactions are their own.

Similarly, it is surprising when Jules and Jim say Catherine is not beautiful, because the camera has convinced us otherwise. In The Story of Adele H. (1975), Isabelle Adjani's beauty is all we have; the camera is in service of an argument already won, without the reach to enlarge it. If The 400 Blows is an exercise in style — as much about the joy of movie-making as Antoine — Small Change is what you see in French class when you are young, as harmless as the teacher. And so on.

Truffaut's worst movies are humorless. When is Mississippi Mermaid (1969) funny? And how is a movie without laughter ever dedicated to Renoir? Why not Jules and Jim instead? When Jules gets drunk and talks too much, Catherine jumps into the Seine.

Certainly Truffaut remained capable, and there is a fine moment in Confidentially Yours! (1983) when Fannie Ardant turns up her collar and puts on some lipstick to impersonate a hooker. She is still beautiful, still radiant. Truffaut's women at their best are alike. Ardant's carriage is a confidence she discovers in disguise — a risk on behalf of a lover. The high thrill is palpable; it is fun. How rare it seems.

Truffaut wrote an homage to Ernst Lubitsch in 1968, the same year the French director made Stolen Kisses. If generosity is implicit in understanding, it is also some measure of inclusion, which for Truffaut meant success: the responsive public. “On Lubitsch's sound tracks,” he wrote, “there are dialogue, sounds, music and our laughter — that is essential. Otherwise there would be no film.”


Truffaut might say that he could not live without the movies, so I think it's not too much to call those films he made his burden. He wore the process like a weight, with movies sometimes made from ideas he did not wholly get behind. It is telling, in the end, that he hated to eat, and took meals quickly, without pleasure.

Like everything, the movies are a matter of timing, of memory and of years. Movies were Truffaut's passion, but that does not mean love. Love is how we articulate our sacrifices. It is how we ascribe what is privately meaningful a shape in the physical world — a choice to invite a change we cannot undo.

Truffaut loved people: the crowds he rallied in defense of Langlois, the journalists he wrote and befriended, the directors he admired and sought out. His letters say so much for the importance of what we share. If that seems obvious, think of the women he involved himself with, and how many of them acted in movies. Think how brief the affairs often were — how caught up in cinema Truffaut must have been to mistake his romances for casting. The movies overwhelmed even intimacy.

In Jules and Jim, Catherine schedules breakfast with Jim to discuss her marriage to Jules. Jim shows up just after seven. “With his usual optimism,” the narrator says, “Jim had arrived late.” He waits almost an hour and leaves.

“She's more optimistic than you where time's concerned,” Jules tells Jim later that day. “She was at the hairdresser's and arrived at eight to dine with you.” Had they met, the story might be different. But in both cases the one who is absent is an optimist. The optimist, at the hairdresser's or without his watch, wins out. How else is the death of Jim and Catherine a relief to Jules, and to us? How else is Stolen Kisses, which ends just at the precipice, so gentle?

For Truffaut, love disregarded intentions or effort. To the light-floaters — the late arrivers, even the long dead — there is a comfort in failure and in all things thinking, asking and unsure. When death is no more inevitable than sadness or sex or love, it's made into an action only. We become fearless.

Truffaut's movies convince us of that. He liked to say that he was a 19th-century novelist making films in the 20th century. On grey days, the old writers went to sea. The movies wash and stir, and push refracted light into the corners of a dark room. Like Antoine Doinel, we are unafraid, and still so unlucky in love.


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