When Truffaut met Godard

When the critics-turned-filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague burst on to the scene at the end of the 1950s, French cinema was never the same again. The world immediately took notice of these young Turks – among them Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette – who shunned star systems, studio sets and stuffy morals to create films of enormous energy and technical daring.

Friendship was at the heart of this filmmaking revolution, and one friendship in particular. When Godard wrote to Truffaut in 1959 outlining plans for his debut feature A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) he signed off with a curious display of filial affection – “Kindest regards from one of your sons” – despite the fact that at 28 he was two years older than Truffaut.

Godard, however, was the junior partner in filmmaking terms. He had made several short films but was struggling to come up with an idea for his first feature. Truffaut, on the other hand, had already triumphed at Cannes that year with his first feature, Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows).

Godard, who was stuck in Paris at the time with no money to buy food, let alone a train ticket, was eager for his own taste of glory. But he couldn’t do it by himself. That much is made abundantly clear in Deux de la Vague (Two in the Wave), a new documentary about these two titans of the French New Wave.

Directed by Emmanuel Laurent and scripted by Antoine de Baecque (who has written hefty biographies of both Truffaut and Godard), Two in the Wave opens with an outtake of Godard’s tremulous voice recorded not long after Truffaut died in 1984 at the age of 52: “After the death of François, Anne-Marie Miéville [Godard’s partner] told me: ‘Now that he’s dead, nobody will protect you,’ since he was the only one of the New Wave who was accepted by and tried in a way to join the establishment.”

We discover from Two in the Wave that it was Truffaut who wrote the original three-page treatment for Breathless that persuaded producer Georges de Beauregard to back the project. And Truffaut, together with Chabrol, reassured Beauregard by promising to provide Godard with on-set advice if anything went wrong.

“Without Truffaut’s support Godard would not have been able to make Breathless,” says De Baecque.

Godard was the prodigal son of a bourgeois Swiss family whose favourite scam had been to purloin his grandfather’s antique books to make some pocket money; at the time, he was considered a liability. Truffaut, by contrast, craved respectability: he had been born out of wedlock and spent a hardscrabble childhood growing up with his grandmother. He found that respectability with the success of The 400 Blows and quickly followed up by founding his own film production company.

According to screenwriter Jean Gruault, who co-wrote six films with Truffaut, including Jules et Jim, and one with Godard, Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen), collaborations between filmmakers were typical of the New Wave. “In his novel History of the Thirteen, Balzac invented a sort of secret society of friends,” says Gruault. “We were a bunch of friends and we supported each other. We did our best to translate Balzac’s principle to the cinema.”

In their documentary Laurent and De Baecque shun a talking-heads approach and instead make judicious use of newspaper clippings, film clips, archive documentary footage and photographs to tell the story of how Godard and Truffaut began by sharing the same dream of cinema, only to end up each hating the other for the kind of films he made.

As critics for the iconoclastic film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma in the early 1950s, Godard and Truffaut had shared a similar aesthetic. Their masters were Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini and Fritz Lang, whose films were underestimated at the time and whom they defended with the pugnacity of young prizefighters.

In an article for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1954, Truffaut posited his “auteur theory”: the idea that certain directors, regardless of whether they wrote their films, were the true authors of their work. They reserved their greatest criticism for postwar French cinema, which Truffaut dismissed as cinéma du papa for its tendency to churn out tired over-literary adaptations of classic novels and plays.

But it soon became very clear that each had very different ideas about how to make films. The cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot 17 films for Godard, including Breathless, and four films for Truffaut, including Jules et Jim, was ideally placed to compare their working methods. “François used to work with a screenplay and Jean-Luc not at all,” says Coutard. “François always knew exactly what he wanted to do on the set and knew how to explain what he wanted. Jean-Luc was harder to communicate with because he was writing his screenplays as he went along so couldn’t afford to think about anything else. All the scenes in his films were shot chronologically because [the screenplay wasn’t complete]. This wasn’t the case with François because he had already finished his screenplays.”

From the outset Godard wanted to reinvent himself with each film, determined never to repeat himself. “He [Godard] always did everything he could to make a successful film but once success arrived he didn’t enjoy it and wanted to break the cycle,” notes De Baecque. “That’s typical of Godard: he liked to be reborn from his ashes. He succeeded several times.”

For a while Truffaut and Godard managed to ignore their creative differences and their friendship flourished. But tensions began to surface during the political upheaval of 1968. While Godard embraced Marxism and signalled his determination to make politically driven, elliptical films, Truffaut steadfastly refused to mix cinema and politics. Truffaut told an interviewer that he felt “like a figurative painter who resolutely continues to remain figurative, hoping that this type of painting will not disappear completely”.

Things came to a head in 1973 when Godard stormed out of Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (Day for Night), an ode to the craft of filmmaking. After the screening Godard wrote to Truffaut calling him a “liar” for not providing what he felt was an honest critique of the filmmaking world. He enclosed another letter to the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud that Truffaut read and found equally insulting. Truffaut had looked upon Léaud as a kind of son after first casting him as the errant schoolboy Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows; he considered Godard’s letter unforgivable and the two men never spoke again.

“Godard was the big loser there I think,” says Coutard. “He is not someone who has ever been very easy to get on with outside work. He fell out with quite a lot of people, including myself. For him it was never his fault, it was always other people’s fault.”

Godard, who turned 80 last year, would no doubt disagree. For him cinema was always at the root of everything. Four years after Truffaut’s death he wrote: “Saturn devoured us. And we tore each other apart, little by little, so as not to be eaten first. The cinema had taught us how to live, and it took its revenge.”

‘Two in the Wave’ comes out in the UK on February 11

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