THE MAN WHO KNEW HOW
TO WORK MOVIE MIRACLES
This New York Times
interview with Francois Truffaut took place in the fall of 1970,
14 years before his death at the age of 52. I treasure the memory
of that day. --GUY FLATLEY
years ago, Francois Truffaut, the fair-haired boy of the Nouvelle
Vague, sat spellbound in a Paris theater watching Marguerite Durass
French stage adaptation of "The Miracle Worker." He was
so fired up by the intensity and the beauty of Annie Sullivans
struggle to bring light and understanding into the dark world of
the young Helen Keller that he rushed out and wired his representative
in New York, urging her to begin negotiations immediately for the
film rights to the play. Her cold-water reply was that Arthur Penn
was smack in the middle of making the movie.
Truffauts "The Wild Child" opened the New York Film
Festival. The following day brought rapturous reviews for this moving
account of a real-life 18th century doctors relentless battle
to civilize a "wolf boy," a grunting, frightened adolescent
discovered living alone in a French forest. The critics were quick
to lift "The Wild Child" to that lofty plateau inhabited
by the 38-year old directors previous triumphs, "The
400 Blows" and "Jules and Jim." They were also quick
to point out certain similarities to Arthur Penns "The
Miracle Worker," a comparison that brings a look of sadness
to Truffauts already melancholy face.
"Despite my friendship with Arthur Penn," he says with
the aid of an interpreter in his suite at the Sherry-Netherland,
"I would prefer that the comparison be made between the boy
Victor and Helen Keller, rather than between me and Arthur Penn."
Truffaut is a short, dark-haired man, with soulful eyes and slender,
expressive hands. Belmondo hes not. On the other hand, it
is easy enough to see what Catherine
Deneuve finds appealing about him. And it is no coincidence
that the breathtaking blonde star is also staying at the Sherry-Netherland.
However, she and Truffaut, who is divorced and the father of two
girls, make a point of maintaining separate suites, refuse to grant
joint interviews, and are refreshingly reluctant to blab about their
"Its true that I saw one of the first screenings of The
Miracle Worker," Truffaut continues, "and that I
was just as excited by the film as I was by the play. So much so,
in fact, that I went on to read all of the books about Helen Keller.
But Penns movie and my movie are very different in style.
He was obviously forced to be faithful to the play. What we do have
in common is a theme, one which is very moving to me: the idea of
having to cause a person pain in order to help him. It is like a
father taking his 4-year-old child to a dentist. The child doesnt
understand why hes got to be hurt and you cant really
explain why it is necessary to do this terrible thing to him."
Even more annoying to Truffaut than unwelcome allusions to "The
Miracle Worker" is the fact that some cynics have doubted the
wisdom of the French doctor, Jean Itard - played with becoming
restraint by Truffaut himself - in taking Victor into his
home and subjecting him to endless tests and exercises designed
to change him from animal to man. The boy was probably better off
in the forest, they argue, where he was not made so achingly aware
of his inadequacies. It is, after all, a matter of record that the
real Victor -- though he lived to the age of 40 - never learned
to speak coherently and that society continued to regard him, at
best, as an oddity.
"The only regret I have in connection with the movie is that
I did not make my thoughts clear enough in that area," Truffaut
says with a sigh. "For me, Victors life in the forest
was wholly abject. And everything that happened to him in society
constituted progress. The film does mention, however, that in the
forest his body was covered with scars. Animal bites. It also mentions
that he had to kill. He was a child that did not eat meat, and yet
he had to kill animals in order to survive. Contrary to the wolf
children of legend who were helped by the animals of the forest,
Victor lived in spite of them.
"What I did not show in the film, because of financial problems,
was that the winters were so brutal on Victor that he was forced
to go into the villages seeking warmth, and when the townspeople
would spot him huddled in some farmyard or behind some cottage,
he would run away out of fear. Im sorry I was not able to
"I did not want to spell out my message, which is simply this:
man is nothing without other men. Just like Robinson Crusoe -
without Friday, he is nothing. I believe the reason that so many
people are asking was it good or was it bad to take Victor out of
the forest is that today, with all the movements of contestation,
people are beginning to question the value of society itself, as
opposed to a return to nature."
People are also beginning to ask where on earth Truffaut found Jean-Pierre
Cargol, the astonishing boy who is so heartbreakingly real as Victor.
"From the beginning," he says, "we knew that the
most difficult scenes would be those in the forest, because of the
physical demands, and that we should find a child with acrobatic
skill. In fact, whenever I thought of what Victor must have been
like at the age of 30, I thought of Nureyev. So we looked among
boy ballet dancers, but they turned out to be too refined. Then
I recalled that in my short feature, The Mischief Makers,
I had used five children from the south of France. They were very
dark-skinned, and at least one of them would have been plausible
as Victor. Except by that time he was already a married man. But
it gave me the idea to search for Victor in the south of France.
One day my assistant was standing in font of a school in a little
town, watching the children stream out. And there, in a cluster
of lively gypsies, was Jean-Pierre.
"He was twelve then, and a very cool child. Very calm. Gypsy
children are exceptionally happy because of their close family relationships.
Jean-Pierre has a huge family - 12 brothers and sisters, but
all with different fathers and mothers. The education of gypsy children,
however, is quite uneven, and it is my belief that working in the
film caused Jean-Pierre to progress intellectually."
While it is true that the critics were totally captivated by Truffauts
scene-stealing protégé, it is also true that they
had warmly encouraging words for Truffaut-the-budding-thespian.
Yet the half-pint director has no dream of becoming the French Dustin
Hoffman. He only became an actor in order to do away
with the necessity of an "intermediary" in his teacher-pupil
relationship with Jeanne-Pierre. By being both director and doctor,
he could exercise complete control over the boys emotional
But what if one of Truffauts idols, such as Hitchcock or Renoir,
were to ask him to turn leading man?
"Mais oui!" he says, clapping his hands and chuckling.
"I trust them! Actually, I have already turned down one role
since The Wild Child. And it was not a little role,
either; it was the part of Napoleon in a film by Christian Jacques.
When I told Jacques that I did not feel that I could do it, he thought
I was objecting to his movie. You dont understand,
he said, trying to persuade me. It will be Napoleon in the
style of "Z." You will play Napoleon as a little gangster.
One director who will never try to persuade Truffaut to play Napoleon
or a little gangster or anyone else is Jean-Luc
Godard, the hyper-revolutionary moviemaker who began
his career with Truffaut in the fifties as a tough critic on Cahiers
du Cinéma and whose first film, "Breathless," saw
life thanks largely to Truffaut. Godard recently branded Truffaut
as hopelessly bourgeois and declared that his movies were as trivial
as anything trickling out of the Hollywood factories. But Truffaut
does not seem unduly devastated by this put-down from his old pal.
feel no bitterness toward Godard," he says calmly. "He
is a great poet of cinema. I still think that Breathless
is one of the best French films ever made. It has the same raw feeling
- the illusion of life, the gaiety and despair - that
Jean Vigos LAtalante has. But Godard is
exasperated, because what he really wants to be is a thinker, a
political man. He longs to be a man of reason and he suffers because
he is not. His true genius lies in inspiration, in intuition. Jean-Luc
Godard suffers because of the uselessness of films in ameliorating
the human condition.
"I am not a revolutionary," says Truffaut, whose only
publicized encounter with slogans and banners and cops and crowds
occurred back in 1968 when he joined Godard and other French filmmakers
in their successful effort to shut down the Cannes Festival as a
demonstration of their unity with striking French students and workers.
"The reason that I am not a revolutionary is that I do not
trust the next regime any more than I do the one we have now. In
temperament, I belong among those people who wish to improve conditions
through the existing system, rather than build a whole new system
or use a system which may already be known but is highly idealized.
I find it impossible to admire any head of state, since I detest
the sentiment and emotion that must inevitably play a part in political
life. The truth is that I have never voted. I would not feel natural
voting. It would give me the same feeling I would get if I were
asked to stand up and sing after my meal."
Truffauts disdain for things political may be inherited. "My
parents had no politics, no religion," he recalls. "It
was the time of the Nazi Occupation, and they were simply waiting
for the Germans to go home. Some of my uncles and cousins were members
of the Resistance, and they were deported. Other relatives were
collaborators. But my father, who was a draftsman, had only one
great passion in life: mountain climbing. He and my mother would
go on frequent mountain-climbing trips and leave me with relatives.
I can still remember them returning, wearing shorts and carrying
knapsacks on their backs. Our neighbors all looked upon them as
"We lived in Pigalle, which was the most sexual district of
Paris, completely unlike the rest of the city during the war. Classic
French prostitutes, wearing black-market stockings, flourished there.
And in Pigalle, a shot in the night did not mean that Germans were
on the track of some member of the Resistance; it merely meant that
someone, be he French or German, had been found sleeping in the
wrong bed. Some day Ill probably put all of this in a book,
but not in a film. I might do a movie set in that period, but it
will not be autobiographical. It wont have a little boy for
a hero. I find the idea of reconstructing my childhood in Occupied
Paris a disturbing one."
Truffaut has chosen to do, instead, has been to draw upon his youthful
experiences and set them in a different time. So that in "The
400 Blows" (poster at right) we see the lonely, neglected Antoine
Doinel growing up absurd in post-war Paris. Next, we follow Antoine
through the outrageous pangs of "Love at 20," and then
the devilish delights of simultaneous love affairs with a sweet
young thing and a worldly married woman in "Stolen Kisses."
Finally, in "Domicile Conjugal" - and Truffaut insists
that this really will be Antoines final cinematic exposure
- Antoine marries the sweet young thing from "Stolen
Kisses" and blithely embarks on an affair with a bewitching
Oriental. Truffaut makes it clear that not all of the details of
Antoines saga are autobiographical. But the differences are
clearly a matter of degree.
"Like Antoine, I ran away from home when I was an adolescent.
And when my father found me, he grabbed me by the scarf and dragged
me to the police station in Pigalle, where I was thrown into a cell
with prostitutes. From there, I was sent to a detention home. It
all happened exactly the way it happened in The 400 Blows.
But, fortunately, I had met Andre Bazin, the film critic, before
that - when I was trying to start my own cinématheque
- and I was able to write to him from the detention home.
He got in touch with the psychologist there and promised that if
I were released, he would guarantee me a job."
It was in this way that Bazin became the spiritual father of Truffaut,
just as Truffaut was later to become the spiritual father of Jean-Pierre
Leaud, the young actor who created the role of Antoine Doinel and
to whom Truffaut dedicated "The Wild Child." And it was
while working on the staff of Bazins Cahiers du Cinéma
that Truffaut ultimately earned a reputation for being a scathing
critic, so scathing that he was banned from covering the Cannes
But Truffaut, like all Cahiers critics, had his great passions as
well as his hot hates. "Among the American directors, I greatly
admired Welles and Hitchcock
and Nick Ray. Ive never changed my mind about them. I have
changed my mind, though, about people like Robert Aldrich and Otto
Preminger. I was fond of Premingers Angel Face
for reasons of form. But on the plane coming over, I saw
his Junie Moon, and I must say it was a sad disappointment.
Truffaut shakes his head over the tragically fallen idol and is
silent for a moment. But soon he is caught up again in the subject,
which, for him, will always be The Subject. Movies. From the wonders
of Jean Vigo to the "weaknesses" of Joseph Strick, he
is never at a loss for an opinion. And one opinion of the Frenchman
who turned down MGMs invitation to direct "The Strawberry
Statement" is that Hollywood is suffering from a serious shortage
of first-rate directors.
"A few years ago, the scripts for Hollywood films may have
been less intelligent, less adult than they are now, but at least
the directorial techniques corresponded to the content. Because
the directors were better then. But today - take a picture
like M*A*S*H. An excellent script; disastrous direction.
Robert Altman never once, throughout the entire picture, put the
camera in the right place. In the Heat of the Night
also had a screenplay that was interesting, but the direction was
absurd. There was no need whatsoever for Norman Jewison to do all
those zoom shots on the red tail lights of that automobile."
Truffauts favorite American film in recent months is "Rosemarys
Baby," and his least favorite film is any film made by Joseph
Strick, from "Ulysses" to "Tropic of Cancer."
"I loathe Strick. He has done the most damaging thing a moviemaker
can do with his career, with his morality. He has tried to conceal
his weaknesses by choosing the great literature of the world to
put on the screen, a task for which he is easily the worlds
least qualified person."
Three of Hollywoods hottest directors - Mike
Nichols, Arthur Penn and Stanley Kubrick - leave
Truffaut with lukewarm feelings. "I was told that Mike Nichols
had tremendous respect for Fellini. But when I saw The Graduate,
I couldnt help but notice that he also had tremendous respect
for Lelouch. What bothered me the most about The Graduate
was the constant interruption of the drama with all that music.
But then the practice of tacking on irrelevant music seems to be
getting more and more common in American films. I believe that Nichols
also made a terrible mistake in Virginia Woolf by moving
out of the house and into the yard. And the scene in the bar, with
the jukebox playing, was an even bigger mistake. Nevertheless, Nichols
is a man who knows how to select actors and get the most out of
"I liked Arthur Penns Bonnie and Clyde, but
I would have preferred another actor to Warren Beatty, because Beatty
had no genuine innocence, no authenticity. He distorted the script,
out of a fear of being ridiculed. Originally, Clyde was to have
had a homosexual relationship with the other fellow, the one played
by Michael Pollard. But Beatty wanted to be more important than
Pollard and, after all, he was the producer of the film.
"Kubricks 2001 I just didnt understand.
There was too much machinery; all those yellow and red buttons.
Yet people whom I respect, like Polanski, have said very complimentary
things about it. I must admit that I have an anti-scientific mind.
It bores me to look at rockets."
It also bores Truffaut to have to give much
thought to Roger Vadim, a fellow Frenchman, the father of Catherine
Deneuves son and, according to Truffaut, an overrated director.
"Vadim should be more gifted than he is in order to compensate
for his self-indulgence. He is lazy, and he cannot afford to be
Truffaut care to comment on the world-famous Vadim Method, which
takes Stanislavski out of the drama school and into the boudoir?
"Thats ridiculous!" snorts Truffaut. "Its
absurd to say that the director should become the leading ladys
But what about Truffaut and Catherine
Deneuve? Werent they
that is to say
during the filming
of "Mississippi Mermaid," didnt they
it a fact that
"Oui! Oui!" Truffaut finally says, with a roll of the
eyes that is worthy of Antoine Doinel. "I only meant Im
against making it a rule!"
HERE TO READ MANY MORE OF GUY FLATLEY'S
ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS WITH TOP DIRECTORS, INCLUDING MARTIN SCORSESE,
FRANK CAPRA, BERNARDO BETOLUCCI, DOROTHY ARZNER, LUCINO VISCONTI,
PIER PAOLO PASOLINI, SIDNEY LUMET, VITTORIO DE SICA, ALLAN DWAN,
JOSEPH LOSEY, COSTA-GAVRAS, KEN RUSSELL, LINDSAY ANDERSON, WOODY
ALLEN, LOUIS MALLE, OUSMANE
SEMBENE, BRIAN DE PALMA, MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, RAOUL WALSH AND