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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

Several years ago, Francois Truffaut, the fair-haired boy of the Nouvelle Vague, sat spellbound in a Paris theater watching Marguerite Duras’s French stage adaptation of "The Miracle Worker." He was so fired up by the intensity and the beauty of Annie Sullivan’s 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.

Recently Truffaut’s "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 doctor’s 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 director’s previous triumphs, "The 400 Blows" and "Jules and Jim." They were also quick to point out certain similarities to Arthur Penn’s "The Miracle Worker," a comparison that brings a look of sadness to Truffaut’s 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 he’s 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 personal relationship.

"It’s 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 Penn’s 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 doesn’t understand why he’s got to be hurt and you can’t 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, Victor’s 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. I’m sorry I was not able to show this.

"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 Truffaut’s 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 boy’s emotional responses.

But what if one of Truffaut’s 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 don’t 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.

"I 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 Vigo’s ‘L’Atalante’ 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."

Truffaut’s 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 eccentrics.

"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 I’ll 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 won’t have a little boy for a hero. I find the idea of reconstructing my childhood in Occupied Paris a disturbing one."

What 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 Antoine’s 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 Antoine’s 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 Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinéma that Truffaut ultimately earned a reputation for being a scathing critic, so scathing that he was banned from covering the Cannes Festival.

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. I’ve never changed my mind about them. I have changed my mind, though, about people like Robert Aldrich and Otto Preminger. I was fond of Preminger’s ‘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 MGM’s 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."

Truffaut’s favorite American film in recent months is "Rosemary’s 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 world’s least qualified person."

Three of Hollywood’s 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 couldn’t 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 them.

"I liked Arthur Penn’s ‘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.

"Kubrick’s ‘2001’ I just didn’t 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 Deneuve’s 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 lazy."

Would Truffaut care to comment on the world-famous Vadim Method, which takes Stanislavski out of the drama school and into the boudoir?

"That’s ridiculous!" snorts Truffaut. "It’s absurd to say that the director should become the leading lady’s
lover."

But what about Truffaut and Catherine Deneuve? Weren’t they…that is to say…during the filming of "Mississippi Mermaid," didn’t they…isn’t it a fact that…

"Oui! Oui!" Truffaut finally says, with a roll of the eyes that is worthy of Antoine Doinel. "I only meant I’m against making it a rule!"

CLICK 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 DENNIS HOPPER.