400 blows for freedom: Stuart Jeffries on how Francois Truffaut rode into the festival on the crest of the new waveFriday 7 May 1999 15.20 BST
he Cannes Film Festival? It's a flop. It's dominated by compromises, frauds and faux pas. It's a bastion of the establishment, a home for mediocre film-makers, a place where smug functionaries who don't value movies pronounce on their merit.
Those, at least, were the words of Francois Truffaut in 1956. He wrote a series of scathing articles about the "progressive degeneration" of the festival. One was headlined: "Cannes, an undeniable success? No, Minister!" They were so hostile that the then head of Cannes demanded a right of reply, but even after that reply appeared in print, Truffaut was still refused accreditation to attend the festival as a film critic in 1958.
The following year, ironically, his first feature, The 400 Blows, was sent as the official French entry to the festival. Banned the previous year, the angry outsider was suddenly feted at Cannes when he won the best director award. Thus, 40 years ago this month, the new wave crashed on the Cannes shore and burst on the public consciousness: the mediocre, the functionaries behind what Truffaut angrily branded "le cinéma de papa" had to take their 400 blows and like it.
They were toppled not just by Truffaut, but by other remarkable film- makers who made 1959 that almost inconceivably wonderful year for French cinema. This was the year of Jean Luc Godard's Breathless, Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins, Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs To Us and Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour.
These were the films that Truffaut, when he was a gunslinger critic for Cahiers du Cinéma and Arts magazine in the mid-50s, had hoped would arrive, that would blow away the cobwebs a French national cinema that was capable only of psychological realism and which had failed to exploit the visual possibilities of film. For those who upheld le cinéma de papa, film was a place for literary adaptations. For Truffaut this could not carry on.
"The film of tomorrow will be made by adventurers," he wrote. "Young film-makers will express themselves in the first person and tell us about their experience. The films of tomorrow won't be made by the functionaries of the camera, but by artists who see film-making as an amazing, exciting adventure." In 1959, at Cannes, tomorrow had arrived and the adventure had begun.
Most of all, though, for Truffaut, le cinéma de papa could not capture the wonder he had experienced when he saw the films of the true masters of French cinema, Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Robert Bresson, Jacques Becker, Jean Cocteau. Nor could it capture the wonder Truffaut felt when he saw the great Hollywood movies of Hawks, Hitchcock and Ford.
Annette Insdorf, in her biography of Truffaut, makes the point: "[His] critical writings and films suggest that he has never forgotten the shivers of delight inherent in the early movie-watching experience: the escape into darkness and surprises, the screen that overwhelms with people larger than life, and then the growing realisation that film is less a substitute for life than a frame for a more intense and moving picture of it." Le cinéma de papa was hardly like this: film was merely a poor substitute for, and parasitic on, literature.
Truffaut singled out for particular contempt the now virtually forgotten, but then successful writing team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost who, he argued, were essentially literary men, contemptuous of the cinema. They supplied the French public with "its habitual dose of smut, non-conformity and facile audacity". Along with directors like Rene Clement, Jean Delannoy and Claude Autant-Lara, they were responsible for a cinema which did not take seriously the medium's visual possibilities.
Truffaut's greatest heresy, though, was not his ennobling of direction as a form of authorship every bit as creative and worthwhile as those of novelists, but in his ascribing authorship to Hollywood directors. Truffaut and other French critics of the time (most of them - like Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol - later to become new wave directors) were nicknamed "hitchcockohawksiens" since they championed directors like Hitchcock and Hawks - those who wrote their stories on celluloid. These were Truffaut's auteurs, the cinematic heroes he defended and extolled with a fierce love.
And yet these were the very films that Truffaut and his critical colleagues fanatically admired when they saw them at Henri Langlois' Cinémathèque in Paris. "There, during the 50s," writes Insdorf, "they devoured the silents, the talkies, the German Expressionists, the Italian Neo-realists and, most ravenously, the American studio films that had been banned during the Occupation." No wonder, with such a cinematic education, that Truffaut felt obliged, in 1968, to lead the protests against Langlois' dismissal as the president.
When The 400 Blows was chosen to represent France at Cannes, it was André Malraux, the writer turned Minister for Cultural Affairs, who made the decision. Jean-Luc Godard later argued that Malraux found authenticity in the film that led him to rebuff government sceptics. "Malraux made no mistake," wrote Godard. "The author of La Monnaie De l'Absolu could hardly help recognising that tiny inner flame, that reflection of intransigence, shining in the eyes of Truffaut's Antoine as he sports a man's hat to steal a typewriter in a sleeping Paris; for it is the same as that which glittered 20 years ago on Tchen's dagger on the first page of La Condition Humaine."
No, Malraux didn't make a mistake. You only have to see the last scene of The 400 Blows to realise this. Antoine escapes from reform school, runs toward the sea and when he reaches the water, the camera sweeps around him and captures, in freeze frame, his uncertain face. It's a moment that is utterly human, utterly specific, and thoroughly cinematic.
"We won the day," trumpeted Godard after this triumph, "in having it acknowledged in principle that a film by Hitchcock, for example, is as important as a book by Aragon. Film auteurs, thanks to us, have finally entered the history of art. But you whom we attack have automatically benefited from this success. And we attack you for your betrayal, because we have opened your eyes and you continue to keep them closed. Each time we see your films we find them so bad, so far aesthetically and morally from what we had hoped, that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema.
"We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are. Today, victory is ours. It is our films which will go to Cannes to show that France is looking good, cinematographically speaking. Next year it will be the same again, you may be sure of that. Fifteen new, courageous, sincere, lucid, beautiful films will once again bar the way to conventional productions. For although we have won a battle, the war is not yet over."
The war still isn't over. Forty years on, we could do with another gunslinging critic like Truffaut or Godard. Not, to be sure, to target Cannes, although the festival is hardly beyond reproach, but rather to heap deserved opprobrium on British cinema. It's a cinema almost devoid of auteurs.
Our chief problem as a cinematic culture is that we are tremendously insular, more shockingly so than our European neighbours: Theo Angelpoulos's Eternity And A Day only reaches our screens nearly a year to the day after it won the Palme d'Or; the 1997 Palme d'Or winner, Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste Of Cherry, took more than a year after it won its award to reach Britain. Truffaut would not have railed against such pictures, since they are true films made by cinematic adventurers - films about real people; films with soul.
But he would have loathed the British cinema that has thrived in the thin air of our insular climate, with its Little Voices, Full Montys and Plunketts And Macleanes; films dependent on those very faults that Truffaut levelled at Aurenche and Bost: habitual smut, non-conformity and facile audacity. He would have detested, especially, Notting Hill, a film that depends on its writer rather than its director for the spark of creativity; a film that panders to American audiences with English and Welsh stereotypes; a film that shows us, as a result, only a sentimental vision of humanity rather than the thing itself.
But Notting Hill is only one symptom of a broader malaise. How we need a British Truffaut now, both to diagnose our ills, and to direct us towards a cure. But that may not be possible. How could there be a British Truffaut? After all, he once asked, typically waspishly, if there was a contradiction in the very phrase "British cinema". Yes there was. And there still is, Francois. There still is.