A BAND APART
Jean-luc Godard and François Truffaut were close friends and colleagues. Then Truffaut made Day For Night…
FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT ONCE
uncharacteristically suggested that Jean-luc Godard should make an autobiographical film called ‘A Shit Is A Shit’. The remark represents the nadir of a friendship as tight, turbulent, creative and significant as any in the history of cinema. Together they were the leading lights of the French New Wave in the late ’50s and 1960s. Individually they couldn’t have been more different. Truffaut, the product of a broken home, was the outsider looking to break in. Godard, the son of a doctor, was the insider who wanted out. The former was conventional, gentle and generous of spirit. The latter was cool, acerbic, full of piss and vinegar. If that reminds you of another duo taking the world by storm at that time, essentially they were the Lennon and Mccartney of European cinema.
“Truffaut is often cast as Paul Mccartney,” laughs Kent Jones, director of Hitchcock/ Truffaut. “But the idea he was making the kinds of movies that Godard was criticising [him for] is bullshit. I don’t think anybody was making a movie like Day For Night or The Woman Next Door or Two English Girls. Those are very powerful films.”
Day For Night, the thing that finally broke up the band, is out this month on Criterion. A love letter to making movies, it is completely beguiling. So how could something so enchanting come between the best of friends?
Truffaut, aged 19, first met Godard, 20, in one of France’s thriving cine-clubs. They bonded in small screening rooms, watching three or four movies a day then, too poor for taxis, walking home after the Métro had closed, dissecting the work of Hawks and Hitchcock. As critics at Cahiers du Cinema, their passions became professional. “They wanted something spectacularly new,” says Dudley Andrew, author of François Truffaut: A Companion. “They wanted a livelier, earthier French cinema. They were drawn to the American cinema which they thought of as more naturalised.” Such commitment couldn’t be contained in the stalls. If Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows (1959),
was a rallying cry, then Breathless (1960), directed by Godard from a treatment by Truffaut, broke down the barricades. The French New Wave had arrived.
The friendship appeared to flourish throughout the ’60s. Godard visited Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451 on day one of filming. Truffaut helped Godard financially on 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967). But fissures were beginning to form. Some were down to increasingly divergent philosophies: Truffaut believed cinema should embrace old forms; Godard believed you should take a bat to them. Godard teased Truffaut for his commercial instincts, observing, “In the morning he is a business man, in the afternoon, he is an artist.” Others were based on political differences, Godard becoming increasingly radicalised in the volatile civil unrest of May 1968.
And then came Day For Night. While the rest of the world embraced Truffaut’s hymn to filmmaking (it won the Best Foreign Language Oscar), Godard walked out halfway through and sent Truffaut a four-page letter branding him a “liar” for omitting his own sexual dalliances with actresses (“One wonders why the director is the only one who doesn’t fuck in Day For Night”). In the same letter, with trademark cheek, he asked his friend for money to make a Marxism-informed film that acted as a riposte to Day For Night. Truffaut saw red. He fired back a 20-page screed that skewered Godard’s political posturing (“Anyone who has a different opinion from yours is a creep, even if the opinion you hold in June is not the same one you held in April”), his self-centredness (“Between your interest in the masses and your own narcissism there’s no room for anything or anyone else”) and his general bad behaviour (“You’re nothing but a piece of shit on a pedestal”).
A war of words played out in the press and in private but the pair rarely met in public. “There is a moment where Godard comes up to Truffaut in a restaurant and says, ‘How about getting back together?’” says Jones. “Truffaut won’t even shake his hand.” In 1980, Godard invited Truffaut and
Cahiers cronies Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette to collaborate, but Truffaut responded with his ‘A Shit Is A Shit’ jibe. For his own part, Godard started sewing barbs into his films: 1982’s Passion lampoons the end of Day For Night. The pair never reconciled, even at the end. When Truffaut died of a brain tumour in 1984, Godard praised him as a critic but still lambasted him as a filmmaker.
But, if you’re after a happy (freeze-frame) ending, four years later, Godard wrote a foreword to a collection of Truffaut’s letters that Kent Jones calls “one of the most moving tributes ever written”. It’s Godard’s warmest work to date. The cynical Lennon finally showed a bit of Mccartney.
DAY FOR NIGHT IS OUT ON 24 OCTOBER ON BLU-RAY
Clockwise from left: Truffaut; Godard; Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-pierre Leaud in 1973’s Day For Night; Leaud shooting Day
For Night’s film-withina-film Meet Pamela; Bisset as Day For
Night’s Julie Baker; Jean-paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in 1960’s Breathless.