Into the Archives: A Conversation with Emmanuel Laurent
Plenty of ink has been expended over the years on the turbulent friendship between Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, which helped define the French New Wave in the 1960s. Now those stories jump off the page and onto the screen where they belong in Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, Two in the Wave, which is crashing onto North American shores this week, starting with a two-week run at New York’s Film Forum. Taking off from the twin epochal premieres of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless, the film engages with that cinema-changing decade through a flurry of amazing archival footage and photos, narration by renowned Truffaut and Godard biographer Antoine de Baecque, and the appearance of actress Isild Le Besco as a sort of silent on-screen guide through the archives. On the eve of Two in the Wave’s release (and the fiftieth anniversary of Breathless), I interviewed Laurent about the process of putting the movie together, as well as his thoughts on how the legacy of the New Wave can be seen in French filmmaking today. —Michael Koresky
What drove you to make a film about the historic friendship—and falling out—of Godard and Truffaut?
I was initially telling the story of the New Wave as a whole, with special attention to the two pillars of the movement. But the film didn’t work that way. It was confusing and going in every direction, and I wasn’t keen on the idea of making a film only for film buffs. Antoine de Baecque, my partner for the movie as scriptwriter and narrator, wrote, with Serge Toubiana, a 1996 biography of Truffaut, and this year, in March, he published an enormous and really outstanding biography of Godard. When I found out that he was working on the latter, it didn’t take me long to think of telling the story of that amazing Truffaut/JLG friendship, about which Antoine had inexhaustible information. I had at hand the best source a documentary filmmaker could dream of! I could pick Antoine’s brain as much as I wished, and he generously provided all the new stuff he was getting for the book on Godard—for instance, the pictures of young Godard, among his siblings and parents near Lake Geneva. Before Two in the Wave, the public had never seen pictures of Godard as a boy.
There’s a treasure trove of great images, moving and still, in the film, some of which seem very rare.
I have worked with an amazing researcher, Christine Loiseau, for years. She found great stuff on Truffaut, on JLG, and also on Jean-Pierre Léaud at Gaumont and INA, the French TV archives, and in particular the Belgium television archives, RTBF. I wanted the film to be a declaration of love for archives, and if there’s one thing I’m happy with about the film, it’s the way I filmed those newspapers, photos, and magazines. Not only for what they say but also for how they say it, where the article exists in such and such a magazine, its size in it, if it’s on the front page or inside, the ads surrounding it, the topics next to it, et cetera.
How long did it take to assemble it all?
The editing process itself took about twelve weeks—excluding research. I used to be a film editor myself, and it’s difficult for an editor to work with guys like me, so it didn’t work out with the first editor. The film started to work from the moment I decided to get rid of anything not related, personally, aesthetically, or professionally, to Truffaut and JLG’s friendship or to their cinema child, Jean-Pierre Léaud. It’s a story that deeply echoes the history of France from the sixties to the eighties; even beyond their films, Truffaut and JLG embody the big political divide after 1968 better than anyone, with Léaud as their torn offspring.
Speaking of structure, I have to say a word about Isild Le Besco, who was very important to the editing process. Although I’m honestly not satisfied with the way I filmed her, in terms of lighting and camera setup—therefore not really following Truffaut’s advice, “To make a film is not difficult: one only has to film a beautiful woman”—she was hugely helpful as a guide venturing into the archives, which otherwise would have looked dull. And they did, before Isild came along and I had her look through the newspapers, magazines, and photos of the time on-screen. Isild, who’s a girl of the new millennium, an actress and vigorously independent filmmaker, walks a fine line between the youth of the sixties and the youth of today.
Do you also see the radical ethos of the New Wave, and specifically the work of Truffaut and Godard, reflected in any contemporary films and filmmakers?
It’s a tricky question. Of course, directors around the world have been strongly influenced by the French New Wave and continue to pay tribute to it in their films, such as Tsai Ming-Liang’s Visage and Claire Denis’ White Material. In France, the freedom the New Wave brought to cinema—the idea that small is beautiful: small budget, small teams, small audience—has somewhat passed over to documentary filmmakers, like Claire Simon, to remain with the Claires. But in my opinion, today’s French filmmakers need to deliver the battle against the establishment all over again. This establishment is embodied nowadays by directors like Luc Besson, though he at least seems to have fun, while others are merely greedy businessmen. In fact, a large part of the films produced here are boringly academic, vulgar, or pale imitations of American movies. There are one or two exceptions every year that keep the flame burning.
I wait for a new Truffaut, who will pin down French cinema as vigorously as he did in his famous 1954 article “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français.” In France, more than in other countries, in my view, it seems that we have to fight the fight more harshly over and over again, every generation, and the battle is never won. For example, a century before the New Wave, the impressionist painters—their work was called New Painting at the time—engaged in fierce trench warfare against the academy, for aesthetically, politically, and socially similar reasons. A lot of filmmakers like to think of themselves as auteurs, when they are so far from having the deep and intimate knowledge of cinema that the New Wave filmmakers had when they launched the term and made cinema a noble art. I’m afraid that the beautiful title “auteur” fits many of today’s filmmakers like a pair of stockings on a goat, as we say in French. I think the key word is sincerity. And I don’t see too many filmmakers today, around the world, who have that rare and wild quality Truffaut, Godard, Demy, and Rohmer had. But they exist.