Truffaut, Rivette, Berto

Jean-Pierre Léaud and François Truffaut on the set of Antoine and Colette (1962)

On the Criterion Channel, we’re currently saluting one of the most impactful movements in all of cinema, the French New Wave, with a program of forty-four features and another presenting twenty-five short films. As with most artistic upheavals, no single work or declaration can be credited with launching the French New Wave, but if there were one, François Truffaut’s essay “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” published in Cahiers du cinéma in 1954 when the critic and future filmmaker was just twenty-one, would be a prime candidate. Truffaut “depicted the French film industry as a virtual cinematic Sodom and Gomorrah of artistic iniquity,” wrote the New Yorker’s Richard Brody in 2019, and the essay “travelled through the local industry as a revolutionary shot across the bow.”

Truffaut’s coverage of the Cannes Film Festival for Cahiers in 1957 was so scathing that industry insiders began referring to him as “the gravedigger of French cinema,” and he was shut out of the festival in 1958. The following year, he returned with his first feature and won the award for best director. In The 400 Blows (1959), Jean-Pierre Léaud, fourteen at the time, plays Antoine Doinel, a truant and thief in what was “more than a semi-autobiographical film,” as Annette Insdorf points out in the essay accompanying our release. The 400 Blows “was also an elaboration of what the French New Wave directors would embrace as the caméra-stylo (camera-as-pen) whose écriture (writing style) could express the filmmaker as personally as a novelist’s pen.” And for Bong Joon Ho, it’s the “most beautiful feature film debut in the history of cinema.”

Over the next two months, the British Film Institute and the Institut français will present François Truffaut: For the Love of Films, a season of screenings at BFI Southbank in London and in theaters throughout the UK. The further adventures of Antoine Doinel are depicted in Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and Love on the Run (1979). “All I ever wanted was to understand the magic of these films, to make a film like Stolen Kisses, to understand the energy and spirit of Léaud,” wrote Alex Ross Perry in 2014.

“Despite his early reputation for anti-establishment fervor,” wrote Evan Kindley in his introduction to a 2010 survey of the filmmaker’s oeuvre at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, “Truffaut in fact proved the least revolutionary of the New Wave directors. Especially in the late ’60s and ’70s, when many of his contemporaries were experimenting with cinematic form, Truffaut was immersing himself in the technical details of production and paying homage to forebears like Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock.” Nevertheless, later films such as The Last Metro (1980) “explore a darker, more obsessive side of romantic relationships than the lighter fare for which the director is better known. And even more accessible films like Day for Night [1973] and Small Change [1976] benefit from being placed in the larger context of Truffaut’s oeuvre.”

Truffaut’s very first film, the eight-minute Une visite (1955), was edited by Alain Resnais and shot by Jacques Rivette. Resnais was more closely associated with the Left Bank group of writers (Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet) and filmmakers (Chris Marker, Agnès Varda) than with the Cahiers crowd, but Rivette began writing for the magazine in 1953 and succeeded Eric Rohmer as editor in 1963. Rivette shot his first feature, Paris Belongs to Us, in 1958, though it wouldn’t be released until 1961, two years after The 400 Blows and one year after Jean-Luc Godard’s earthshaking debut, Breathless.

Starting tomorrow, the Cinémathèque française in Paris will present a Rivette retrospective that will run through February 13. Paris Belongs to Us “contains within its folds many of the radical elements that would distinguish the later career of Rivette,” wrote Lucy Sante in 2016. “These elements include a female point of view, a fascination with the rehearsal process of theater, a feeling for the geographic intricacies of Paris, and a sense of shadowy and unnameable conspiracy.”

During his short tenure as the editor of Cahiers, Rivette “looked to thinkers outside the realm of cinema—philosophers, composers, anthropologists—to diversify the magazine’s content,” writes Beatrice Loayza in her essay on Rivette’s greatest commercial success, Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974). “His film oeuvre is a reflection of these qualities. Behind a seemingly impenetrable, hermetic facade of extreme duration and slippery formal conceits lies a powerful, promiscuous fascination with film history, literature, and the theater. In their disregard for the boundaries of mainstream cinema, his films embody a spirit of unmoored creation.”

Céline is played by Juliet Berto, who had worked with Rivette on Out 1 (1970) and with Godard on a handful of features in the late 1960s. “While Berto was a fixture of arthouse cinema for two decades, scant information is published in French or English about her offscreen life, and even less about her filmmaking career,” wrote Steve Macfarlane in Cinema Scope last year. Before she died of breast cancer in 1990 at the age of forty-two, Berto made three features, and a new restoration of the first, Neige (1981), codirected with her partner Jean-Henri Roger, opens in France tomorrow.

As Macfarlane points out, all three of Berto’s films take place in “an urban univers marginal, interweaving tales of vagrancy: these are movies about pimps and pushers, transvestites and showgirls, rockers and bikers, and they betray Berto as an actor’s director.” Macfarlane finds it “tempting to posit Neige as a hidden bridge between the Nouvelle Vague and the subsequent generation’s cinéma du look: drunken street poetry shot through pop realism.”

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