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BY ROBERT HUNT

In François Truffaut's magnificent 1973 homage to the power of filmmaking, La Nuit Americaine (Day for Night), a young actor (played by the director's alter ego/surrogate son, Jean-Pierre Léaud) obsessively confronts everyone he meets with one of two questions: "Are films more important than life?" (The other is "Are women magic?", perhaps equally typical of the obsessive/romantic streak in Truffaut's films.) It's not a question that Truffaut himself would have bothered asking; he spent most of his 52 years acting on the principle that there was no real difference between the two terms. From adolescent enthusiast to impassioned critic to internationally revered director (and occasional actor), Truffaut was the model cinephile, l'homme qui amait les films, transforming not only the way films were made but also how they were admired and understood. For Truffaut, cinema and life went hand-in-hand, and when he sketched out the politique des auteurs, the groundbreaking and still-controversial idea that the best directors could develop a personal style comparable to those of artists who used a pen or a brush, it may have been because he envisioned his own future as a filmmaker working precisely on those terms.

For those whose love of cinema developed in the 1970s and to whom each new Truffaut film was an annual event, as familiar a part of the film calendar as the Cannes festival or the Academy Awards, the director's death in 1984 came as a shock. More perturbing than the loss of a great artist, however, were the dwindling of his reputation and near-disappearance of his work in the era of cable and video, as film history was revised and rewritten by the likes of Miramax and Blockbuster, and "auteur" came to mean any director sufficiently famous to appear on talk shows. After too many years of neglect, a long-overdue Truffaut revival is under way, with complete retrospectives of his work in several cities (not, alas, St. Louis), the appearance of a thoughtful and informative biography (Truffaut, by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, published by Alfred A. Knopf), a superb new recording of Georges Delerue's film music and, most important, the release by Fox/Lorber Home Video of almost half of Truffaut's 25 films on videotape, some for the first time. The first six titles — The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Two English Girls, Love on the Run, The Last Metro and Confidentially Yours — are currently available. Jules and Jim, The Soft Skin, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, The Woman Next Door and the shorts Les Mistons and Antoine and Colette will follow in August.

For those unfamiliar with Truffaut's work, the best place to start is probably The 400 Blows, the 1959 film that launched the New Wave and introduced the character of Antoine Doinel, the young man who began as an exercise in autobiography but gradually developed a personality of his own in four later films. Inspired by the director's own troubled adolescence, the story of a young boy who battles parents, teachers and society in general now seems less like the rebellious exercise in style that confounded the French critical establishment and more like a humanistic classic in the tradition of Renoir and The Bicycle Thief. Truffaut's bitterness over his own experience (an unwanted child, he was raised by an indifferent mother and a man whom he eventually realized was not his real father; after a string of petty crimes and brushes with authority, he was sent to reform school) made him a lifelong champion of children's rights and created an instant sympathy with his young amateur performers. Most remarkable of all was his instant rapport with the 14-year-old Léaud, a young man who shared some of his director's youthful insubordination and whose life and career would become inextricably linked with Truffaut's. Léaud would literally grow up onscreen under Truffaut's tutelage, becoming an icon of the New Wave and reprising the character of Doinel through a series of four additional bittersweet romances. (Though the last of these, Love on the Run, is already available, it's probably best to watch it in its proper place after the August release of Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board.)

If conventional wisdom held (with some exaggeration) that the Doinel films were Truffaut's own story, the de Baecque/Toubiana biography offers substantial evidence that nearly all of Truffaut's films were drawn from his own experiences, even those drawn from — and faithful to — literary sources.

Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut's second feature, is a comic retelling of an American crime novel, shot in a playful style that would become a model for filmmakers ranging from Jean-Luc Godard (whose first film, Breathless, was based on a story by Truffaut) to Tarantino, but between the noir allusions, it's also a reflection of the director's love for genre movies and a commentary on the overnight success of The 400 Blows. The piano player of the title, Charlie Kohler/Edouard Saroyan (played with deadpan charm by Charles Aznavour) reacts to the gangster plot unfolding around him not with the boyish enthusiasm of a Belmondo but with a weary fatalism. If life is inevitably a tragedy, he's determined to avoid a leading role, staying on the sidelines providing its musical accompaniment.

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