Director François Truffaut overcame a harsh early life to put romance onscreen

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In a 1970 article, François Truffaut, the critic/filmmaker/cinephile whose lifelong passion for movies inaugurated a new way of looking at the medium and placed him at the center of a revolution in cinematic style, proudly described himself as "the happiest man on Earth." Though biographers, posthumously published letters and even the director's own films reveal a darker picture of a man who survived childhood neglect, incarceration and suicide attempts, the satisfied self-image still seems an appropriate one. For nearly a quarter-century and through 21 features, from the triumphant debut of The 400 Blows in 1959 until his death in 1984, Truffaut was a sympathetic viewer of the highs and lows of life, the humanist soul of the New Wave's heady mix of invention and rebellion.

Inspired in equal measures by the gentle realism of Jean Renoir and the fatalistic psychology of Alfred Hitchcock, Truffaut turned his many enthusiasms -- for love, for literature and, above all, for the movies -- into a passionate, personal cinema where romance and ideas intermingled. If Truffaut wasn't the happiest man on Earth, he was almost certainly one of his art's most generous.

Could the movie-mad Truffaut, who played hooky from school as a boy to catch the opening of the latest work of a favorite director and was even imprisoned as a teenager after committing petty thefts to support his film club, have foreseen the gradual decay of film culture in the age of video, when masterpieces and reputations -- his own included -- would be swept aside to satisfy the whims of shopkeepers? In a climate that respects only the weekend gross and the "guaranteed" new release, many of Truffaut's films, even some of the best, became hard to find in the years after his death, a situation only recently corrected by last year's release on video of approximately half of the director's ouvres complet. But even though video offers convenience, contemporary cinephiles can sample Truffaut's work in a better light when Webster University offers François Truffaut: A Celebration, a retrospective of 10 features and two shorts over the next seven weeks. Though there are gaps in the filmography, the series comes close to presenting Truffaut's very best work, from the playful discoveries of the first features to the inventive autobiographical strategies of the Antoine Doinel series to the frantic melodrama of Two English Girls, The Soft Skin and The Woman Next Door.

For newcomers to Truffaut's work, what better place to start than with his first three features, a trio that changed the course of film history and influenced generations of filmmakers, from Richard Lester and Arthur Penn to Quentin Tarantino? Given that Truffaut was a film critic who had made his reputation savaging the respectable French films of the '50s, his first feature, The 400 Blows, confounded his enemies and launched a revolution in European cinema.

The story of indomitable adolescent Antoine Doinel (played in this and four subsequent films by Jean-Pierre Léaud) was Truffaut's own, an account of a defiant, troubled youth looking for freedom in a hostile adult world, enhanced by the director's unique sympathy for children (explored at length in The Wild Child and Small Change), and his singular bond with Léaud (he would even become the young actor's guardian). For his second film, Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut mined Hollywood gangster conventions to produce a playfully jumbled comic-noir, postmodern before its time, with a delightfully deadpan performance by Charles Aznavour as an existentialist barroom entertainer hunted by gangsters. The reservoir dogs of '90s neo-noir have yet to catch up. With his third film, Jules and Jim, Truffaut opened yet another avenue, turning an obscure novel of a World War I-era relationship between two men and a woman into a stylish expression of uninhibited romance. With these three films, many of the great themes of Truffaut's career -- doomed love, the ability to turn autobiography into art and the search for new meanings within the conventions of cinematic language -- make their first appearances. For the next 20 years, he would continue to refine and redefine them.

Given the personal nature of The 400 Blows and the director's semiparental relationship to Léaud, it was perhaps inevitable that the film's freeze-frame ending wouldn't be the last word on Antoine Doinel. In an unprecedented collaboration between director and actor, Léaud -- and Doinel -- grew up onscreen in subsequent films that take the character from juvenile romance (the short "Antoine and Colette") to mature love (Stolen Kisses) and marriage (Bed and Board). Doinel and Léaud were such New Wave icons that the actor's work for other directors (most notably in Godard's Masculine Feminine, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Eustache's The Mother and the Whore) can almost be considered appendixes to Truffaut's series. By the time of Stolen Kisses, however, the character had created a life of his own, no longer a surrogate for the director. By the time of 1979's underrated Love on the Run, Truffaut was able to present the character at loose ends and facing middle age, the victim of his own misguided romanticism.

Finally, no introduction to Truffaut's work can be complete without a look at two isolated masterpieces, films that stand alone even as they complement his other films. The Last Metro (1980), the director's biggest commercial success, is a sedate but surprisingly moving historical drama set during the Occupation, with Catherine Deneuve fighting to keep her Jewish husband's theater company alive (her husband is guiding things from a basement hiding place) while balancing pressures from fascist critics and carrying on an affair with actor Gerard Depardieu. Combining historical anecdotes with the ambiance of the theater, it's an understated work but a powerful commentary on art, politics and the pressures of history. Even more disturbing, and in some ways the darkest film Truffaut ever made, is the 1971 drama Two English Girls, a morbidly physical variation on Jules and Jim. In what could almost be read as a sad commentary on both Jules and Jim and the Doinel series, Truffaut presents Léaud (in his best performance) as an artist who loves two sisters but loses them both. Wallowing in blood and tears, it's Truffaut's most graphic film as well, a despairing account of love gone bad and of romantic promise wasted. The final scene, with Léaud gazing into a mirror and suddenly lamenting his lost youth, ranks among the most touching things that actor or director ever put on film. In 1984, shortly after completing the comedy-mystery Confidentially Yours, Truffaut returned to this film, adding scenes that had been cut from the 1971 release. In at least one sense, then, this profoundly sad film is Truffaut's final creative work, the testament to a life of reflection, romance and artistry.

Absent from local screens for far too long, the timeless vigor of the young Antoine, the restless romance of Jules and Jim and Catherine, and the fatalistic charm of piano player Charlie need to be seen again by an older audience or discovered anew by a younger one.

François Truffaut: A Celebration runs Feb. 2-March 16 at Webster U. The opening week features The 400 Blows on Feb. 3, Shoot the Piano Player and "Les Mistons" on Feb. 4, Jules and Jim on Feb. 5 and The Soft Skin on Feb. 6. The series continues with Stolen Kisses and "Antoine and Colette" on Feb. 10, Bed and Board on Feb. 17, Two English Girls on Feb. 24, Love on the Run on March 2, The Last Metro on March 9 and The Woman Next Door on March 16. All films screen at 7 p.m. at Webster U.'s Winifred Moore Auditorium.

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