Truffaut: A Biography

Truffaut: A Biography

by Antoine De Baecque, Antoine De Baecque

One of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time, Francois Truffaut was and intensely private individual who cultivated the public image of a man completely consumed by his craft. But his personal story - from which he drew extensively to create the characters and plots of his films - is itself an extraordinary human drama. Now, with captivating immediacy, Antoine de…  See more details below


One of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time, Francois Truffaut was and intensely private individual who cultivated the public image of a man completely consumed by his craft. But his personal story - from which he drew extensively to create the characters and plots of his films - is itself an extraordinary human drama. Now, with captivating immediacy, Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana give us the definitive story of this beloved artist.

They begin with the unwanted, mischievous child who learned to love movies and books as an escape from sadness and confusion: as a boy, Francois came to identify with screen characters and to worship actresses. Following his early adult years as a journalist, during which he gained fame as France's most iconoclastic film critic, the obsessive prodigy began to make films of his own, and before he was thirty, notched the two masterpieces The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim As Truffaut's dazzling body of work evolves, in the shadow of the politics of his day, including the student uprisings of 1968, we watch him learning the lessons of his masters Fellini and Hitchcock. And we witness the progress of his often tempestuous personal relationships, including his violent falling-out with Jean-Luc Goaded )who owed Truffaut the idea for Breathless ) and his rapturous love affairs with the many glamorous actresses he directed, among them Jacqueline Bisset and Jeanne Moreau. With Fanny Ardant, Truffaut had a child only thirteen months before dying of a brain tumor at the age of 52.

Here is a life of astonishing emotional range, from the anguish of severe depression to he exaltation of Oscar victory. Based on unprecedented access to Truffaut's papers, including notes toward and unwritten autobiography, de Baecque and Toubiana's richly detailed work is an incomparably authoritative revelation of a singular genius.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
...[T]he a nimble job of excavating the autobiographical sources of [the] director's art....[They provide] a nuanced portrait of the director...that draws heavily upon Truffaut's own correspondence....[They] vigorously sketch in Truffaut's childhood and youth....[plus include a] chronicle of his filmmaking...
The New York Times
David Thomson
...[A] diligent and very useful life of Truffaut....De Baecque and Toubiana have been thorough and fair in assembling the evidence, and it is plain that they esteem Truffaut as a minor master.
New Republic
Annette Insdorf
Riveting and engrossing study of a complex artist.
The Los Angeles Times
At the Berlin Film Festival in 1977, François Truffaut came over to me after an expensive (and compromised) movie of mine had opened the festivities and, smiling, gave me a revealing piece of advice: "You should now make three little pictures very quickly, one after the other.' I asked why and he answered, "Quantity, sometimes, is impressive.'

It certainly was during Truffaut's life and career: In twenty-four years, he directed and co-wrote twenty-one features (plus four short subjects), among them several of the best-loved French films of the modern era, including The 400 Blows (1959), Jules and Jim (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), Day for Night (1973), Small Change (1976) and The Last Metro (1981); he published scores of profoundly influential articles on film—this fine new biography by two authors gives a selected list of over one hundred and twenty, together with another twenty prefaces to various film books—plus two major volumes he authored, one of them his ground-breaking marathon interview with Alfred Hitchcock; he had intense affairs with nearly all of his leading ladies, among them Jeanne Moreau, Françoise Dorleac and her sister Catherine Deneuve, Claude Jare, Marie-France Pisier, Jacqueline Bisset and Fanny Ardant, with whom he had a daughter (his third) just thirteen months before his tragic death from a brain tumor at age fifty-two. During his short life, Truffaut's writings, films and personality changed the way people looked at movies, and thereby radically altered the course of film history.

This new portrait, first published in France in 1996, takes the reader swiftly, engrossinglythrough Truffaut's complicated and turbulent years, ones marked by tremendous success yet troubled all the way—with, it seems, only short passages of real happiness. The greatest highs were watching movies, a lifelong escape, first from a mother and stepfather who did not give him the love he craved, then from adolescent troubles, from reform school, from military duty, from desertion, from all the traumas of existence and history as he lived and observed it between 1932 and 1985. As Truffaut wrote in The Films in My Life (1975), his autobiographical collection of reviews, for himself and his closest pals, "Life was the screen,' and he turned this passion, this obsession, into an enormously fruitful career: first, as the most violently outspoken film critic in France, then as a complex, ambitious and deeply personal movie maker, which eventually made him world famous.

Toubiana and de Baecque portray Truffaut the same way I got to know him in fifteen years of casual acquaintance: as a very enigmatic fellow. I thought perhaps his reticence or shyness with me was because of his poor English and my lousy French. But Orson Welles spoke fluent French, and he also commented on this to me—how difficult it was to have a personal conversation with François. Even among his contemporaries, Truffaut shared with them a kind of distance from each other, shared what the authors call "this devotion to cinema and, oddly enough, an extreme reserve about their private lives . . . a puritanical streak . . . ties of friendship among them, but no familiarity. There existed a barrier, a sense of dignity and moral inflexibility that favored reciprocal respect rather than emotional outpourings.'

However, around women, a different Truffaut emerged. He seemed to blossom. When I saw him with women—particularly if they were flirting with him—the distance he typically kept from people dropped away. Like the title character in one of his last films, Truffaut himself was "the man who loved women.' I saw him that way a couple of times with Cybill Shepherd, with whom I was living in the '70s and who had a way of teasing-flirting that was almost reflexive. François loved it, flushed, became animated, grinning, boyish, talkative. Despite all his affairs, Truffaut kept a close friendship not only with former lovers, but especially with his first wife, Madeleine Morgenstern, the mother of his first two daughters and perhaps the closest woman to him throughout his life. The actress Alexandra Stewart, with whom he had an affair, told the authors: "Women, for him, were always part icon, part women. That's why he loved his actresses: It made his life easier—loving cinema more than anything else, his activity as a director, and the beautiful actresses he cast in his films. Above all, it was a way of perpetuating childhood: woman as mother, woman as doll, woman as fiancée.'

Truffaut was quite conscious of the movies' greatest occupational hazard, as he wrote to a female friend: "When I am working, I become attractive. I feel it and at the same time this work, which is the best in the world, puts me in an emotional state that is propitious for the beginning of a love story. Before me, there is normally a young girl or woman, agitated, fearful and obedient, trusting and ready to surrender herself. What happens next is always the same.'

Had he never made a single picture, his writings and interviews about film would have put Truffaut at the forefront of cinema critics and historians, and his impact in this area transformed movie criticism. "Deliberate love and the desire to follow a body of work in the making—for Truffaut, these are the essential elements of the 'politique des auteurs,'' Toubiana and de Baecque write. "This implies, first of all, closeness and intimacy with the author, all of whose films must be defended, even those that are flawed . . .' Truffaut was vibrantly polemical in his writings on this revolutionary "auteur theory'; he wrote: "I refuse to accept the theory, which is so valued in motion picture criticism, of great directors 'aging,' or becoming 'senile.' Nor do I believe in the genius of the emigrés—Fritz Lang, Buñuel, Hitchcock, or Renoir—drying up.' Only the entire body of a director's work, as the authors explain, "retracing a personal, unique journey, can allow us to understand an auteur.' Truffaut based his "politique' on a statement of French playwright Jean Girardoux's: "There are no works, there are only authors,' arguing that this "consists in denying the axiom dear to our elders, which maintains that films are like mayonnaise, you either succeed in making them or fail.' Taking this radical position, Truffaut bolstered it with a series of (then unheard-of) lengthy and detailed interviews with the directors he most admired, all published in Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine of what became known as the French New Wave.

Arguing also against the prevailing political climate, which ranked quality of film art to the degree of social consciousness it projected, Truffaut pointed to a different criterion entirely, summed up eloquently in an interview of his own in Cahiers: "I'm well aware that in troubled periods, the artist feels himself wavering and is tempted to abandon his art and place himself at the service of a specific, immediate ideal. It's the discrepancy between the frivolousness of his task and the seriousness of history's events that haunts the artist; he wishes he were a philosopher. When these kinds of thoughts come to my mind, I think of Matisse. He lived through three wars and served in none; he was too young in 1870, too old in 1914, a patriarch in 1940. He died in 1954, between the war in Indochina and the Algerian War, and had completed his life's work: fish, women, flowers, landscapes, with sections of windows. The wars were the frivolous events in his life, the thousands of paintings he left were the serious events. Art for art's sake? No. Art for beauty's sake, art for the sake of others. Matisse began by comforting himself, then he comforted others.'

The films of François Truffaut had, and will continue to have, the same effect on countless people around the world. Now this fine work helps us to understand the critic, the auteur, the man. When I heard he had died, I remember being overcome by a profound sense of loss—a moving force had left us, an enthusiastic guide, a challenging artist, a kind yet troubled spirit. A sincere, lovingly researched book, Truffaut brings him back to life and betters our understanding of his powerful writings and his often beautiful films. François had a deep respect for the dead, for those important people in his life who had died. "I'm faithful to the dead,' he wrote once, "I live with them. I'm forty-five and already beginning to be surrounded by dead people.' Two of his dearest influences—Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir, who was like the father he never had—died within a year of each other. Barely five years later when Truffaut passed away, I had no doubt that his spirit was glad to be back with them again, and with several others who had meant so much to him during his brief but potent time on earth. —Peter Bogdanovich
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When Steven Spielberg directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1976, he cast Franois Truffaut, the celebrated 44-year-old innovator of French new wave cinema, as a scientist specializing in UFOs. I needed, Spielberg recalled, a man who would have the soul of a child. In this extensively researched biography, film historians de Baecque and Toubiana dont fully capture the Truffaut whom Spielberg seemed to grasp so intuitively. An autodidact and teenage movie fanatic, Truffaut did a stint at a juvenile prison before being taken under the wing of film critic Andr Bazin, who helped launch his career. An illegitimate child, having never learned to bond, he seems to have also sought compensation in compulsive philandering. Truffaut was notorious for bedding beautiful women, usually actresses in his films, but every relationship (with the exception of that with his divorced wife, Madeleine, who was as loyal as he was faithless) was brief. De Baecque and Toubiana identify this drive, this thirst, this voracious need to seduce only in terms of his imposing his own style. Yet their most poignant pages show Truffaut, having found his real father through a private detective, spying on the old man as he takes his nightly walk. Truffauts courage failed him; rather than introduce himself, he fled to the darkness of a nearby cinema and watched an old Chaplin film. When Truffaut died at 52 in 1984, he was celebrated for what the authors call his hallmark style, defined here as often carefully orchestrated improvisation. Today his reputation is based upon a few significant successesamong them The 400 Blows (1959), Jules and Jim (1962) and The Last Mtro (1980)and many forgettable failures. Some fans may pick up Truffauts biography solely for its survey of his work, but the life that shaped it, though only partially realized here, is moving in its pathos. 68 b&w illustrations. (May)
Library Journal
Who doesn't love Truffaut's films? The director of classics like Jules and Jim was clear-eyed in his probing of human folly but always had a light touch. So do the authors of this biography, an entertaining look at the man and his art that also offers a capsule history of French cinema in the last half of this century. (LJ 5/15/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Based in large part on the authors' access to Truffaut's papers, including his notes for an unfinished autobiography, this is a thorough and largely worshipful account of the celebrated filmmaker's life. It details his artistic triumphs, professional associations (including his apprentice-like relationship to Alfred Hitchcock, and his bitter falling out with Jean-Luc Goddard), and personal relationships, including those with some of the actresses featured in his work. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Caryn James
...[A] tantalizing, maddening biography, a work of reverence pretending to be a revelation....Time and again...Truffaut's voice unexpectedly breaks through....A man whose public image was one of infinite charm, here he emerges as someone who never quite lost the troubled young man who called himself..."a self-hating autodidact"....He deserves a biography that leaves his imprint, with all its intimacy and passion.
The New York Times Book Review
Le Film Francais
The prize for the year's best book about film should incontestably go to this outstanding biography of Truffaut.

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Knopf Publishing Group
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6.72(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.63(d)

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1. A Clandestine Childhood: 1932-1946
At six o'clock in the morning on Saturday, February 6, 1932, Janine de Monferrand gave birth to a son, whom she named François Roland. Not even twenty, she had her baby in secret, at a good distance from her family's apartment on rue Henri Monnier, where she still lived. Her parents, Jean and Geneviève de Monferrand, had known of her pregnancy for only the last three months. Catholic families frowned upon unwed mothers, and this was particularly so among the Monferrands' neighbors and acquaintances in the ninth arrondissement, a quiet, insular, almost provincial neighborhood in the north of Paris. Janine had found sanctuary with a midwife, over half an hour's walk from home, on rue Léon Cogniet, near the Parc Monceau. Two days later, the child's birth was registered at the town hall of the seventeenth arrondissement.

The Secret Child
The infant was immediately placed with a wet nurse -- first in Montmorency, then in Boissy-Saint-Léger -- and would only rarely see his mother before the age of three. But after twenty months in obscurity, he at least gained an adoptive father. On October 24, 1933, two weeks before marrying Janine de Monferrand, Roland Truffaut legally recognized the boy, who had been listed as "born of an unknown father." Yet the young couple's wedding, on November 9, did not put an end to the secrecy regarding the infant's existence. Indeed, while "the great injustice had been redressed by a man with a noble heart" and the couple was now accepted at the family dinner table, young François remained in the care of the wet nurse. In the spring of 1934, Roland and Janine had another son, whom they named René, but the baby died before he was two months old. One wonders how, had this brother lived, the shared childhood might have affected François's creative outlook and his path in life. But François Truffaut remained an only child, and an unwanted one.

Deeply shaken by the death of their little René, the young couple decided to leave the family enclave and move into a modest two-room apartment on rue du Marché-Popincourt, in the Folie-Méricourt neighborhood. It was now, more than ever, out of the question for them to take in François. The child reminded his young mother of a gloomy period in her life: "René's death was a tragedy," recalls Monique, Janine's younger sister. "For, suddenly, what everyone in the family had until then been hiding became obvious: that François existed, that he would be an embarrassment, the victim of a rigid society and an unloved child." With François in distant banishment, they continued to pretend he didn't exist. Between increasingly rarer visits, the boy was wasting away, eating very little, and growing sickly, with a sallow complexion. Sensing he might die, his grandmother, Geneviève de Monferrand, decided to take him in, when François was nearly three years old. Legitimate in the eyes of the law, forgiven in the name of Christian charity, adopted by his grandmother, he found a home in the small Monferrand apartment at 21 rue Henri Monnier. Jean and Geneviève occupied the bedroom; Bernard, their fourteen-year-old son, slept in the vestibule; Monique (their youngest child, aged ten) and François slept in the living room. Geneviève de Monferrand, "Damère Viève," had accepted François into her care, under the strict gaze of her "straitlaced" husband, who would never forget "Janine's follies with workers in the neighborhood or disreputable types, sometimes even with foreigners."

My Grandfather, a Prim Disciplinarian
The Monferrands were a small noble family, originally from Berry. After a strict Jesuit education, Jean de Monferrand followed his parents to Paris in 1902. He met his wife, Geneviève de Saint-Martin, through the personal ads. She was from the Oc region, between Auch and Brugnac in the Lot-et-Garonne, where part of her family -- also from minor nobility -- still lived. After graduating from the lycée in Agen, she went to Paris to complete her literary studies. The young couple married in 1907 and settled in Aubervilliers. Following the births of their first two children, Suzanne and Janine, Jean was drafted into the army. Like all men of his generation, he would remain profoundly shaken by the Great War. The experience tempered his conservative ethos, and introduced a certain humanism into a cultural background marked by nationalism, Catholicism, and legitimism. He and Geneviève had two other children -- Bernard in 1921 and Monique in 1925. Very much satisfied with the rectitude and discipline of their own good upbringing, they raised their four children in a strict but generous way. At the end of his life, François Truffaut tried to describe the ambiance of his early childhood: "There had been titles in the family. My grandfather, a prim disciplinarian who was always impeccably dressed, was frightening to us, particularly at mealtime. He was really a pain in the neck. For example, at the dinner table, my aunt Monique, who was very mischievous, would take a fistful of salt and throw it behind her, just like that, and I would roar with laughter. He would immediately grab me by the collar and say, 'Take your plate to the kitchen!' I would finish almost all my meals in the kitchen. That's what the Monferrand atmosphere was like."

The family had moved into the apartment on rue Henri Monnier after the war. Jean de Monferrand worked very close by, overseeing the letters to the editor at L'Illustration, one of the most important periodicals of the time, which had its offices on rue Saint-Georges. Though the position was a modest one, he was proud of being the editor of a column. Although the Monferrand family always lived quite frugally, the atmosphere at home was a literary and musical one. Geneviève, a former schoolteacher, was a music lover and very well read. An occasional writer, she had penned a novel entitled Apôtres (Apostles), written in a very mannered style and permeated with mystical fervor. Geneviève shared her passion for reading with François, taking him, at the age of five or six, on long walks through the Drouot neighborhood, from bookstore to bookstore, and to the public library in the ninth arrondissement. All four Monferrand children inherited their mother's interest in literature and music, though they took quite different career paths. Bernard, the third-born, chose the military, first attending Navale and then, at the end of the thirties, entering Saint-Cyr military academy. Monique, the youngest child, studied the violin and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire during the Nazi Occupation. Janine, the second child, was more dissolute and fickle; she was impeded in her studies by her love affairs and, above all, by her status as a single mother. Nevertheless, she kept up with the theatrical and literary events of the prewar period. But she had to go to work. In 1934, her father got her a job as a shorthand typist at the weekly magazine L'Illustration, where she earned eleven hundred francs a month.

For the Monferrands, physical exercise, especially mountain climbing, was as important as intellectual activity. The whole family belonged to the Club Alpin Français (French Alpine Club, a prestigious mountaineering society), and in the early thirties, Jean was vice president of the Paris chapter. It was there at the club that Janine, who had a certain standing as the vice president's daughter, met Roland Truffaut, a mountaineering enthusiast. He was not much older than she; of medium height and somewhat scrawny, he often wore a beret and tended to lean his head forward. But he was amusing, attentive, dexterous, and, above all, very well versed in matters concerning snap hooks, ropes, and ice axes.

The different branches of the Truffaut family had lived for several generations west and south of Paris, between the Vexin Normand and the Orge region, with some members moving close to the center of France, to Valigny, in the Allier, where Roland was born in May 1911. These were agricultural areas, populated with prosperous farming families and rural artisans -- a completely different milieu from the Monferrands', which was more closed, more cultured, but less affluent. In the 1920s, Roland's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ferdinand Truffaut, had settled in the Essonne, about sixty miles south of Paris, in Juvisy-sur-Orge, a large market town that was still rural, though the farmland was already giving way to industrial development and a network of roads. The couple lived in a modest but pleasant house, with a courtyard, a garden, and, in the back, a workshop giving out on the countryside. Ferdinand Truffaut was a stonemason, working primarily with marble. He had a good reputation -- for his carving skill as well as for his modest prices, which hadn't gone up, it seemed, since the early twenties. He worked on commission, making bowls, ashtrays, marble legs for stone tables, and especially tombstones for the nearby cemetery. Life in Juvisy was quiet in the beginning of the thirties, at the time when the couple's three children, Roland, Robert, and Mathilde, were finishing their studies.

Roland Truffaut moved to Paris in 1929 to get a diploma in architecture. He found work at eighteen as an architectural draftsman -- in other words, as the most junior member in an architectural firm -- drawing map layouts and blueprints for current projects. He earned just enough money to rent a room in the Lorettes district and pursue his passion for mountaineering. He could even buy the latest equipment and take advantage of the Club Alpin's outings to Savoie, Switzerland, the Vercors, or, better yet, the rocky inlets near Marseilles and the Italian Dolomites. At the end of the thirties, his profession and his passion converged when he found work as the architect and decorator for the French Scouts, les Éclaireurs de France, on rue de la Chaussée d'Antin.

By then, he had met Janine de Monferrand at the Paris headquarters of the Club Alpin, where she was one of the organizers. A small woman, about five foot one, she was lively and dark-haired, slightly plump, and quite seductive. The engagement was short, and the marriage quick. The couple earned a modest living and pursued their Sunday mountaineering activities. On the eve of the war, Roland Truffaut became a member of the Club Alpin's board of directors, and later he was elected vice president of the Paris-Chamonix chapter; he was actively involved with the magazine La Montagne and in managing mountain refuges. Janine de Monferrand did not always follow dutifully in his tracks. Independent and cultivated, she often preferred evenings at the theater or at the Gaumont-Palace movie theater to the Club Alpin's meetings at rue de la Boétie. She read a great deal, especially the trendy writers of the period, such as Maxence Van der Meersch and Charles Morgan, or "modern writers" like André Gide, Jean Giraudoux, and Paul Valéry. She cared about her appearance and spent whatever money she could spirit away from her husband's mountaineering passion on making herself elegant. She also had a few love affairs, and never really bothered to hide the fact, since Roland Truffaut was so wrapped up in his club and his expeditions. There was a "Monsieur Robert," for example -- Robert Vincendon, a quasi-official lover, who joined the family dinner table every Thursday evening and never failed to bring a gift -- a bottle of wine for Roland or a book for his mistress. In the midst of all these activities, they lived like a childless couple; François was merely a shadow.

Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright c 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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