François Truffaut: The Lost Secret

François Truffaut: The Lost Secret


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For François Truffaut, the lost secret of cinematic art is in the ability to generate emotion and reveal repressed fantasies through cinematic representation. Available in English for the first time, Anne Gillain's François Truffaut: The Lost Secret is considered by many to be the best book on the interpretation of Truffaut's films. Taking a psycho-biographical approach, Gillain shows how Truffaut's creative impulse was anchored in his personal experience of a traumatic childhood that left him lonely and emotionally deprived. In a series of brilliant, nuanced readings of each of his films, she demonstrates how involuntary memories arising from Truffaut's childhood not only furnish a succession of motifs that are repeated from film to film, but also govern every aspect of his mise en scène and cinematic technique.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253008398
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/07/2013
Pages: 374
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Anne Gillain is Professor Emerita at Wellesley College and is known for her work in French cinema, particularly the films of François Truffaut. She is author of Le Cinéma selon François Truffaut and The 400 Blows.

Alistair Fox is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Research on National Identity at the University of Otago. He is author of Jane Campion: Authorship and Personal Cinema (IUP, 2011).

Read an Excerpt

François Truffaut

The Lost Secret

By Anne Gillain, Alistair Fox

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1991 Alistair Fox
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00839-8


Family Secrets

The 400 Blows (1959)

The Woman Next Door (1981)

TRUFFAUT'S FILMS ARE PARTICULARLY SUSCEPTIBLE TO PSYCHO-analytical interpretation. It would be a mistake to view this as merely accidental. Emanating from the unconscious experience of the filmmaker, they manifest, as naturally as a patient on an analyst's couch, the grand Freudian scenarios – in particular, the fundamental Oedipal one.

One can compare this scenario to a play in three acts. The first begins with the birth of the infant who enjoys, for a certain length of time, a state of symbiotic fusion with the mother. During this stage, if it is experienced harmoniously, all of the child's desires are gratified. For the infant, who as yet has no awareness of having a separate identity, the mother represents the only reality and meets all of his or her needs. The second act marks the intervention of the father into this Eden-like tableau, and the child's movement out of a dyadic relationship into a triadic one. By demanding a separation of mother and child, the father imposes a limitation on the desires of the latter. At this stage, the infant displays feelings of hostility and jealousy toward the father and feelings of love for the mother, who has now assumed an autonomous reality. If they were to be pushed to the limit, the logic of these drives would require, as in the myth, that the child kill his father and marry his mother. The resolution of the Oedipus complex occurs in the third act, when the child, acknowledging the law of the father, identifies himself with it and thus becomes integrated into the world of culture that regulates social behavior. Renouncing the possibility of a limitless desire, he accepts that words replace things – the learning of language – and that woman replaces the mother – the institution of marriage, which sanctions the integration of desire within the law. The fundamental role that this scenario plays in shaping personality, together with the dynamic of desire, constitutes a psychic reality that is never brought to a definitive conclusion.

With François Truffaut, as this examination of The 400 Blows will demonstrate, this schema quickly becomes arrested, never passing beyond the first two stages. It is the first stage that one finds endlessly represented, but in disastrous forms, which explains why the writings of D. W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who devoted his research to the study of young children, are best able to shed light on the troubled relationship to the mother that one finds in Truffaut and the dire consequences for the emotional well-being of his heroes that result from its failure.

The Freudian model has been refined and extended by the findings of anthropology, which have challenged its assumption of universality by demonstrating that the father does not always play the role described by Freud in all societies. Lévi-Strauss has shown in Elementary Structures of Kinship that if there is one phenomenon that is universal, it is the prohibition against incest – that is, an interdiction against allowing a marital alliance to coincide with a parental one. Human society is founded upon this interdiction; because it creates different types of relationships between individuals, it imposes a differentiation between a natural state and a cultural state. The Oedipal myth is thus always played out in the space between nature and culture.

THE 400 BLOWS (1959)

Visually, The 400 Blows is organized according to a neat binary opposition that operates throughout the film: in the interior scenes, the story is shot in fixed close-ups, while in exterior scenes, tracking, traveling, and long shots dominate. This alternation invests the film with a powerful rhythm between tension and relaxation. Whereas in the interior scenes Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prisoner, when he is outside, he becomes a child who is free to roam and play. Accompanied by René (Patrick Auffay), he escapes from solitude, and when he is alone, he experiences magical encounters: with Jeanne Moreau, the sea. The uninterrupted series of disasters that oppress him in the house, at school, and in the penitentiary are suddenly arrested and suspended. Two types of temporality correspond to these two spaces. In the interior, a leaden, oppressive time holds sway, a linear, irreversible time in which consequences ensue from actions with an implacable rigor. Outside, the world is governed by cyclical time, marked by a return of the same things and a playful weightlessness. Inside, Madame Doinel (Claire Maurier) screams, threatens, punishes; outside, she remains silent, and is scared when her son surprises her in the arms of her lover.

One of the most striking examples of this system of contrasts occurs between the time Antoine discovers this infidelity and the first time he runs away, on the following morning. After he has been brought back to the house and given a bath, Madame Doinel tries to regain his affection – in an attempt to ensure his silence – by reminiscing about her own childhood. She also proposes to make him a deal: she will give him some money if he does his schoolwork dutifully. This tense exchange between mother and son is filmed in a series of shots/reverse shots in close-up that capture the sullen reserve of the two interlocutors. The shot that follows abruptly presents an outdoor scene in which a gym teacher is leading a group of children in the streets. In the course of this exercise, they all disperse, several at a time, giving their instructor the slip. At first presented from a normal angle, with the camera at eye level, this scene is suddenly filmed in a high-angle shot, from the rooftops. This unusual visual effect reinforces the contrast with the preceding segment and invests the episode with a mythical quality. Paying tribute to a similar scene from Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite, the scene depicts the irrepressible energy of childhood, serving as an allegory of its dispersion through the pathways of life. The credit sequence of Small Change offers a similar vision, with hordes of children flowing endlessly down the sloping alleys of Thiers.

There seems to be a sharp division in the narrative between Antoine's conversation with his mother and this outdoor scene. But by proposing such a bargain, it was as if Madame Doinel were saying to her son: "We can both have little secrets, so long as you don't say anything to your father." The gym instructor who is so blithely ridiculed evokes this derided paternal authority. As Georges Franju aptly notes about Antoine's father: "Here is a man who is a cuckold, and who does not notice it. Only one thing matters to him: someone has taken his Michelin guide." Significantly, this is the only emphatic, clear demand he makes in the entire film. Antoine thus carries the weight of responsibility for the secret of his mother's adultery without any support. This perturbing experience is compounded by another one – the revelation of Antoine's illegitimate birth. At first, Truffaut had thought of replacing this discovery of the child's illegitimacy with that of his mother's infidelity: "To get the action underway more powerfully, I considered giving up the revelation of illegitimacy in order to replace it with another: in the course of playing truant, Antoine would meet his mother with a young guy, her lover." In any case, this confirms that from the outset Truffaut's intention in the script was to bind mother and son in the sharing of a secret from which the father is excluded.

Representations of space and the maternal figure are closely linked in the logic of the imaginary that shapes The 400 Blows. Winnicott's writings on the behaviors associated with delinquency, and, in particular, his theory of transitional space shed a remarkable light on this association. Transitional space is a potential space situated between the internal world and the external world, the constitution of which determines our future relationship with the real. In the first months of life, the nursling is incapable of distinguishing between the subjective and the objective. In creating a world that conforms to his desires, the mother gives him the confidence that is necessary for him to come to terms with external reality. For the experience to be a good one, this first discovery must occur as the result of an illusion – which involves, when the process is normal and healthy, the subject finding an expression of his own subjectivity in that which he perceives objectively: "This early stage of development is made possible by the mother's special capacity for making adaptation to the needs of her infant, thus allowing the infant the illusion that what the infant creates really exists."

The first product of this creative capacity is what Winnicott calls the transitional object, a toy, or a favorite object, that comes to be identified with all the positive elements that can be brought together in transitional space. As a result, the infant is able to bear the absence of the mother, and hence to be separated from her – that is, to cross the inevitable watershed necessitated by disillusionment. The transitional object marks the "transition" of the child from a state of union with the mother to a state of relation with her as a separate being. The paradox of this object is that before it can be created, it needs to be found in the external world. It is a phenomenon that is simultaneously objective and subjective, in order to fill in the gap between the inner world and the outer world. Later, transitional space will become the area in which play and creativity take place, with the transitional object becoming replaced by cultural experience. If a child is deprived of maternal care for too long during these first years of life, he or she will lose the ability to tolerate contact with external reality and will experience what Winnicott calls an "unthinkable anxiety." Confidence is replaced by fear, and the transitional space becomes filled with persecuting objects. It transforms itself into an imprisoning space. Delinquency is one of the least catastrophic consequences of an experience of this sort, which, in the most severe cases, can lead to outright withdrawal from the world, and autism, as in shown in The Wild Child. Most of Truffaut's films are organized around a problematic that closely resembles the processes described by Winnicott. The personal itinerary of Truffaut's antisocial heroes consists of an attempt to recover this space of communication, of creativity, and of shared experience that constitutes the transitional zone. The 400 Blows addresses these issues with a particular clarity.

By setting the first scene in a school classroom, Truffaut immediately foregrounds the failure of an institution that is meant to help a child adapt to social reality. He also highlights the initiative and creative ability of Antoine, whose behavior distinguishes him from the other children. The ill-fated photo of the pin-up girl circulates quietly around the class until it lands on his desk. With a vengeful stroke of his pen, Antoine adds a moustache to her face. For him, being able to accomplish this aggressive act directed against the feminine is worth being stood in the corner – the first representation of an imprisoning space that progressively narrows in around him. Far from remaining passive in it, he immediately composes a poem, the autobiographical freshness of which contrasts sharply with the gloomy caricature of literature embodied in "Le Lièvre," a poem that the teacher copies onto the blackboard.

In the decline and fall of Antoine Doinel, writing plays the part of original sin: as soon as Antoine picks up a pen, disasters descend upon him. In this context, his foolish decision to steal a typewriter is quite logical, if one recalls how important language was in Truffaut's view of things. In the sphere of transitional activities, writing is one of the most effective ways of affirming one's identity and of gaining mastery over the external world, in which, to use Lacanian terminology, language represents the passage from the imaginary to the symbolic, from the past to the present, and from a dyadic relationship dominated by the mother to a reality in which the mediation of the father has intervened.

As Antoine is writing his poem on the wall, two shots are inserted that show the other children playing in the playground. This filmic construction, in which writing and playing alternate, suggests the existence of a similarity between the two activities. Like writing, playing brings the internal world into relation with external reality. In play, the child projects his dreams and fantasies onto the world, and "there is a direct development between transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences." In The 400 Blows, even though writing always ends in failure, play is repeatedly used to represent the energy and indomitable health of childhood. The playful approach to reality adopted by Antoine and René is manifest in play of many different sorts – pinball machines, backgammon games, riding in a rotor, a puppet show. But truancy, the very notion of which inscribes play within the context of delinquency, marks a limit to what is permissible during these schoolboy years.

The incarceration of Antoine signals his crossing of this boundary. Nevertheless, the redemptive nature of play is apparent even beyond this point of rupture. When, following his arrest, Antoine spends the night at a police station, long tracking shots – not usually found in an interior scene – reinforce the representation of the nighttime activities that take place in this confining space. Two panoramic shots, the first of which is filmed from Antoine's point of view, show the police officers absorbed in a game of petits chevaux. This sequence, possibly the episode that shows the social exclusion of Antoine at its most painful, is alleviated by the presence of this transitional activity. With play, hope seems to be reborn.

The vitality that Antoine displays in adversity is demonstrated in a third activity – theft. It is first mentioned when the children come out of school, at the moment when René asks a distressed Moricet where he has stolen the money from to buy the goggles that he is sporting so proudly. Theft, in The 400 Blows as in all of Truffaut's films, becomes an obsession. Antoine and René devote most of their energy to it, pilfering pens, an alarm clock, photos of actresses, and, indeed, the inevitable Michelin guide. Their respective mothers also show themselves to be experts at it. An anonymous child at school and the receiver of stolen goods, loaded with the typewriter, will be caught in the act.

In numerous writings on delinquency and its associated behaviors, Winnicott defined theft as an act of hope on the part of a child who feels deprived of love and the care to which he is fully entitled:

The thief is not looking for the object that he takes. He is looking for a person. He is looking for his own mother, only he does not know this. A child who is ill in this way is incapable of enjoying the possession of things stolen. He is only acting out a fantasy which belongs to his primitive love impulses ... The fact is that he has lost touch with his mother in some sense or other.

In this sense, theft and delinquency constitute behaviors that are positive and therapeutic. Instead of renouncing the tie with the mother, the child demands compensation: he attempts, by stealing, to avoid a retreat from the real and to rediscover a transitional space. In the film, a superb elliptical scene illustrates this phenomenon. In a way that is fairly surprising, Antoine and René make the decision to steal a typewriter while they are watching a puppet show in the Luxembourg Gardens. Their conversation is framed by shots in which one sees much younger children engrossed in the performance. This strange juxtaposition suggests the symbolic relationship that unites these two activities. Thieving represents a determination to recover in a violent and destruction way the passionate communion with the real that transitional experiences generate. But the regressive nature of theft is clearly indicated by the difference in age between the two adolescents and the young spectators who are surrounding them. At a time when school studies and the first manifestations of creativity should be absorbing their energies, Antoine and René are reduced to expressing them in a theft that reflects a regression to the condition in which the young children are listening, with gaping mouths, to the story of Red Riding Hood.


Excerpted from François Truffaut by Anne Gillain, Alistair Fox. Copyright © 1991 Alistair Fox. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface to the English Edition of François Truffaut: The Lost Secret. Anne Gillain
Emotion and the Authorial Fantasmatic: An Introduction to Anne Gillain's François Truffaut: The Lost Secret. Alistair Fox
Preface to the Original French Edition. One Secret Can Hide Another. Jean Gruault
Introduction: The Secret of the Art
1. Family Secrets: The 400 Blows (1959), The Woman Next Door (1981)
2. Deceptions: Shoot the Piano Player (1960), The Soft Skin (1964)
3. Queen-Women: Jules and Jim (1962), The Last Metro (1980)
4. Sentimental Educations: Stolen Kisses (1968), Two English Girls (1971)
5. Criminal Women: The Bride Wore Black (1967), A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972)
6. In Search of the Father: Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Day for Night (1973)
7. Marriages: Mississippi Mermaid (1969), Bed and Board (1970)
8. Words and Things: The Wild Child (1970), The Story of Adèle H. (1975)
9. The Child King: Small Change (1976), Love on the Run (1979)
10. Fetishism and Mourning: The Man Who Loved Women (1977), The Green Room (1978)
11. The Role of Play: Confidentially Yours (1983)
Conclusion: The Art of the Secret

What People are Saying About This

"Long a major work within French film and the cinema of François Truffaut, Anne Gillain's volume provides an important perspective on Truffaut and his films that is still quite relevant for historians and theorists today. Most importantly, Alistair Fox's meticulous and lively translation is nothing short of amazing. Everyone working seriously on Truffaut and his legacy must refer to and engage with Gillain's arguments, so it is wonderful finally to see her book available in English, and especially in such a fine a translation."

Richard Neupert

Long a major work within French film and the cinema of François Truffaut, Anne Gillain's volume provides an important perspective on Truffaut and his films that is still quite relevant for historians and theorists today. Most importantly, Alistair Fox's meticulous and lively translation is nothing short of amazing. Everyone working seriously on Truffaut and his legacy must refer to and engage with Gillain's arguments, so it is wonderful finally to see her book available in English, and especially in such a fine a translation.

R. Seldon Rose Professor of Film and Comparative Literature, Yale University - Dudley Andrew

You'll find no better critical study of Truffaut than this one by Anne Gillain. Her chapters ingeniously pair films to expose the secret that informs them all. We peer through these chapters as through a series of stereoscopic slides and find 'la Planète Truffaut' lying before us in vivid 3-D.

Richard Neupert]]>

Long a major work within French film and the cinema of François Truffaut, Anne Gillain's volume provides an important perspective on Truffaut and his films that is still quite relevant for historians and theorists today. Most importantly, Alistair Fox's meticulous and lively translation is nothing short of amazing. Everyone working seriously on Truffaut and his legacy must refer to and engage with Gillain's arguments, so it is wonderful finally to see her book available in English, and especially in such a fine a translation.

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