ISSN 1466-4615

Vol. 4 No. 2, January 2000


 Fredrik von Zweigbergk

Fifteen Years Gone By





Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram

_Francois Truffaut_

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998

ISBN 0-7190-4553-3 hbk; 0-7190-4554-1 pbk

225 pp.


Francois Truffaut was born in 1932. He was an unwanted child and did not meet his biological father until 1968, a meeting that revealed to him that his father was Jewish and thus confirmed Francois's belief that he had indeed always been an outsider. His upbringing was characterised by a lack of maternal love and paternal guidance, lacks that resulted in Francois having problems settling into society. He failed in school and took to petty crime before he found his lifeline -- cinema.


These biographical facts help to explain several of the themes visible in Truffaut's films: the tensions between the individual and the society; the construction of identity and how parental factors influence this process; the importance of art for life; and, most notably, the search for love. Hence, Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram, very wisely, start off this work with two biographical chapters in order to lay the foundation on which they will later build their discussions of the Truffauldian themes of 'sexual politics' (chapter 5), 'masculinity and authorship' (chapter 6) and 'the absolute v. the provisional' (chapter 7). Before these chapters Holmes and Ingram present a detailed study of _Jules et Jim_ (chapter 3), where Truffaut's method and style are exposed, and an intriguing chapter on Truffaut's exploitation of genre (chapter 4) that highlights how the apparent contradiction between Truffaut's interest in genre and his role as an auteur is resolved in his films. However well written and interesting these sections may be it is the last three chapters that provide us with useful insights into the psychological and philosophical issues raised by Truffaut's films. Accordingly, our attention will be turned towards these chapters.


Truffaut's films have frequently been accused of being misogynist, of idealising as well as demonising women and thus objectifying women rather than treating them as human subjects. Other critics are less harsh and see in Truffaut a skilful explorer of human relationships, with the magnifying glass on both sides. In chapter five, Holmes and Ingram present their opinion on this debated issue, by first exploring the reasons why Truffaut's films may be open for the critique and then looking at the defence.


It is argued that as spectators we are generally invited to share a male-subjective viewpoint in Truffaut's films. Holmes and Ingram use _Les 400 Coups_ as an example of a film that is enacted in an almost entirely male surrounding, with women appearing in highly sexualised roles, and the only major female character in the film, Antoine's mother, is seen as narcissistic and entirely indifferent towards her son. Even if Antoine despises his mother, he still has a strong desire for her love, and his lack of maternal love is represented throughout the film, culminating in the famous freeze-frame that marks the end of the film. Holmes and Ingram offer an intelligent reading of this scene, by claiming that Antoine is driven, in his escape from the essentially male society, towards the sea (la mer in French) due to his longing for his mother (la mere in French). But this longing leads him into a cul-de-sac and he turns away from the sea, looks into the camera, and one of the most well known scenes in the history of cinema is completed. Antoine's longing for his mother resembles the longing of many of Truffaut's characters for women, most extremely exemplified by Bertrand in _L'Homme qui aimait les femmes_. As Holmes and Ingram write: 'The structure of male subjective viewpoint and women characters seen externally, through the lens of male desire, is one that recurs in Truffaut's work' (118). Thus, we are invited to share the emotions of male characters while seeing the female ones as the 'others'.


However, Truffaut's male characters are far away from the typical male figure as presented, for instance, in many American films. Rather, they are shy, uncertain, and immature. Many of Truffaut's men can, as Holmes and Ingram argue, be seen as cases of failed Oedipal development -- in Antoine's and Bertrand's cases an explicit link is drawn between the men's unsatisfactory relationships with their mothers and their future obsessive search for love. Thus, in these films the mother is seen as the reason for their son's failure in the adult world. Another reason why Truffaut's films might be seen as misogynist is that many women in his films are murderers. Accordingly, the picture of the castrating mother is complemented by a series of female killings of men, most notably Julie, who murders five men in revenge for her dead husband in _La Mariee etait en noir_.


Hence, the critique of Truffaut's films as being sexistic seems well-founded, but Holmes and Ingram go on to present a number of arguments in order to undermine this critique. They argue that Truffaut was very conscious of the sexual politics in his films, and that he invites the spectator 'to see the gender relations on screen not as natural but as problematic and open to question' (125). He does so by characterising the attitudes of some of his male figures towards women by throwing a critical light on their assumptions and showing their actions in an ironic manner. An example of this is seen when Bertrand lies in hospital (as a result of being run over by a car when pursuing a woman), he notices the legs of the nurse, and when trying to touch these he causes his own death by falling out of bed. By such examples, Holmes and Ingram want to stress that Truffaut is well aware of the conservative and narrow-minded behaviour of some of his characters, and by showing their actions in an ironic way he invites his audience to note this as well.


Furthermore, Holmes and Ingram argue that female subjectivity does have a place in Truffaut's films, that several of the women refuse to admit the role of merely a desirable object that their surrounding men want to assign to them, and that several films tell the story from a woman's perspective or at least a shared one. None of the last three films Truffaut made are told entirely from a male perspective, indicating that 'there is a degree of development in the representation of women in Truffaut's films' (137).


Thus, both sides of the discussion have been presented, and Holmes and Ingram conclude that indeed there are misogynist traits in Truffaut films, but that he was aware of these and tried, by the help of stylistic and narrative techniques, to make his audience note the dubious behaviour of some of his protagonists. One might like to add the fact that Truffaut was simply a man who liked autobiographical stories -- 'I like stories based on lived experience, Memories, reminiscences, people telling their life stories' (59) -- making it natural that he tended to tell his stories from a male perspective.


In the next chapter the remaining part of the Oedipal triangle is brought into consideration, i.e. the father's. Truffaut's films deal with the role of the father both literally as the male parent and in the wider sense as the figure introducing the child to the established social world, a figure whose authority the child may contest in order to form its individuality. Holmes and Ingram explore paternity in Truffaut's films first from the function of the father, as an assistant in the child's separation from the mother, and then from the function of language, which represents the entrance to society and is thus an assistance of the father. The former issue is dealt with from a Freudian perspective, while the latter is based on Lacanian structuralism.


Holmes and Ingram start off exploring paternity in the Doinel films, and find that: 'The dilemma in the Doinel films is that absent or weak fathers leave the son unable to invent for himself a viable role as a man (hence Antoine's liking for surrogate fathers) but that a powerfully authoritative paternal presence (school, police, army) represent the very opposite of all that Antoine (and the film) values: rigidity versus mobility, conformism versus mild delinquency, order versus creative disorder' (149). We will later see that Truffaut favours the provisional before the absolute. What is important to note here is how the absence of a strong father figure influences Antoine's life, and is thus a lack that is as crucial for Antoine's formation of his life as is the neglection by his mother.


The difficulty in forming an adult identity due to the lack of paternal guidance is also seen in _Les Deux Anglaises et le continent_, where the relationship between Claude and Muriel, both raised by widowed mothers, proves throughout fully unsuccessful. On the other hand, the presence of the father may also be too immensely felt, thus hindering the development of the child. The oppressive character of paternity is shown in _L'Historie d' Adele H._, based on the diaries of Adele Hugo, which depicts a daughter's fruitless attempts to gain acceptance on her own terms instead of merely being the daughter of a famous father.


As well as there being an ambiguous element involved in Truffaut's portrayal of women, neither do his films represent fatherhood from an entirely negative viewpoint. There are indeed 'good fathers' to be seen in Truffaut's films, most notably in _L'Argent de poche_, which is filled with 'good fathers'. This ambiguity towards paternity is drawn to its limit in _L'Enfant sauvage_, where both aspects of paternity is shown. The film delineates the true story of an abandoned child that is found in the wilderness and adopted by Dr Itard, who names the child Victor and tries to prepare him for civilised life. Above all, Dr Itard painstakingly teaches Victor how to communicate through language. It is suitable that the motherless child is a boy, since in Freudian theory the boy child's repressed desire for his mother is compensated by the identification with his father. According to Lacan, this process coincides with the entry into language, which is a presupposition for being accepted in the social world. For Lacan, it is the fact that each one of us is born into a structured society that hinders the individual to develop through a series of absolutely free decisions, and thus subjectivity is determined by structures such as language, family relations, cultural conventions and other social forces. Accordingly, free will is hindered by the conventions that every one has to take part of in order to live socially. This Lacanian idea captures the feeling of a manifold of Truffaut's characters; the will to create an individual identity is hampered, or balanced, by the urge to belong, to be loved.


Language is an assistant to our intellect, it helps our mind to form clear ideas of living phenomena and thus facilitates our action upon these, but this objectification of the living hinders us to grasp each phenomena in its uniqueness, since language generalises feelings as well as objects. This double side of language, at once both rewarding and repressing, is seen in the development of Victor -- due to him being able to take part in social activities, he is able to experience the joys of love and friendship at the same time that he gradually loses his capability of living in the natural world.


Thus, Holmes and Ingram have shifted their focus, from the role of the father, to the role of language. The repressive nature of language is seen in _Une Belle fille comme moi_, where the instinctive Camille, with her spontaneous use of language, is set in contrast with the sociologist, Stanilas, who wants to map Camille's actions by help of a rational use of language. Camille could be seen as a sister to Victor, since 'she stands for total and instinctive self-gratification as opposed to repression and morality, and that her story is interpreted and recorded by a representative of the dominant, civilised order' (163).


Hence, language could very well be seen as repressive, in the sense that it hampers individuality, but Truffaut also often stresses the self-affirmative aspect of language -- for example, many of his characters reach self-fulfilment only when writing, either in letters or in moving pictures. Thus, 'Truffaut's films do not equate written language solely with the repressive power of the Father' (164). On the contrary, books and films are often seen as fostering creativity and happiness, and the celebration of writing is a steadily returning theme in Truffaut's films. However, for Truffaut, written language remains tainted with its uniforming and paternal aspect. This objection is never levelled against the magical power of cinema, which is continuously seen as inspirational and promising. Truffaut's favouring of cinema over the written language is reflected in the tension between absolute and provisional values that, according to Holmes and Ingram, is evident in Truffaut's cinema, and which they consider in the last chapter of their book.


'Truffaut's cinema plays on the tension between (these) two irreconcilable ways of being, sometimes expressing a yearning for the definitive, the permanent, the absolute, but articulating with some consistency a preference both aesthetic and moral for all that is impermanent, mobile, adaptable and provisional' (176). For Holmes and Ingram, this tension is seen in Truffaut's films, and thus represents his 'system of values'. Accordingly, this tension is utilised in order to illuminate Truffaut's aesthetical and ethical preferences. We will start with continuing Holmes and Ingram's discussion of Truffaut's preference of cinema over the written language before we deal with the dualism of the absolute and the provisional in relation to love.


'For Truffaut the cinema is never allied with the State or with any other form of authority, but is always a place of escape and pleasure, so that the film retains the imaginative power of written fiction without overtones of paternal power' (170). On the contrary, 'Truffaut's films display unalloyed delight in the medium's capacity to shape the real into the form of stories whilst remaining true to the random and always incomplete nature of experience' (177). This distinction of film from writing is rather peculiar, for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to contradict the notion of Truffaut as an auteur, who writes with his pictures as the novelist with his pen. Secondly, it does not seem to make that much sense. When we describe a feeling of ours we are bound to utilise a generally accepted term, and thus replace the nuanced feeling with a conventional term, i.e. fixing the unique in a definitive form. The same procedure is naturally built into the method of the novelist, but does that mean that his text is dead? Obviously not, since by being read his letters get new life, a life unique to each reader. But also, the director, in an improvisational and inspirational manner, finds new solutions during the process of filming and thus remains true to the 'random nature of experience'. The novelist is also involved in such activities, i.e. during and between his writing sessions he is participating in life and draws, consciously or unconsciously, from his present experiences and includes these in his work. Sure, due to the manifold of people involved in shooting a film and its high cost, there are more enforseeable obstacles occurring during the making of a film than of a book (a wide range of such obstacles are presented in _La Nuit americaine_, Truffaut's panegyric to filmmaking), but that does not make the process of making a film fundamentally different to that of writing a book. Both activities consist in completing an idea, an idea that is gradually altered during the process of its completion, and it is further altered when making contact with its audience.


Due to its collaborative and improvisational aspects, Truffaut's filmmaking practices favour the principle of the provisional over the absolute. So does his use of technique and narrative: in many films the classical mode of storytelling, e.g. clear causality and closed endings, is contested and a number of distancing devices are employed, although not to the extent as in, for instance, Godard's films. Hence, 'Truffaut's narrative structure and techniques maintain the tension between emotional engagement and a more cerebral detachment, between the story as definitive and the story as constructed, provisional and arbitrary' (187). Thus, the story is relative to how it is presented, it is not seen as an untouchable absolute. (One of the most severe criticisms levelled against the French cinema of the 1950s -- 'cinema de papa' -- by the directors of the French new wave was that it treated its adopted text, often classic pieces of literature, too faithfully, as an absolute, instead of forming it according to the director's own interests). Again, what I find missing in this description of the story as relative to the stylistic choices of the director is an account of how the activity of the audience modifies the meaning of the story. Since even if the director is strictly faithful to his text, this text will still always be relative to the meaning constructed of it by each spectator, it seems that the distinction between a story as absolute and as relative is quite impossible. However, the purpose of Holmes and Ingram, is of course, to show once more Truffaut's organic way of filmmaking, not to delineate a categorisation of films.


Truffaut's films are concerned throughout with the tension of the absolute and the provisional, most notably in relation to love. Many of Truffaut's characters believe in an everlasting love, but finally find out that such a love is only an illusion, a dream, while others never give up dreaming of such an absolute love. Vincent Canby puts this very neatly, when he notes that in Truffaut's films there is a war 'between those who demand and desperately need to believe in the permanence of all things, and those who have had some fleeting glimpse of their impermanence, but who move blithely on, living on outside chances' (188). An example of a Truffauldian character that is an absolutist when it comes to love is Catherine in _Jules et Jim_, who cannot bear that any of her lovers would abandon her. Jules, on the other hand, realises that he cannot have Catherine for himself and that he will have to make do with the compromise of sharing her love with others. It is characters such as Jules that are rendered most sympathetically by Truffaut.


According to Holmes and Ingram Truffaut's late effort, _La Dernier Metro_, set during the occupation, represents a victory for the provisional because of two aspects. On the one hand, the film's advocator of fascistic values, the journalist Daxiat, who wants 'to fix the individual within irrevocable categories of race, gender or sexuality' (196), is successfully confronted by the ensemble of the theatre he wants to shut down due to its Jewish ownership. The actors are said to represent the provisional with their shifting and multiple personalities while Daxiat insists on definitive values, which leaves no room for the individual. On the other hand, 'the love plot itself opposes the 'absolutist' ideal of total fidelity and exclusive monogamy' (197), since Marion, the leading actress, in the end is in love with two men, who she triumphantly holds hand with in the last scene while receiving thundering applause from the audience.


I find this simultaneous refutation of fascism and monogamy quite uncanny. Does that mean that living in a monogamous relationship hinders one's individual development almost in a fascistic manner, that 'total fidelity' represents a sacrifice of one's ability to endlessly recreate oneself? Herein lies the danger of considering anything as an absolute; in doing so one necessarily claims the value in question as being eternal, as not approving of any alterations. Hence, if the love on which a relationship is built is considered as absolute all constituents must be fixed, i.e. neither of the partners may change because this would ruin the set-up. In reality, a relationship, or rather the love on which it is founded, could never be absolute, but will always be relative to the feelings of the partners. A relationship is ever-changing, and when it ceases to change, i.e. when it is not adjusted to the changes occurring in the individuals constituting the couple, it ceases to endure. In short, a relationship could never rightly be seen as an absolute. Thus we are confronted with another difficulty that arises due to the separation of two distinct values. When a 'system of values', i.e. a morality, is constructed it will always lead to difficulties since it is naturally unable to take any account of the individual, but will always be bound to be general, and as such it will never be able to mirror reality, but will always be a translation. As Nietzsche said, 'a fact is always stupid', [1] meaning that there cannot be any valuation without somebody doing the valuing, i.e. no value could be absolute since it will always be relative to the meaning inferred by the subject. What I would like to have seen in Holmes and Ingram's book is a fuller exposition of how Truffaut's 'system of values' was constructed, and why. One interesting question in this context would be how Truffaut's films relate to the division between structuralism and poststructuralism. Some of Lacan's theories are already included, and if someone like Derrida would have been included as well, their disparate theories could have formed a good foundation from which one would be able to analyse Truffaut's moral preferences from a more complete perspective.


Having said this, I think Holmes and Ingram (who furthermore are the editors of the series of works on French directors, of which the present book is part) have written a highly recommendable study on a true master. It made me reconsider many of Truffaut's scenes, and, by working as a sounding-board by which I could compare my own opinions, it nuanced my reading of his films. I find this inspirational work a perfect complement to one of the brightest shining treasures in the history of cinema. It just struck me -- has any director ever started off his career with three such brilliant and rewarding films as Truffaut did with _Les 400 Coups_, _Tirez sur le pianiste_ and _Jules et Jim_?


Goteborg, Sweden





1. F. W. Nietzsche, _On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life_, trans. P. Preuss (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1980), p. 48



Filmography (all by Francois Truffaut)


_Les 400 Coups_, 1959.


_Tirez sur le pianiste_ (_Shoot the Pianist_), 1960.


_Jules et Jim_ (_Jules and Jim_), 1961.


_La Mariee etait en noir_ (_The Bride Wore Black_), 1967.


_L'Enfant sauvage_ (_The Wild Child_), 1970.


_Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent_ (_Anne and Muriel_), 1971.


_Une Belle fille comme moi_ (_A Gorgeous Bird Like Me_), 1972.


_La Nuit americaine_ (_Day for Night_), 1973.


_L'Historie d'Adele H._ (_The Story of Adele H._), 1975.


_L'Argent de Poche_ (_Small Change_), 1976.


_L'Homme qui aimait les femmes_ (_The Man Who Loved Women_), 1977.


_Le Dernier Metro_ (_The Last Metro_), 1980.




Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000


Fredrik von Zweigbergk, 'Fifteen Years Gone By', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 2, January 2000 <>.




Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage