IT’S PERSONAL CONFESSION time.
In 1985, when I was a senior in high school, I became addicted…to French New Wave cinema. In particular, the films of Francois Truffaut, auteur of auteurs, became my personal all-consuming obsession. Grainy, monochrome images of mid-century urban cool, the wet cobblestones of 1960s Paris, the bittersweet pangs of unrequited love…I loved it all. I wanted to walk right into the screen, don a scruffy sport jacket and fedora, light up a filterless cigarette, and talk about Balzac and jazz with a gorgeous but sexually unavailable blonde. Man, did I want that.
Sure, I dabbled in Godard, but he was a bit too aggressive for my taste. He was flashy and overtly masculine…almost Italian in his outlook. Truffaut’s movies seemed more honest, more genuine. They were a bit sappy and sentimental at times, and I was a lonely, overweight kid who dreamed of romance of the hand-holding and kissing variety, so they just seemed to fit the emotional space I was in at the time.
It all began with a double feature of Truffaut’s two most famous films, “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim,” shown at a restored 1920s movie palace. It was a revelatory evening. Watching the unpolished drama, absorbing the foreign scenery, reading the subtitles… I felt grown-up, mature. I started to feel a little silly for my previous fascination with the movies of popcorn directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. All those light sabers and rubber masks suddenly seemed like kid’s stuff. Ironically, it was Spielberg who had first put Truffaut on my mental radar; the French director had played a small but memorable role in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a favorite of mine. So I had a vague notion of who the man was, which is probably why I went to the theater that night to check out his movies.
“The 400 Blows,” right from the start, pushed all thoughts of aliens and spaceships out of my mind. Watching Truffaut’s feature directorial debut, made when he was just 27, I thought I understood “real” cinema for the first time. I was hooked. I wanted more. I wanted more of his films, and I wanted more of him. I wanted to know everything about him. He was my new idol. He’d been dead for a year, which was a bit of a drag, but nobody’s perfect.
As it turned out, the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, in the mid-eighties were no place and time to be a New Wave fan, unless you’re talking about Duran Duran. Few of Truffaut’s films were available on American home video, and they certainly didn’t play on TV. It was difficult to be obsessed with something, I found, when there is almost no fuel to feed the obsession. A trip to France was certainly out of the question. I knew there was so much material out there. I knew he had written or directed dozens of movies, but I just couldn’t get to them. It was frustrating and agonizing in a way that the Internet generation will never understand.
So on Saturdays, craving information, I would put on my most collegiate attitude, bluff my way into the main library at Syracuse University, and spend hours reading whatever they had on my hero. In the stacks were a few books of criticism and theory, but the real treasures were the published screenplays of films like “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board,” bound in book form and illustrated with black and white stills from the films. I read these so often, and so intensely, that I sometimes forgot I hadn’t actually seen the movies themselves. I could picture every scene in my head in such vivid detail that it was difficult to believe that the source of these memories was only words and photographs. To this day, I don’t think I’ve watched “Bed and Board.” But try telling my brain that. It’s in there, somewhere. The whole movie.
The periodicals room was another treasure trove to my Truffaut-starved soul. I poured through American and British magazines from the 60s and 70s with reviews of Truffaut’s movies. I read interviews. I found photographs. I came home with stacks of photocopies, and kept a scrapbook.
At school, I carried an accordian folder that contained all my papers and classwork. On the front, I taped a photo of Truffaut, and another of Antoine Doinel, his cinematic alter-ego. In English class, assigned a poem to write, I penned an extra one…about my sadness over Truffaut’s death. To my horror, the teacher photocopied it and handed it out to the class. I blushed beet-red, imagining what they thought about my odd preoccupation with a deceased European filmmaker.
If all this sounds a bit gay, I can only say that the attraction was never exactly sexual. There were gorgeous women in almost all of Truffaut’s movies, and plenty of love scenes and near-nudity as well, and as a 17-year old without a prospect for a real girlfriend, I appreciated that. Jeanne Moreau was alluring and enchanting in “Jules and Jim”; Claude Jade was lovely and desirable in the later Doinel films. I wanted the women, certainly. But that wasn’t what I really wanted.
The yearning, the deep, delusional teenage fantasy, came from the fact that I wanted to be Truffaut. Or, more to the point, I wanted to be Antoine Doinel. Jean Pierre Leaud, who portrayed Doinel in five films over twenty years, played the part as a personification of a unique brand of independent cool. Antoine did what he pleased, with or without the approval of adults, and although he never had life easy, he always found excitement, adventure, and romance. He had the look that I wanted too: thin, handsome and stylish, with a perfect Beatle-esque haircut and a sharp, slightly aquiline nose. He was confident and quirky, and women loved him despite his faults. He was everything that I, at the time, was not, and he had the life I wanted, even if it was a fictional life lived two decades past.
Looking back, I understand that much of the appeal was based on the fact that, in my school and town, I was a fan club of one. I was an elitist, surely, and I wanted something that was all my own, to distinguish myself from the thousands of average kids in my enormous but boring high school. I was a hipster before the term had been coined, dreaming of artsy Europe while my classmates watched “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties.” I was a Bohemian, and they were just so bourgeois.
Like all obsessions that burn brightly, this one burned out fast. By the spring of 1986, with graduation looming, I had gotten deep into sixties British pop and rock, an interest that served me well when I eventually started classes at SU and met many like-minded music fans who also happened to share, thankfully, my lifelong love for absurdist comedy. I still watched Truffaut films; in fact it was far easier in the late 80s, once they started coming out on video. But the thrill was gone. I was happy to get my hands on “The Bride Wore Black” and “Shoot the Piano Player,” but viewing them was merely entertaining, whereas two years previous they would have blown my mind. Obsession had, inevitably, faded to mere appreciation.
Four years after high school, as a college senior, I was sufficiently over my teenage bromance with the dead French director that I could rather mercilessly lampoon him on a student comedy television show. I wrote and directed a short parody of a typical Truffaut film that I called “Collette of the Soft Buttocks,” casting a friend with a vague resemblance to Leaud as a sex-obsessed Parisian who falls for a sexy but odd femme fatale. I was happy to convince my girlfriend into becoming my Claude Jade, complete with fishnet stockings, a beret, and Sixties-style makeup. I even wrote one scene where her wardrobe consisted only of a man’s necktie and a bedsheet. It was silly, lighthearted stuff, but it was also a good indicator of the emotional and social growth I’d managed in the four years since high school. I was still a romantic at heart, but gone was the lonely-guy heartache, the dreamy angst and longing for another place…another time, where I might fit in.
That place, it turned out, was college, and that time was right then. I was confident, I was happy, and I was in my element. I had friends who shared my interests and ideals. I had lost all the extra weight, and I had girlfriends. I had fun. I didn’t need to live vicariously through a semi-obscure foreign film director and character.
Many years later, when I finally made it to Paris with my soon-to-be wife, I insisted we visit the cemetery where Truffaut is buried. It was a nice moment, paying my respects, but I felt none of the pain or sadness, none of the strange, self-made sorrow I would have felt if I’d seen the grave at age 17.
I didn’t wail and rend my clothes. I didn’t shed a single tear. I simply took some photos, and checked out the other graves. And then we moved on, anxious to see the other tourist sights of the City of Lights, like the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre. My teenage self, the one that wrote that sappy poem to Truffaut’s legacy, would’ve thought I was so bourgeois.