by John Hess
Jump Cut, no. 2 (1974), pp. 20-22.
In January, 1954, Truffaut’s article, “Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français,” appeared in the CAHIERS DU CINEMA. Looking back on this article from the vantage point of the one hundredth issue of the CAHIERS, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, the editor, remarked that it changed the whole tone and direction of the journal. He realized that
Doniol-Valcroze admitted that he and Andre Bazin deliberated for a long time over this article and finally, reluctantly, printed it. Reading this article today, it is hard to see what was so shocking about it at the time and how it could be so important that Doniol-Valcroze would reminisce about it years later.
However, despite its blandness and overweening superficiality (maybe that was why they hesitated to print it), Truffaut’s article was very important in terms of its influence on later French film criticism. First, it made some very accurate judgments about the French cinema. Second, it set up the now famous opposition between the “Tradition of Quality,” i.e., those few films which were considered the best by most French critics and by the various international juries, and the cinema d'auteurs, the films of Renoir, Bresson, Cocteau, Becker, Tati, Ophuls, Leenhardt, and Gance—which were misunderstood and often ignored or condemned by the French critics. Third, by means of this opposition, Truffaut institutionalized the partisan advocacy on the part of Rohmer, Rivette, and Godard of the above mentioned auteur directors. Finally, Truffaut simplified and thus popularized the much more complex and sophisticated theoretical and metaphysical considerations of Rivette, Rohmer, and Godard.
Since Truffaut’s article was so important and since Andrew Sarris set it up as the manifesto of la politique des auteurs (The American Cinema, p. 27), it is necessary to examine it very carefully to order to see what it actually said. This examination will show (as did my examination in the first part of this article of Godard’s, Rivette’s, and Rohmer’s writings which all preceded Truffaut’s article in the CAHIERS) that the most important determinant of an auteur was not so much the director’s ability to express his personality, as usually has been claimed, but rather his desire and ability to express a certain world view. An auteur was a film director who expressed an optimistic image of human potentialities within an utterly corrupt society. By reaching out both emotionally and spiritually to other human beings and/or to God, one could transcend the isolation imposed on one by a corrupt world. Thus the characters in the movies of auteur directors are larger-than-life figures who rise above the ordinary. They are are all uncommon people; even Manny Balestrero, the Henry Fonda character in Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN (1957), is lifted out of his mundane existence by the spiritual quest for his own innocence. Just think, for example, of the characters played by Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, Anna Magnani, and Jean Gabin in the films of Rossellini, Hitchcock, and Renoir.
In his article, Truffaut set up an opposition between film art—the cinema d'auteurs—which consisted of the inspired work of a few hommes du cinema such as Renoir, Bresson, and Cocteau, who expressed the world view outlined above and in the first part of this article, and the conventional commercial cinema, which was dominated by a small number of scriptwriters and the directors who illustrated their scripts. Most of the article, as is a large part of Truffaut’s subsequent criticism, is taken up with a vicious and sarcastic attack on this commercial cinema in France and the figures who set its tone—especially the scriptwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost.
Truffaut denounces these men (as well as the cinema they represent) for their irreverence toward the literary works they adapt (most of the scripts and films in question were literary adaptations), their anti-clerical and anti-militarist stances, their pessimism and negativity, their “profanity” and “blasphemy.” His concerns here show the utter conventionality and the extreme cultural and political conservatism of his views’ on art. These scriptwriters’ irreverence toward their sources, the great French literary masterpieces (in some cases at least), reveals to Truffaut their lack of concern for tradition and conventional values, Truffaut sees the cinema d'auteurs as a return to the eternal verities and the classical French values of the enlightenment and romanticism. His opposition to their insertion of anti-militarist and anti-clerical stances into the works they adapted is a defense of art’s autonomy. No social or political views, those dreaded “messages,” are to mar the purity of art. Art must be free of all outside influences, Truffaut thought.
Truffaut also objects to pessimism and negativity because he holds the opposite view of the potentiality of (at least some) human beings. And these special human beings, not the common person, are to be the fit subject of art, Here Truffaut is also opposing the deterministic view of life which often prevailed in the French cinema of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a view of life which had its origin in Zola’s Naturalism. Finally by objecting to the “profanity” and “blasphemy” in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.
In brief, this is the main thrust of Truffaut’s article. Now we must turn to a more detailed description and analysis of its two basic parts. First, Truffaut presents a view of film history, the emphasis of which is upon the steady emergence of an artistically valid, highly individualistic cinema—the cinema d'auteurs. Second, he launches a vicious attack on France’s most successfu1 scriptwriting team, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who became famous for their adaptations of well-known literary works and whose prominence and influence, Truffaut claims, impeded the full realization of the cinema d'auteurs.
At first, according to Truffaut, the French cinema was a bland imitation of the American cinema. Duvivier’s PEPE LE MOKO (1936) was, for ex-ample, a conscious imitation of Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932). But then, under the influence of the great scriptwriter, Jacques Prevert, the French cinema developed in its own direction. Carne’s QUAI DES BRUMES (1938), scripted by Prevert, was “the masterpiece of the school called poetic realism.” (2) This term is used traditionally to describe the prominent films of the middle and late 1930’s. Marcel Martin, defining the term, says that the
But with the war and the occupation, “poetic realism” was replaced by “psychological realism.” This latter school or tendency was represented by the films of Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, Rene Clement, Yves Allegret, and Marcel Pagliero, i.e. the most successful postwar French directors, However, Truffaut does not bother to define “psychological realism.” For more information on what constitutes “psychological realism” we must. turn to an unsigned article Truffaut wrote for ARTS two months later. Here Truffaut claimed that Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU (The RAVEN, 1943) was the first film to be considered representative of this tendency.
The interest in decor and situation gave way to an interest in character, especially as it is effected and distorted by social milieu. While the films of “poetic realism” were content to assign control to destiny or human weakness as in QUAI DES BRUMES or LE JOUR SE SEVE (1939), the films of “psychological realism” tended more often to reproach society for human evil and suffering: Autant-Lara’s DOUCE (1943) and LE DIABLE AU CORPS (1947), and Clement’s JEUX INTERDITS (1952), Finally, both tendencies represented rather conventional approaches to film making: traditional stage acting, static camera, invisible editing, dependence on scripts and dialogue, and elaborate sets.
That a young, aspiring film maker would oppose this traditional cinema is not hard to imagine or to understand. But the way Truffaut goes about it tells us more about him than about his subject. In his description of French film history from 1930 to 1950, Truffaut left out those developments which he favored most: the work of Gance and Renoir, Bresson and Cocteau. Rather than present a judicious assessment of the various competing tendencies or schools in the cinema, as Bazin tried to do, Truffaut setup a straw man in order to knock it down in the rest of the article. He very carefully described the origin of the kind of cinema he hated, the French commercial cinema, the better to demolish it.
Why, we might ask, did Truffaut so much want to demolish “psychological realism”? Running through auteur criticism is the idea that these young critics are standing at the threshold of a new French cinema and that they will be the ones to cross this threshold into the promised land. They hark back to their mentors—directors such as Griffith, Murnau, Stroheim, Renoir, and Welles. These great artist-directors showed the way, but these young critics saw themselves as the ones who would complete the development of a cinema d'auteurs, a personal cinema dominated by directors (albeit of a certain sort) rather than producers or scriptwriters. Thus Truffaut’s strategy was to attack most viciously those most recent trends in film history which seemed to be impeding the development he wanted to promote. In order the better to do this, he tried to isolate France’s most successful scriptwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, as the representatives of everything he hated.
Therefore, Truffaut took great pains to point out that the films of “psychological realism, of Autant-Lara and the others, depended for their artistic quality on the scriptwriters. He claimed,
The “Tradition of Quality” consisted of the ten or twelve French films a year which “merit the attention of the critics, cinephiles, and therefore of the CAHIERS DU CINEMA” (p. 30). Here Truffaut has tongue firmly in cheek. He has used a term, “Tradition of Quality,” which Jean-Pierre Barrot used in an insipid article, published the previous year, to describe the popular films of such directors as Jean Delannoy, Christian-Jaque, Jean Faurez, and Henri Calif. Barrot praised these directors because they had contributed most
Thus Truffaut equated the so-called “Tradition of Quality” and “psycho-logical realism” as representing the conventional French cinema which was both in terms of form and in terms of content utterly at odds with what he considered true film art—the cinema d'auteurs. Truffaut saw no possibility of
fact much of Truffaut’s subsequent writing about the French cinema consisted
of vitriolic attacks on the established commercial cinema in France. Truffaut
accused it most of all of lacking ambition, stifling inspiration, keeping
its best directors un- and underemployed, and, naturally enough, preventing
young men from making films until they had served a long and deadening
apprenticeship in the industry,
JEAN AURENCHE AND PIERRE BOST
Aurenche (b. 1904) and Bost (b. 1901) first collaborated on the script of Autant-Lara’s DOUCE (1943) and continued their cooperation on some of the best known French films of the 1940’s and 1950’s: LA SYMPHONIE PASTORALE (Delannoy, 1946), LE DIABLE AU CORPS (Autant-Lara, 1947), DIEU A BESOIN DES HOMMES (Delannoy, 1950), L'AUBERGE ROUGE (Autant-Lara, 1951), JEUX INTERDITS (Clement, 1954), LE BLE EN HERBE (Autant-Lara, 1954), LE ROUGE ET LE NOIR and EN CAS DE MALHEUR (both Autant-Lara, 1954 and 1958).
Truffaut claimed, tongue in cheek again,
Then Truffaut attacked Aurenche and Bost for even thinking that they could be faithful to the spirit of such diverse writers as Gide, Radiguet, Colette, and Bernanos, and of such diverse directors as Delannoy and Autant-Lara. The point is obvious: how could any strong willed, creative, individualistic artist be true to the spirit of a variety of other artists? La politique des auteurs was, above all else, a defense of individualism. Aurenche and Bost had to be attacked because they were examples of the success of team creation in film making, a possibility the auteur critics wanted to deny.
Truffaut questioned the system of equivalences according to which these scriptwriters replaced “unfilmable” scenes in a literary work with new, more “cinematic,” ones. In the first place, Truffaut doubted that there were “unfilmable” scenes, but his attack centered on the way Aurenche and Bost used this system of equivalences to change the tone and meaning of the adapted works. For example, in Radiguet’s novel, Le Diable au Corps, the couple meet at a train station, whereas in Autant-Lara’s film, scripted by Aurenche and Bost, the couple meet in a school which has been turned into a military hospital. Truffaut claimed that the purpose of the change was to serve as “a decoy for the anti-militarist elements added to the work” (p. 35). To support his claim that Aurenche and Bost betrayed the works they adapted, Truffaut called on Father Amedee Ayfre whose comments on LA SYMPHONIE PASTORALE he quoted.
Thus instead of the claimed faithfulness to the spirit of the works, Truffaut found, in the work of the two scriptwriters, “a constant and deliberate effort to be unfaithful to the spirit as well as the letter” and also “a marked taste for profanation and blasphemy” (p. 32).
The most extensive example Truffaut gives of this kind of betrayal is the unfilmed adaptation Aurenche and Bost wrote of Bernanos’ novel, The Diary of a County Priest. Truffaut compares their script with the film made several years later by Bresson. Truffaut compares two scenes. The first is the scene in which Chantel is in the confessional.
Truffaut compares this scene with the “equivalent” scene in the script of Aurenche and Bost. In their scene, Chantel defies the Priest. She had spit out the host during communion and had hidden it in a prayer book; now she reveals this to the shocked Priest who can only respond by resignation and by calling on God for help. This scene is decidedly anti-clerical in that it demystifies the communion and the confessional. It does not allow them to remain in the subjective realm of grace and faith. They become things that people talk about rationally. The Priest, in this scene, is shown to be incapable of dealing with this change in the usual course of events.
Second, Truffaut points out how Aurenche and Bost ended their script with a discussion from the middle of the novel. They ended the film script with the lines,
Truffaut compares this negative, nihilistic ending with Bernanos’ actual ending,
Bresson ended his film with an image of a crude black cross on a white background. The argument is not really a matter of aesthetics, but of respect for religion and general attitude toward the world. Aurenche and Bost refused to accept the mystification of life, and sought instead rational and social causes for human behavior. Truffaut and the auteur critics were far less interested in the causes of human behavior tact than they were in the personal means a character used to transcend his or her environment and to reach some sort of salvation. The difference is pro-found.
What most galled and obsessed Truffaut about the films of Aurenche and Bost was their anti-establishment tone. He found them anti-bourgeois, anti-militarist, anticlerical, opposed to all sorts of linguistic and sexual taboos, and full of profaned hosts and confessionals. Aurenche and Bost used literary masterpieces, according to Truffaut, to sneak their anti-establishment messages into their films and to
One film particularly disgusted Truffaut because, in it,
One might complain about these words on feminist grounds, but the basis for Truffaut’s complaint lies elsewhere. “Is this realism?” he asks and one wonders if he ever left the Cinematheque. Surrounded by all this nastiness, Truffaut regretted the scripts of Jacques Prévert.
The world posited by Truffaut is evil and corrupt by its very nature. The only question worth asking is how one can save oneself. Group action or social reorganization need not be discussed since they would only lead to the same kind of evil which is already present. Thus the bourgeois sees the world.
Contrary to the glimmer of hope in Prevert’s scripts, most French films, Truffaut thought, under the influence of Aurenche and Bost, have only one story to tell:
These films concern the “injustices” of life and the “wickedness of the world.” At the center of these films there is always an “abject couple” who complain about the wickedness and injustices of life. Having established that “in the films of ‘psychological realism’ there are nothing but vile creatures,” Truffaut pompously and self-rightiously claimed to
He meant, of course, Renoir, Bresson, Ophuls, Cocteau, Becker, Gance, Tati, and Leenhardt. And these men, Truffaut claimed, were also
Finally, Truffaut declares his preference for audacity over conventionality and compares the “Tradition of Quality’ to the cinema d'auteurs in terms of audacity.
The difference between these two poles of comparison have little to do with aesthetics and a lot to do with worldview. Most obviously, Truffaut rejects any “audacity” which has to do with the world outside the film or with the specific content of the film. The presentation of a homosexual relationship or a character’s rejection of the church Truffaut finds phony, uninteresting, and not the proper subject of the cinema. Next Truffaut argues for propriety, for adherence to certain taboos—he objects to seeing vomiting on the screen. Then Truffaut argues for the “audacities” of “men of the cinema,” i.e. audacities which are totally under the control of the directors (mise en scene, direction of actors, polyvision).
By grounding cinematic beauty and truth in these primarily formal aspects of the movies, Truffaut argues for the absolute autonomy of the art form. “Une Certaine Tendance du Cinema Français” was not actually the manifesto of la politique des auteurs; it was more accurately the manifesto of the New Wave. In fact Truffaut’s film criticism had as its main goal the radical reform of the French cinema and the establishment of a contemporary cinema d'auteurs. In this task, Truffaut was very successful. And the cultural and political conservatism of his writings (and of the writings of Rivette, Rohmer, and Godard) should warn us about the fraudulent claims of many that the New Wave represented a radical break in the continuity of the French and the European cinema.
CAHIERS DU CINEMA, No. 100 (October, 1959), p. 68. The translation is