by Charles Thomas Samuels
Paris, September 1 and 3, 1970
The image presented when Francois Truffaut played the principle role in The Wild Child—that of a short, compactly built, but expressionless and ordinary-looking young man in his late thirties—leaves out his most striking features: a smile no less charming than his most charming films and the continuous glint of risible interest in his eyes. Truffaut’s quick lucidity made him the ideal interview subject. Even when he had to interrupt an answer to await translation (he speaks no English), he never lost the thread. Nor did he ever hesitate or appear to find any question unexpected.
The interview took place in two sessions at Les Films du Carrosse, the production company he founded and runs. In his private office and throughout a small suite in the same building where Bed and Board was filmed, the atmosphere is literally one of “quiet elegance.” The firm is clearly busy, but the employees seem to be running a doctors’ consortium rather than a movie company.
During the period when I met Truffaut, he was attending to every detail of the press premiere of Bed and Board, prior to attending the Lincoln Center opening of The Wild Child. He invited me to the screening, where he greeted each guest personally. When, on the next day, I arrived for the interview, Truffaut was equally hospitable to me and particularly to my friend, Mme. Francoise Longhurst, who acted as translator.
During the conversation, growing rapport made translation progressively dispensable. Eventually, we began to respond to each other directly, joking away an occasional contretemps in our mutual involvement in the give-and-take.
SAMUELS: You began your career as a critic. What effect has this had on you as a director?
TRUFFAUT: It is difficult to say, because one looks at films differently when one is a director or a critic. For example, though I have always loved Citizen Kane, I loved it in different ways at different stages of my career. When I saw it as a critic, I particularly admired the way the stroy is told: the fact that one is rarely permitted to see the person who interviews all the characters, the fact that chronology is not respected, things like that. As a director I cared more about technique: All the scenes are shot in a single take and do not use reverse cutting; in most scenes you hear the soundtrack before you see the corresponding image—that reflects Orson Welles’ radio training—etc. Behaving like the ordinary spectator, one uses a film as if it were a drug; he is dazed by the motion and doesn’t try to analyze. A critic, on the other hand (particularly one who works for a weekly, as I did), is forced to write summaries of films in fifteen lines. That forces one to apprehend the structure of a film and to rationalize his liking for it.
S: Are there any critics you particularly admire or, as a director, have found particularly useful?
T: No filmmaker likes critics, no matter how nice they are to him. Always he feels that they didn’t say enough about him, or that they didn’t say nice things in an interesting way, or that they said too many of their nice things about other directors. Since I was a critic, I am perhaps less hotile to critics than other directors are. Nevertheless, I never consider the critic more than a single element in the reception of my films. The attitude of the public, publicity material, post-premiere ads: all these things are as important as critics.
S: There are two traditions in film. One, ultimately derived from silent film, emphasizes editing and camera movement. The other—which Andre Bazin seems to have preferred (and which he exemplified with a film like William Wyler’s The Little Foxes)—is more theatrical, depends on staging. Now your closeness to Bazin is well known. However, I think that you are not only less theatrical than the directors he professed to admire but that, indeed, your camera work and editing are more varied than that of any director of equal stature. If this is so, did Bazin have the influence on you which he is widely assumed to have had?
T: I don’t agree with the distinction you’ve made. Furthermore, Bazin overestimated The Little Foxes, which was just photographed theater—though it gave him a pretext for some interesting observations on the cinema. I would rather see a distinction made between filmmakers who attempt to keep the camera invisible–as John Ford did—and those who make it evident to the spectator.
S: All right. But your camera was once extremely visible and now is becoming less so. Why?
T: Because it became more visible in everyone else. No, I have a better reason: I have become more interested in my characters, in their situations, and in what they say.
S: As a critic, you attacked vigorously the films made by French directors during the period before the so-called New Wave. What made them so hateful to you?
T: I attacked them because they didn’t have either a personal vision of life or of cinema.
S: But some of them created great films. Isn’t that admirable? Or do you deny the greatness of a film like Carne’s Children of Paradise or Clement’s Forbidden Games?
T: I first became interested in films during the war, and therefore the first films I saw were native. I liked Children of Paradise, all the Carne-Prevert films—I even liked The Night Visitors, though I don’t anymore. I liked the films of Becker, Clouzot’s The Raven, and, of course, above all, the films of Renoir. Then there was the shock of the American films after the liberation. I saw them when I was thirteen or fourteen and in random order, without knowing which were made during and which after the war. I found them all richer than French films—except the best of ours, like Children of Paradise and the films of Renoir.
S: I share your enthusiasm for six or seven Renoir films, but I’ve always been surprised at the extent of your admiration for him because though Renoir certainly made several first-rate films, it seems to me that some of his are even faultier than Carne’s. They are even more theatrical—I think of a film like Chotard and Company. And then there is that awful sentimentality toward the French peasants, as in Toni.
T: No, I adore Toni; it is a very important film for me.
T: Because a filmmaker always thinks that his films aren’t close enough to real life, and Toni shows how to attain that closeness. It is like a news item; its atmosphere is so real; there is a sort of madness in its events that one does not find in a novel or short story but only in something from real life. Because, you know, even when you start with something from real life, it gets theatrical when translated into a scenario, and then the reality is gone.
S: Precisely. Reality is what I find gone in Toni. Let me give you an example: In order to seduce Toni, the heroine pretends to have been bitten by a bee and asks him to suck the stinger out. Naturally, while doing so, his passion rises. That seems to me a theatrical cliche—perhaps not in all its details, but in its essentials.
T: It is a cliche of love, not a cliche of drama. Perhaps you would find this banal if you merely read the script. But the way it’s done, the way the actors play it, makes it real.
S: You agree that the scene is banal in conception, but you think it’s redeemed by the acting. That raises an interesting parallel to your own films. For example, in Mississippi Mermaid, when Deneuve and Belmondo leave a movie theater where they have just seen Johnny Guitar, they agree that the reality of the performances transformed that horse opera into a story of real people. Wasn’t that your intention in Mississippi Mermaid and many other films: to take a banal idea and cause the actors to give it real life?
T: Yes. Yes. Certainly.
S: Do you think Deneuve adn Belmondo did save the story?
T: Yes. Whatever is wrong with that film is my fault and not the fault of my stars.
S: Like many American critics, I’m surprised by your admiration for Howard Hawks and John Ford. Would you explain why you like them?
T: Originally, I didn’t like Ford—because of his material: for example, the comic secondary characters, the brutality, the male-female relationships typified by the man’s slapping the woman on the backside. But eventually I came to understand that he had achieved an absolute uniformity of technical expertise. And his technique is the more admirable for being unobtrusive: His camera is invisible; his staging is perfect; he maintains a smoothness of surface in which no one scene is allowed to become more important than any other. Such mastery is possible only after one has made an enormous number of films. Questions of quality aside, John Ford is the Simenon of directors. Hawks, on the other hand, is the greatest cinematic intelligence among American directors. He isn’t a cinema addict, nor is he anguished or obsessed. Rather, he loves life in all its manifestations, and because of this harmony with life in general, he was able to make the two or three greatest examples of every genre of film (except perhaps comedy, in which you have Lubitsch etc.). To be specific: Hawks made the three best Westerns (Red River, The Big Sky, and Rio Bravo), the two best aviation films (Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force), and the three best thrillers (The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, and Scarface).
S: M. Truffaut, Hawks’ very versatility might be called an indication that he lacks a single vision of life or of cinema. Yet it is precisely that lack which you condemn in your French predecessors.
T: But Hawks does have a vision of life and cinema! For example, he is the first American director to show women as equal to men (think of his handling of Lauren Bacall vis-a-vis Hunphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep). He always knows what he is doing. When he decided to make Scarface, realizing the danger of a film about sordid mobsters, he instructed his scriptwriter, Ben Hecht, to join him in constantly thinking about the history of the Borgias so as to give the film some tragic stature. It is to this that we owe the nearly incestuous love between George Raft and his sister in the film.
S: With the exception of Jules and Jim you usually adapt trash novels to the screen. Why?
T: I have often been asked to direct great novels, like Camus’ L’Etranger, Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, and Du cote de chez Swann. In each case my admiration for the book prevented me from making it into a film. Jules and Jim was an exception because it was so little known, and I wanted to increase its popularity by calling to it the attention of a large audience. However, despite what you say, I have never used a trash novel or a book I did not admire. Writers like David Goodis (author of Down There, the basis for Shoot the Piano Player) and William Irish (source for The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid) have special value, and they have no counterparts in France. Here detective story writers are rotten, whereas in America writers as great as Hemingway work in that field. But because so many books appear each year in the States, these detective story writers are usually ignored. Ironically, this liberates them. Made humble by their neglect, they are free to experiment because they think no one is paying attention anyway. Not expecting to be analyzed, they put into their books anything they choose.
S: I hadn’t thought of that. Therefore, they reflect life as a muddle—incomprehensible variety. You see life that way, too, don’t you?
T: Yes. But let me tell you something. After seeing Shoot the Piano Player and liking it, Henry Miller was asked to write an introduction for a new edition of Down There and therefore had to read the book. He then phoned me to say that he suddenly realized that whereas my film was good, the book was even better. So you see, I don’t film trash.
S: In an interview you gave Louis Marcorelles, you said that people shouldn’t distinguish art films from the more commercial product, that the only true distinction was between good films and bad. Is that a correct quotation?
S: But don’t some directors force one to make the distinction that you deplore? In France, one thinks of Bresson, who is a great artist but whose films fail at the box office.
T: Commercial success is a result, never an intention. For example, Orson Welles never succeeded either, only one out of every two films Bunuel makes earns much money, etc.
S: Well, then…
T: Well, in America I still think that you simplify this issue. You say that Hollywood films are commercial and New York films are artistic. That is wrong.
S: No doubt! There is a fascinating tension in your films. In most of them, the hero yearns for and searches after security while your technique keeps showing us that nothing in the world is safe or permanent. Am I right?
T: Exactly. In fact, I said much the same thing in Le Figaro apropos my latest film, Bed and Board.
S: Leave Bed and Board out of it for a moment. It also seems to me that your technique hasn’t been so redolent of insecurity lately.
T: Perhaps. But then for me life lately hasn’t been so cruel!
S: Another constant in your films has been the subject of love. I’m not asking you to be a philosopher, but are you aware of some settled notion about love that recurs in your thinking or feeling about it and that you reflect in your work?
T: I have no ideas on this subject, only sensations, nothing more than I put in my films.
S: Whenever you treat erotic passion, you keep it distant, never allowing us to see it closely. Why?
T: I don’t know.
S: Music is terribly important in your films. How do you choose a composer? After you’ve chosen him, how much control do you exercise over his work?
T: Actually, I am moving away from music in my films, like other directors (consider Bunuel and Bergman), who no longer use it at all. Still, it’s not always possible to do without music completely, and I don’t always like what I have. I like the music in The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player but am not crazy about the music in Jules and Jim. The music in The Soft Skin and Fahrenheit 451 is excellent, less so in The Bride Wore Black. Stolen Kisses has a wonderful score, as does The Wild Child. But the score of Mississippi Mermaid isn’t very good, and that in Bed and Board is simply awful.
S: Now that you have made this rundown, can you generalize about the qualities that appeal to you in movie music?
T: It’s very difficult to say. I like music to flow as uninterruptedly as the images. No, it’s too difficult to express. Well, I suppose I can say that music shouldn’t stop a film, which is what happens when the score is nonmelodic. For example, if you use jazz or pop music, the effect is antinarrative.
S: You’ve said that you never completely plan a film in advance and therefore improvise a good deal. What do you rely on to discipline your improvisations?
T: The dialogue and the actors. I try to create units of emotion. That’s why, for example, I filmed each scene of Bed and Board in a single take.
S: Don’t you also try to play each unit of emotion off against the next one?
T: Exactly. Yes, that’s absolutely true. For example, one of my favorite moments in Bed and Board is when Antoine enters the apartment after a visit to his Japanese girlfriend and the camera cuts from his astonished face to his wife, who is dressed and seated in traditional Japanese style. The audience laughs. But when the camera closes in on her face, we see her tears, and this shocks the spectator. It is precisely this kind of emotional contrast that I love.
S: The acting in your films is usually extremely natural, but the situations in which the people find themselves are very formulaic. Is this a deliberate goal?
T: Yes…how shall I answer this? One proceeds always by contrasts. If the situation is extraordinary, then one must force the actors to be naturalistic, and vice versa. But this is something one cannot reflect upon; it is completely intinctive.
S: The 400 Blows is often compared to Zero for Conduct. Do you think this film or its director, Jean Vigo, influenced you?
T: Jean Vigo went further than anyone—even than Renoir—in achieving real, crude, natural images. For that reason, we French directors speak of a secret that Vigo possessed and that we long to fathom. In my opinion, the one who has fathomed it most completely is Godard, and Breathless is the closest in spirit to Vigo of any recent French film. The only reason Vigo was invoked so often apropos of The 400 Blows is that there are so few French films dealing with children that whenever one appears people are immediately reminded of Zero for Conduct. I was equally influenced, as a matter of fact, by the films of Rossellini and above all by Germany: Year Zero, which I greatly admire.
S: The 400 Blows is very episodic. Were any of the episodes introduced during shooting?
T: No. We followed the script without deviation.
S: Why did you include in The 400 Blows that little “guest” scene between Jean-Claude Brialy and Jeanne Moreau?
T: Brialy was a good friend of mine and offered to pass through the film, bringing Moreau with him. Since I knew and admired her work as a stage actress, I was very happy to agree.
S: This sort of thing occurs very often in your films. For example, one of your colleagues from your film company appears both in Mississippi Mermaid (where he plays Belmondo’s business partner) and in Bed and Board. In the latter film Helen Scott, who was your interpreter with Hitchcock, makes a brief appearance. And I could go on. Why do you do this?
T: Why not?
S: Very funny! How about giving me a more serious answer. You realize that you’ve been greatly criticized for this. Critics have said you’re playing a childish game, rubbing the noses of your viewers in their ignorance of your life, private tastes, etc. Do you just say merde is this criticism, or do you have some defense of this practice?
T: It’s ridiculous to criticize this. The public isn’t aware that I am putting my friends into my films. Only the few people who are aware question what I am doing. Moreover, I would never do it if I thought it might harm my story in any way. On the contrary, while writing I sometimes think, “This character is just like X. Why not have X play the role?”
S: But it isn’t only putting your friends into your films; it’s all the references to other films—like having Belmondo in Mississippi Mermaid recuperate at a clinic named Heurtebise, which alludes to Cocteau’s Orpheus.
T: What difference does it make to the public if the clinic is called Heurtebise or Smee. It doesn’t detract for anyone ignorant of the allusion, and it adds for someone who recognizes it. But those who know how I operate and perceive ten allusions in one of my films are so terrified that they’ve missed ten others that out of their own vanity they condemn this whole game—which, by the way, is not unique to me.
S: In The 400 Blows how do you want us to react to the scene in which Antoine whirls in the centrifuge? That scene has inspired sharply contrasting interpretations.
T: I didn’t think of the reaction the public was going to have. I simply wanted to show a child in a situation that was new to him and because I wanted to avoid cliches—say, showing him on a roller coaster—I chose the centrifuge.
S: In The 400 Blows, during that marvelous interview with Antoine and the psychologist, why don’t you show the psychologist?
T: The scene had to be improvised. I began by filming a 16mm version in which I asked Leaud (who plays Antoine) questions, and he replied spontaneously. When we reached this scene in the actual shooting, I decided that what we were getting was inferior to my 16mm trial, which had been so fresh. To regain that freshness, I adopted a peculiar method of working. I told everyone to leave the set except Leaud and the cameraman. Then I read out the scripted psychologist’s questions, asking Leaud to answer on the spot with whatever came into his mind. During postsynchronization, I had my questions read over by the actress who played the psychologist. However, since I wanted a woman with a very soft voice, who by this time was very pregnant and therefore reluctant to be filmed, I had only her voice but not her person, so you hear and don’t see her.
S: Is this why the scene is full of interior dissolves?
T: Exactly. Since when I originally filmed the scene, I had banished the script girl and clapper boy from the set, I had no one to mark the precise moments of cutting and thus had to use the relatively imprecise dissolve to mark all connections between the pieces of Leaud’s response that I decided to retain.
S: The 400 Blows ends with the famous freeze shot of Antoine, but that freeze is frequently anticipated in the film. For example, there are freezes of Antoine when the mother comes to school and learns that Antoine had said she was dead, when Antoine is being photographed by the police, when he is looking after his retreating friend in the reformatory sequence, etc. Was this motif intentional? If so, it indicates that, as it were, Antoine’s end was fated.
T: I had no such plan. Moreover, a freeze like the one at the police station is simply the result of showing a still photograph. And the final freeze was an accident. I told Leaud to look into the camera. He did, but quickly turned his eyes away. Since I wanted that brief look he gave me the moment before he turned, I had no choice but to hold on it: hense the freeze.
S: The opening scene in Shoot the Piano Player tells us that the film will shift back and forth between lighter and darker emotions. Isn’t it also an introduction to your theme?
T: I don’t know. No, it comes from Goodis. When I make a film by a writer, I like to read all his books. That scene you refer to occurs in another Goodis novel. I just thought it belonged there.
T: It’s lifelike and striking. It establishes the film’s tone.
S: As I said. But in it the two characters discuss the definition of love, which points to your subject. Without that scene the audience could feel they were seeing a mere gangster story.
T: I suppose so. You know when I film a gangster story, I feel safe: I know that the images will create the plot so that the dialogue can concentrate on love. On the other hand, when I take a story that is about love, I have to force it into a detective story mold. This is what I pushed to an extreme in The Bride Wore Black. We know that the heroine has to kill five men, so there is no plot suspense. Instead, I create suspense about character by not having the heroine ever discuss her motivess. She goes to each place, says nothing, and the man courts her.
S: I’m happy to hear you say that. I never thought this film was properly understood. I always thought it was about the meaning of love.
T: It is a film that illustrates five different ways of comporting oneself with a woman.
S: All of them bad, which is why she becomes a sort of avenging angel striking men down in behalf of her sex.
S: That is why each murder reflects the victim. For example, victim number one has no capacity for fidelity. On the day of his wedding, he is capable of being drawn to a balcony, where he has no business being, because he wants to flirt with Moreau, who is standing there. This allows her to push him off. The third victim, whose wife is away, wants to be closeted with her so they can make love, but he first has to get rid of his son. Therefore, she can persuade him to play hide-and-seek and, during the game, can wall him in a closet.
T: Yes but all those details are in the novel. Only the characterization originates with me.
S: In that first murder, when we have a shot of her scarf floating down, did you mean thereby to block our disapproval of her, since the shot is so lyrical and makes the audience feel pleasant?
T: No. It was completely accidental. I had thought the scarf would fall very quickly. By chance that day the air current caused it to fall very slowly and in gentle movements. I liked that, and so I followed it all the way to the ground.
S: Did you mean the character played by Charles Denner to be a latent homosexual?
T: I don’t know.
S: In Shoot the Piano Player when Charlie and Lena are walking together for the first time and he is trying to decide whether to make a pass, you have his conscience speak in a voice different from his own. Why?
T: Because Charles Aznavour’s voice is too authoritative to be appropriate at that moment.
S: Another odd effect: When the owner of the bar informs on Charlie, you show him in three oval frames, panning across them. Why?
T: I don’t think that worked. Maybe it could have been taken out.
S: I don’t understand the editing in the love scene between Lena and Charlie. The pattern of cuts and dissolves is obscure.
T: I wanted to give the impression of passing time and, again, because Aznavour’s voice is too authoritative, I didn’t want him to speak in the scene. So I took bits of Lena speaking and used the transitions you mentioned to unite them.
S: Yes, but there are elisions in the time sequence, which is also, unless I’m mistaken, sometimes scrambled.
T: Now I remember. I wanted to give the impression that they sleep, get up, talk, go back to sleep, get up, etc. etc. That’s why it seems as you say.
S: If you had to give an acount of the meaning of this film, what would you say?
T: I made Shoot the Piano Player completely without reflection. When people first saw it, they said, “Why did you make a film about such a disgusting lowlife?” but I never posed this question to myself. You see, I love Down There very much. I am always drawn by the fairy tale aura of the American detective novel—as I also was in The Bride Wore Black. Both films are like Cocteau flms, mixing elements that are typically American and typically French and thus achieving an effect that is timeless, without country…
S: Not of this world.
T: Exactly. Well put. Not of this world. That’s what I want. When Godard saw Shoot the Piano Player, he said this is the first film laid in a country of imagination. I don’t think one should say at the beginning of a film, “This takes place in a purely imaginary world,” because then the audience will certainly feel let down since they will expect too much. But the audience should be made to feel gradually, while watching the film, that they are in no certain place.
S: In Jules and Jim, what do you think of Catherine?
T: She is totally fabulous. If you met such a woman in real life, you would see in her only faults—which the film ignores.
S: Not at all. In fact, many critics—at least in America—asserted that Catherine was a witch, a neurotic, a man-eater.
T: You know what a French psychiatrist said: “Jules and Jim is about two children in love with their mother.”
S: As far as you’re concerned, why does Catherine kill Jim?
T: Because it happens in the last pages of the novel. Even the casket in the flames comes from the book. Everything I show is from the novel. I can’t say why she killed him because the book doesn’t say. It isn’t a psychological novel. It is simply a love story that started and finished. If there is one difference between film and book, it is that the film is more puritanical. You see I was under thirty when I made it, whereas the novel’s author was a man of seventy-three.
S: Why did you put in the book-burning sequence?
T: Because Jim is German, and that is the Reichstag fire. So far as I was concerned, that marks the end of an epoch—an epoch of artists and dilettantes. Moreover, it prepares us for the burning of Jim and Catherine which ends the film.
S: Yes. This historical diminsion is very important in the film. Isn’t that why each successive scene includes a Picasso from a later period? Isn’t that the way you mark time?
S: This film is full of photographs, this story is full of stories. Why?
T: Jules and Jim was an autobiographical novel, written fifty years after the events reported in it. What I admired about the book was not only the story, but the temporal distance, which I had somehow to render on film. Thus I rarely shot the characters in close-up, and when I did, I tried to give full-length views. I wanted the film to look like an album of old photographs.
S: You so often answer my questions about your intentions by saying you do what you do to be faithful to the novel you are adapting. What about Fahrenheit 451, which is very untrue to the spirit of its source? Ray Bradbury’s novel is an allegory about the McCarthy era, highly political in its theme. Were you aware of this? In any case, why doesn’t the political dimension appear in your film?
T: It is not the sort of thing that interests me. I usually make films from books I admire, as I’ve told you. Fahrenheit 451 was different. One day I was having a conversation with a friend about science fiction, which I told him I didn’t like because it is too far from reality, too arbitrary in its events, incapable of rousing any emotions in me. In rebuttal, my friend told me of the plot of Bradbury’s book, describing a society in which books were forbidden, in which firemen did not put out fires but set them in order to burn books, in which men who wanted to read were forced to commit the text to memory. When I heard all this, I instantly decided to make the film, but I had not actually read the novel.
S: Do you have a special feeling for books?
T: No. I love them and films equally, but how I love them! When I first saw Citizen Kane, I was certain that never in my life had I loved a person the way I loved that film. My feeling is expressed in that scene in The 400 Blows where Antoine lights a candle before the picture of Balzac.
S: You say that politics didn’t interest you as a theme for Fahrenheit 451. But though the reference is different from Bradbury’s, your film does have a slight suggestion of political allegory. The firemen wear quasi-Nazi uniforms, Oskar Werner has a thick German accent, and anyone who comes to the film after seeing Jules and Jim sees in the earlier film’s newsreel sequence about the Reichstag fire a sort of model for Fahrenheit 451.
T: Originally, Fahrenheit 451 was to have been made in France with Jean-Paul Belmondo. I couldn’t find financing here and so had to shoot the film in England with Oskar Werner, who had not been my first choice for the starring role. I did want an actor of his type–one more poetic than psychological–but I did not want an actor with a German accent. During the shooting I kept telling him to play Montag gently; he decided to play the man as a Nazi.
S: Beginning with Fahrenheit, the infuence of Hitchcock seems to make itself felt. Is that why you made a studio film and used back projection in the Hitchcock manner?
T: That has nothing to do with Hitchcock. We were in England, yet I wanted to show the French countryside. Consequently, I had to shoot in a studio and project the French countryside on a screen behind the action.
S: I have the impression that this film began to bore you while you were making it. The first fifteen minutes are utterly successful: tense and moving. Later you dissipate the tension by little jokes that seem to subvert the film’s seriousness. For example, when Cyril Cusack (the chief) leads the firemen in a book search in a park, he finds a minuscule book in a baby’s pram and wags a finger at the child. Later, when Montag has begun to read and is rejected by the firepole (which men go up rather than down), Cusack turns to him and says, “What’s this, Montag, something wrong between you and the pole?” At the end of the film, when we meet the book people who have “become” books, a set of twins appears, one named Pride, the other Prejudice. And so on.
T: Ha-ha. You know it is oppressive for me to make a film on a “big subject.” I found this film lacking in humor and so put in those jokes you mention. But perhaps some of them are wrong. You see, if I had done the film in French, I would have had complete control of the language; in English, I never quite knew if a line was right. Making Fahrenheit is what taught me that dialogue was more important in a film than I had realized. It is, in fact, the most important thing. With images, if they are good, one attains seventy percent of possible satisfaction; with good dialogue, one attains perhaps ninety percent. The most personal of attributes is one’s fingerprint; dialogue is the fingerprint of a film. In Fahrenheit 451 I was blocked by my imperfect control over the dialogue, and therefore, I was frustrated. Since then, you will note, all my films have a lot of dialogue in them.
S: Since you like dialogue so much, why don’t you write plays?
T: I am bothered by the theater. The performance is not the same every night. Besides, I hate to talk to several people at once.
S: I can’t find any significance in The Soft Skin. It seems almost a documentary.
T: But a documentary powerfully dramatized!
S: I wonder about that and about numerous implausibilities. Why should so lovely a girl be attracted by the middle-aged hero, Lachenay?
T: But that is very normal. In life one never stops wondering what someone sees in someone else.
S: All right. I accept the fact that she falls in love with him, but can I believe that she spends all those hours sitting in a restaurant listening to him lecture about Balzac?
T: Even an unappealing man becomes appealing when he discusses his work. That’s why I made him discuss Balzac not in a scholarly way but as if he were describing a football match. His profound involvement in his subject moves her.
S: Do you think Francoise Dorleac listens in that way?
T: She needn’t show her interest. She is a girl of the twentieth century impressed by a man of the nineteenth.
S: The film is full of uneventful shots of objects. Were you trying to establish a certain style with this mute realism?
T: That didn’t give a style to the film; it is its style
S: Stolen Kisses seems more improvisational than your other films.
T: It was.
S: How did the improvisations take place? Were you or Leaud their guiding spirit?
T: The improvisations were forced on both of us because of the desperate state I was in when the film was made. Nothing worked. I had already written The Wild Child and Mississippi Mermaid, yet I was shackled to a rotten project. I got into it because I had wanted to make another film with Leaud but couldn’t find any material. We began with a vacuum that had to be filled. We said, “Let him have a sweetheart, let him have an affair with a married woman, let him work for a detective agency, etc.”
S: What did you rely on to hold it all together?
T: Leaud. There are actors who are interesting even if they merely stand in front of a door; Leaud is one of them.
S: One of the best scenes in Stolen Kisses occurs when the homosexual comes to the detective in search of his missing boyfriend. One hand, which is gloved, caresses the other, suggesting subtly but brilliantly the nature of the man.
T: The gesture was improvised. We hit on it naturally because everything about that character needed to be bizarre.
S: It’s particularly interesting because the homosexual’s love is both more powerful and more moving than the normal affairs of Antoine.
T: But this is a true story which a friend learned while interviewing a detective. The dentist in the film is also taken from real life. Everything in that film is true.
S: One of the film’s most striking scenes shows Antoine looking into the mirror and chanting the names of the two women in his life. How did you hit on this idea?
T: I needed to show that Antoine was torn between them, but there was no other character in the film whom he could talk to. Therefore, I had him talk to himself.
S: It is very charming. But, you know, many people hold that sort of charm against you. They say you calculate such effects simply to please, with one eye cocked at the audience.
T: But the scene isn’t charming. It is long and makes people uneasy. In Germany, they cut it.
S: But what about the general point?
T: The role of Antoine is so close both to me and to Jean-Pierre Leaud that we never think of other people. For example, Antoine never quarrels with anyone in the films because I am the same way. If a quarrel begins, I simply leave.
S: Is that why you don’t correct misinterpretations of your work?
T: In The 400 Blows I thought I had presented the parents and Antoine very naturally. The parents were guilty of showing so little love, but, after all, Antoine was very difficult. Then, to my surprise, I found that audiences thought the film slanted in the child’s favor. But one learns to live with misunderstanding. Once the film is finished, that’s all I care about.
S: Did you ever feel that way as a critic?
T: I never understood the meaning of a film. I am very concrete. I only understand what is on the screen. In my whole life, I have never understood a single symbol.
S: I would like to talk about Mississippi Mermaid for a while. Andrew Sarris pointed out that the film was cut in New York.
T: Though the film wasn’t very expensive, United Artists considered it a major project, and because of the stars, they had high hopes for its success. But the film was a big flop in Paris. The critics didn’t like it, nor did the public–perhaps because Deneuve and Belmondo didn’t appear in their usual sort of roles. Owing to the Paris reception, United Artists asked me to let them cut about eight minutes out of the film when it opened in New York. I could have refused, but in this business I hate to see people losing money on my account. I should have held out, though, because when the film opened in Japan, it proved a smash: my greatest success and the greatest success either Deneuve or Belmondo had ever experienced.
S: Are you now able to control the cuts producers wish to make?
T: One never has that power. Frequently, one simply doesn’t know what has been done. For example, I only learned about the cuts in Stolen Kisses because a journalist who had seen the film in an art house supported by the government complained that it was shocking to see cuts in films presented under such auspices. The journalist’s article forced the cinema distributor to replace the scenes. But, of course, that doesn’t always happen, much less get reported.
S: Many people in the States thought the stars implausible in their roles.
T: Implausibility is not a crime in all films. Mississippi Mermaid is a fairy tale for adults.
S: Don’t you rather over emphasize that fact–so much so that your serious ideas get compromised? For example, why did you superimpose that colored map of Reunion every time Belmondo took a trip there? I felt the need for more authenticity and fewer tricks to prepare the audience for your final statement about love.
T: It’s possible.
S: It seemed to me that footage from Fahrenheit 451 gets reused when Belmondo has his dream at the clinic.
T: It seems that way to me, too. Actually, the scene was shot with a monorail in Fahrenheit, whereas in Mermaid a road of trees were used. It is, you are quite right, the same effect with different means, but I think it works better in Fahrenheit.
S: Why did you include that shot in which Belmondo climbs Deneuve’s balcony? It seems to me only an opportunity for Belmondo to show off his athleticism.
T: Not at all. I did it for myself. First, I set the scene in that square because it is named after Jacques Audiberti, a French writer for whom I have the deepest admiration and whom I always think of when making my films. I wanted it to be very hard for Belmondo to get into Deneuve’s room, but also unusual. So I couldn’t couldn’t have him wait for the concierge to leave or somehow steal the key. When I got to the square, I noticed this house with many balconies. First, I had a sign hung, turning it into a hotel (the sign says “Hotel Monorail” because Monorail is the title of one of Audiberti’s novels). Then I thought that I would shoot the whole scene of Deneuve leaving the hotel and entering the cabaret and then of Belmondo going to the hotel and climbing from one balcony to the other in one single movement of the camera. That was a fascinating shot. He climbs so I could take it.