Monday, May 17, 2010

Truffaut and Godard: Two in the Wave

There have been Czech, Romanian, and Japanese “New Waves,” in which small groups of young avant-garde filmmakers shook the countries’ cinema out of its complacency. Of course, the tsunami of all New Waves was the French Nouvelle Vague, essentially launched by François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. The turbulent relationship between the two former friends turned bitter antagonists and their significance within the Nouvelle Vague movement are analyzed in Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary Two in the Wave (trailer here), opening this Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum.

If there is one touchstone image in Wave, it is a haunting scene from Truffaut’s Blows, featuring the teenaged protagonist Antoine Doinel running across an empty beach. Though controversial, its screening at Cannes was an unalloyed triumph, ironically made possible by de Gaulle’s minister of culture, novelist André Malraux who chose it as France’s sole representative film. Soon thereafter, Truffaut lent his rising prestige to Godard’s feature debut, penning the initial story treatment for Breathless. The resulting film would be radically different, reflecting Godard’s highly unorthodox methods.

Laurent’s film could have easily been called Three in the Wave, with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud being the third of the Nouvelle Vague trio. Forever considered Truffaut’s alter-ego for his work in 400 Blows and in subsequent Doinel films, Léaud also appeared in several of Godard’s increasingly didactic films, like the explicitly Marxist Made in U.S.A.

More than just battling for Léaud’s on-screen soul, the two filmmakers would sever their friendship over a fundamental disagreement over nature of art. As writer-narrator Antoine De Baecque clearly explains, Godard, the Maoist from a well-to-do family, insisted art must serve as overt agitprop to have any social value. Conversely, it was Truffuat, a man from mean circumstance who had seen prison from the inside on more than one occasion, who insisted art should be true to itself and not adulterated for ideological purposes.

Wave is generously illustrated with clips from relevant Truffaut and Godard films, as well as those of some of their contemporaries, like Agnés Varda. Laurent also culled an impressive collection of archival photos and press clippings that he presents in a rather idiosyncratic style. Instead of showing them directly on-screen, he films actress-model Isild Le Besco pensively leafing through them. From a strict documentary standpoint, her selection does not make much objective sense, but she is certainly attractive, so who’s to object?

Sharply edited by Marie-France Cuénot, Wave captures the feeling of the Nouvelle Vague, without slavishly aping the jump cuts and other hallmarks of the movement’s stylistic breakthroughs. Laurent and De Baecque uncover quite a bit of telling video footage that provides fresh insights into both auteurs. However, it probably would not be the most effective introduction to either filmmaker for those unfamiliar with their work. After all, it gives away the endings to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Godard’s Breathless, which will also soon open at Film Forum in a newly restored print to mark its fiftieth anniversary. For dedicated Francophile cineastes though, Wave is full of fascinating details, nicely evoking the two very different directors and their groundbreaking films. It opens at Film Forum this Wednesday (5/19).