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  • Ravi Swami

A Trio of Truffaut, 1957, 1972, 1973

As with many film directors, alongside their most well-known, career-defining films, there are films that I certainly wasn't aware of, and this is certainly the case where François Truffaut is concerned, but it wasn't the usual path of seeking out films that I wasn't aware of that led me to them.

My sister likes to recount her story of encountering Truffaut in a New York bar sometime in the 1980's and of being completely unaware of who he was. Having lived in France for some time while pursuing a science career she had picked up enough French to have a decent conversation, and Truffaut was fascinated by this young Indian woman with a career in science. She found him charming and in no way interested in making advances toward her in spite of the setting in which they were having their conversation and it was only afterwards when my sister left with her friend that she was told that she had just spent time talking to François Truffaut, but then my sister is not particularly a film fan and she was more interested in their conversation and that he was a Frenchman in New York.

Hearing this story again during one of regular zoom calls prompted me to seek out some of his films, starting with one that I *had* watched before some time ago and so breaking my self-imposed rule - "Day For Night" (1973) - often cited as the "film-makers' film" since it is about Truffaut himself directing a fictional film and the dramas that unfold around it between the actors and crew, both revealing to the curious the mechanics of film-making and the artifice and egos in front of the camera, with Truffaut himself very much on the periphery, occasionally glimpsed or as a voice off-camera.

This was followed by a small treasure in the form of "Les Mistons" (Eng: "The Mischief Makers") from 1957 and is one of Truffaut' earliest commercial films and that stars an actress later to evolve into another muse of the French New Wave, Bernadette Lafont, co-starring with Gérard Blain (married to each other at the time), a pairing that was to continue into Claude Chabrol's "Le Beau Serge" reviewed here earlier.

In this film, Lafont plays the embryonic "minx" character that evolved further in "Le Beau Serge" and was fully-formed by the third film reviewed here and must have been an association that she found hard to shake off in later films.

In "Les Mistons", set in the town of Nantes in mid-summer, a group of young boys become infatuated by Lafont's character as she conducts a romance with Blain's character and follow the couple around intent on derailing their romance due to their own burgeoning feelings of jealousy and curiosity. It's a slight film but beautifully constructed besides being a window on rural France in the late 1950's and Truffaut himself was quite pleased with the result following his first film, "Une Visite", in 1955 and it reveals all the hallmarks of Truffaut's later cinematic style in, for example, using tracking shots.

Bernadette Lafont returned to work with Truffaut in 1972 in "Une Belle Fille Comme Moi" (Eng: "A Beautiful Girl Like Me") adapted from a best-selling novel by Henry Farrell and transposed to France.

Here she depicts the scandalous life of "Camille Bliss", recounted in flashback as she is being interviewed by a psychologist in the prison where she is serving time for murder. The psychologist is preparing a thesis on how women follow a life of crime resulting from early life experiences, in this case, Bliss' life on a farm with an abusive alcoholic father. When her father trashes her banjo in a drunken rage, Bliss, then a pre-teen, takes her revenge by removing a ladder he has used to climb into a barn and he falls to his death.

Later, by now a young and attractive woman, she escapes from a house of correction and waves down a sports car being driven by a lecherous young man (Philippe Léotard) who lives with his mother and keeps Bliss in his garage to satisfy his rampant sexual urges. Fed up with being exploited she storms in on the man and his mother as they eat their dinner, and the mother, horrified, insists they tie the knot when Bliss announces that she is pregnant, something that proves to be untrue.

She eventually walks out on her husband and finds work as a waitress in a roadside bar where she quickly catches the eye of the singer "Sam Golden" and the two embark on an affair in exchange for being launched as a singer herself.

Throughout the plot she flirts outrageously with the psychologist, Stanislas Previne, who is somewhat gauche and straitlaced and has an idealized view of women and who begins to imagine that Bliss is attracted to him.

Revealing more would spoil the film, which is darkly humorous and perhaps a little disturbing in the way the Bliss conducts herself in an almost feral fashion, using her body, often against her wishes, to get what she wants and it's no mere detail that she started her life on a farm, which counters the intellectual, educated Stanislas and you wonder if this was a wry comment on Truffaut himself.

Clearly, Lafont's character and her spirited and engaging performance makes her the heroine and final victor in dealing with predatory men and by the end of the film she neatly turns the tables on the psychologist when he obtains the final evidence that proves that she is not guilty of murder, rather, in her own words, she employs a "Fate Bet" to engineer situations where deaths are made to appear accidental, showing her to be both cunning and intelligent.

"Une Belle Fille Comme Moi" is not atypically Truffaut in style but it does highlight themes common in the New Wave movement in regard to concerns about the place and role of women in society and made me want to see more of Lafont's work.

*It's interesting to see the poster variations for the film, especially the rather odd Italian poster very much focussed on attracting the attention by emphasizing Lafont's character but in fact she doesn't appear like this in the film at all at any point so the image may have been derived from a publicity photo.

"Day For Night", Dir: François Truffaut, 1973

"Les Mistons", Dir: François Truffaut, 1957

"Une Belle Fille Comme Moi" Dir: François Truffaut, 1972

Apple TV / Mubi


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