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'The Last Uprising' | The Nation

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'The Last Uprising'

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The contours of this story are well-known. Though some critics have described Truffaut as "workmanlike" (admittedly, we don't get the full scoop about him and Catherine Deneuve; neither is it a particularly interpretive or innovative work), it offers up a fascinatingly full account of the filmmaker's life. From this raw material we can reconstruct Truffaut's political and artistic trajectory and show how important the Nazi occupation, postwar Gaullism and the vigorously Stalinist and nationalist French Communist Party (PCF) were in shaping his and the New Wave's politics and aesthetics.

At the time of writing, Carl Bromley had just returned from a pilgrimage to Truffaut's grave in Paris.

About the Author

Carl Bromley
Carl Bromley is the editorial director of Nation Books.

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Douchet suggests that the young Cahiers cinephiles embraced American cinema because the French industry was involved in a state-sponsored abandonment of reality: "French film confined itself to the studio and wallowed in a pessimistic and morose vision of daily life." The major films about the French Resistance projected a national, collective fantasy designed to hide a "sense of hidden and burning shame," promoting a national policy of reconciliation that was designed to absolve French society of its wartime collaborationist tendencies.

Because it had a few skeletons of its own to hide, the PCF largely subscribed to these myths; but its involvement in the film world alienated many Cahiers intellectuals. As the cold war solidified, the PCF's intellectual rigidity and hysterical anti-Americanism spilled over into its growing influence in the French Federation of Cinema Clubs. The trade paper L'Ecran francais, which it once controlled, expelled André Bazin, Truffaut's surrogate father, from the paper for being a "Catholic leftist."

Cahiers critic Jean Domarchi sketched the Stalinist position: "What is Soviet is good, what is American is bad. Note nevertheless one deliberate distortion of the postulate: French cinema, although bourgeois, has the right to every kind of accommodation." The PCF and its attendant organizations, far from posing a revolutionary threat, had accommodated to the corporatist structures of Gaullist France. In the film industry the PCF embraced and enforced this arrangement through its trade union allies, who were a junior social partner in an "umbrella of government control and bureaucratic mechanisms" that was established by the state-directed Centre National du Cinéma (CNC).

The CNC developed a financial structure that monitored box-office sales and plowed the taxes from foreign films back into the French industry. The system had its obvious strengths: Market forces were contained and a measure of job security was created, along with an "elitist journeyman" system, in which only those judged competent by other film professionals could work in the industry. On an artistic level, however, Douchet claims it had unwanted consequences: "The system, especially the work card, quickly became a constraint, for it restricted creativity by promoting academic repetitiveness and a sense of imitation that would conform to professional standards of ability." To direct one had to endure a lengthy system of apprenticeships "that enslaved [the apprentice] to an aesthetic that was at best popular, and at worst reactionary. The process produced neither revolutionaries nor resistance fighters, simply artisans, occasionally good ones, but rarely artists."

Within this system it was the screenwriter, not the director, who was king. As Truffaut noted impertinently, "When they hand in their scenario, the film is done; the metteur-en-scene, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds the pictures to it." As opposed to this studio-bound and rather theatrical cinema, the Cahiers crowd championed the work of such French mavericks as Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati and Max Ophuls, real "men of cinema," who imposed their creative vision on their work, irrespective of source material, subject matter or genre. Scandalously, the Cahiers crowd also looked to America's dynamic studio system and to directors no one had given the critical time of day before: Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nick Ray, filmmakers who transgressed "the artificial vision of the world offered by Hollywood" and imposed "a point of view about the truth of that world."

The official French left hated the Cahiers group and the New Wave, branding them as petit-bourgeois dilettantes who fetishized individualism, unpatriotic provocateurs who defended Hollywood movies, cultural dandies who "challenged the Marxist, and Marxist-oriented, left-wing culture subscribed to in intellectual circles." The company young Truffaut kept cannot have endeared him either: upper-class, conservative patrons who delighted in his insouciance; former Nazi-sympathizing film critics exiled in Franco's Spain. Even his fellow editors at Cahiers had to caution him about the sexist and homophobic turn of some of his writing.

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