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'The Last Uprising' | The Nation

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'The Last Uprising'

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But Truffaut was contradictory as well as contrary. When he was charged as an army deserter his prosecutors described the company he kept as "anti-militarists, Communists and homosexuals." Truffaut was friends with Jean Genet and--importantly --Bazin, a deeply committed Christian socialist who probably believed that Truffaut's extreme views were weakly held. If anything, Truffaut had a "mistrust of all forms of proper, decent, righteous, official discourse."

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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The New Wave's reaction to corporatism was a "cinema of poverty" made outside the system and, in the case of Chabrol and Truffaut, funded from the fat of their wives' dowries. This was a cinema that finally allowed Paris to breathe, engaging with a young consumer culture. It was apolitical, yet the political would find it. As Douchet--a member of the New Wave crowd from the beginning--observes: "It was inevitable that the joyous spontaneity of 1958 would one day have to confront politics. And this is exactly what occurred ten years later, when the streets were again full."

At first the political was confined to the question of cinematic form. As the Godard aficionado says to a skeptical Marxist friend in Bernardo Bertolucci's New Wave-ish Before the Revolution, "A dolly shot is a style and a moral fact." Though Godard's second film, Le Petit Soldat, was banned by the Gaullist censor because it dealt ostensibly with the taboo subject of the Algerian war, arguably, with its spies armed with cameras roving throughout Geneva, it is more an autocritique of the New Wave's obsession with cinematic truth than an act of political engagement. But Godard's films began to develop a political consciousness of their own. A Brechtian influence can be detected. As Susan Sontag suggested, language and image collide in his work--signs, texts, stories, monologue and interview undermine the flow of images, distancing us emotionally, especially during moments of pathos. We never forget this is cinema (or its end, as Godard proposes in Weekend.)

Godard's protagonists are often drenched in American pop culture; its cinema, books and cars obsess them, to the extent that Godard probably spoke for a generation when he suggested that Masculin-Féminin could have been retitled The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola (a description that resurfaced during May '68). Other dichotomies--cultural and musical, political and racial--persist throughout his work, but his films are primarily activated by sexual tensions in which resolution is rare.

Gunshots are heard throughout Masculin-Féminin--usually offscreen, almost as musical accompaniment. They gesture to the toxic state of sexual relations (two men are shot dead by women in the film), but they are also a premonition of a radical political culture that was beginning to challenge the prevailing sterility of consumer culture. Almost all of Godard's films from Les Carabiniers onward refer to this rupture: In Weekend it reaches apocalyptic pitch with its hippie-guerrilla-cannibals, but La Chinoise, a remarkable film about a cell of young Maoists, anticipated May '68 and the PCF's complicitous role in bailing out de Gaulle, even though at the time of its release the characters' plans to close down the universities was dismissed as fantastical.

The February 1968 rallies outside the Cinémathèque Française protesting the ouster of director Henri Langlois, a New Wave mentor in many respects, were, as Truffaut's biographers suggest, the "first taste of territorial struggles waged against the administration and the Gaullist government" that would culminate in May '68. It was also a New Wave reunion. Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Chabrol, Pierre Kast--they were all there, united again, scuffling with the police. Truffaut, whose career was going through a lull, found the whole experience rejuvenating. The protests were the answer to a question he had once agonized over: "Is cinema more important than life?" It was then, but life, and the injunction to change life, would return with a vengeance three months later.

Although authority figures are challenged in Truffaut's films, his movies are more obsessive about the physical, emotional and literary dimensions of love, and hence his output was never directly political in the Godardian sense. Truffaut moved recognizably to the left when he began to direct films; he put his career on the line by joining the likes of Sartre and de Beauvoir in signing the Manifesto of the 121 in 1960, a "Declaration on the right to insubordination in the Algerian war," which many regarded as treasonous. It certainly cut him off from the right-wing company he used to keep. And in May '68 he was instrumental in closing down the Cannes film festival.

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