Today, I went to visit our dear friend Francois Truffaut at the Montmartre Cemetery. It was a beautiful Boston-like day, the wind rustling through the trees and between the grave stones. As I had promised you, I bought fresh flowers and placed them on his grave. I also cleaned all the dead leaves of the many flower pots that had been left there earlier. I rearranged everything so the grave looked well taken-care of.
This is, as you know, not my first visit to Truffaut’s grave. And each time I am here I am seized with a wistfulness which I am unable to shake off for several hours afterward. And today was no different. My mind went back to Truffaut’s early films which we both love so much, and which we have enjoyed watching so many times–Shoot the Piano Player, the Antoine Doinel series, and, of course, our two favorites, Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows (I also love L’Enfant Sauvage); and to our conversations about Truffaut and what makes him such a special cineaste for us two, mother and daughter; and how he has brought us together like no other film-maker ever has and taught us in modest ways the great lessons of living and loving and losing, of carrying one’s pains lightly and with style, of knowing always that everything in life passes–and then that look of Doinel’s as he faces the camera, the sea behind him.
I had planned to write a regular post, a mini-narrative, of all the little details that made up my wonderful visit to Truffaut –together with the two Russian-speaking women, their breath full of vodka, who were looking for the grave of Dalida, the Egyptian-born French singer. But I chose this form because I was at the grave as two people, two generations–you and me–standing there at the foot of the black stone. Unlike Nijinsky’s diabolical grave site, there is not a trace of ornamentation on Truffaut’s grave, just the name and the dates. It is an apt last tribute to a film-maker who turned understatement into high art, who made uneven but great films, who speaks to us all still from somewhere far away, from a glorious time when cinema was something that took your breath away, that, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, taught you how to live and love and smoke and drink–and forgive people for their occasional failings and excesses and rigidities, to love them also for their idiosyncracies and flaws. Every time I watch another Truffaut film, I am transported to Beirut, to Cinema Clemencau, where I first encountered his work in Shoot the Piano Player. And every time a Truffaut film ends, I remember that sense of exuberance and sorrowful joy which I felt then, in Beirut, when I was, like you, young and full of promise and desire.
I had asked you once what your favorite Truffaut scene was and you had answered in these words, which I now reproduce without your permission:
The final scene in François Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups, when Antoine Doinel suddenly turns to face the camera, is, for me, one of the most poignant and bittersweet moments in modern cinema. Doinel, on the run from military school, has finally reached the seashore. He is within grasp of freedom from the restrictions of alienation and forced exile; from the turmoil of ruptured and oppressive familial and institutional bonds; and ultimately, from himself. Splashing his feet in the water, Doinel appears to shake the layers of conflict that Truffaut has created. But the turn to the camera and the final freeze frame signify his sudden realization that one can truly escape neither the circumstances nor the confines of life. This final moment is full of dualities and sudden reversals. When I first saw the film in high school, it evoked an immediate visceral reaction. Over time, my response to the film — and to cinema itself — has changed. My initial, somewhat superficial identification with the character has become more complicated. My adolescent wonderment has been transformed into a more thorough understanding of the layered visual landscape that a filmmaker creates with cinematography, editing, and the film’s overall mise-en-scéne.
When you are in Boston next, we’ll watch some Truffaut–The 400 Blows for sure–again.