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François Truffaut’s 20 best films – ranked

20. The Man Who Loved Women (1977)

This worldly comedy of love is an example of how Truffaut always aspired to something lighthearted with even a touch of Lubitschian comedy. But it’s a very 70s piece of work in its knowing and slightly louche celebration of male romantic conquest (it got a Hollywood remake directed by Blake Edwards with Burt Reynolds). Charles Denner plays Bertrand, a guy who loves all women with the passion of a connoisseur or a collector; at his funeral, the service is thronged with his female admirers.

19. The Mischief Makers (1957)

This short was Truffaut’s first serious work (if you discount his initial student-exercise short film, A Visit), a 23-minute piece of startling confidence and maturity in which almost all of Truffaut’s themes are laid out: the innocence and guilt of childhood, young love, the scary mystery of sex, and the glory of cinema itself. Over a hot summer, five brattish lads are larking about – and start spying on a young woman (played by the future French movie icon Bernadette Lafont in her first role) and her boyfriend. The game turns nasty.

18. Love on the Run (1979)

The adventures of Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel came to an end in this fifth and final film in the Doinel series – after The 400 Blows (1959), the short Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed and Board (1970), clips and outtakes from which surface here like flashes of memory. Doinel is now a thirtysomething guy, getting divorced from his wife and becoming tormented with Vertigo-ish obsessions with a woman who looks like his former partner. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance has become enigmatically reserved, prematurely aged in some way, but also frozen in youth, in the moment at which he became famous – the way celebrities tend to be.

17. Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Truffaut wasn’t a natural at science-fiction – perhaps his most notable contribution to the genre was his acting cameo in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And it has to be said that this movie – though much discussed in its day, and instrumental in elevating the Bradbury novel to classic status while making the title itself part of the language – maybe hasn’t aged all that well. In a future dystopia where all reading matter is forbidden, a firefighter whose job is incinerating books falls in love with a schoolteacher who has a secret copy of the Memoirs of Saint Simon. It creaks a bit.

Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter in Two English Girls.

Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter in Two English Girls. Photograph: Cinetel/Allstar

16. Two English Girls (1971)

A period piece, starring Léaud in a non-Doinel role, it is based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, who wrote Jules et Jim, another love-triangle story about the erotic poignancy of shared love. Léaud is the young French art critic Claude, fascinated by a young Englishwoman in Paris, Anne (Kika Markham), who introduces him to her sister , who instantly falls for Claude. The use of voiceover and journals gives a delicate, elegiac tone to this involved story of the human heart and its mysteries.

15. Mississippi Mermaid (1969)

Another of the Truffaut movies based on an American crime novel – in this case, by Cornell Woolrich, whose short story It Had to be Murder inspired Hitchcock’s Rear Window. It was also another to get a dodgy Hollywood remake: Original Sin, from 2001, starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a wealthy tobacco farmer who advertises for a mail-order bride and is entranced by the woman he gets, played by Catherine Deneuve, even though he is convinced that this was not the person who responded to the ad. The denouement shows Truffaut’s playful, gleeful love of thriller conventions.

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Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Mississippi Mermaid.

Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Mississippi Mermaid. Photograph: Cinetext/Ur/Les Films Du Carrosse/Allstar

14. The Story of Adele H (1975)

An unusual film in the Truffaut canon in that it’s a period drama with a literary flavour, and so close to the old-fashioned cinéma de papa, which Truffaut once made his name by deriding. At 20 years old, Isabelle Adjani made her breakthrough here as Adele Hugo, living in the 1860s with her celebrated father, Victor, on the island of Guernsey, where she has conceived a Hardyesque romantic obsession with a caddish British army officer played by the beautiful Bruce Robinson (later to direct Withnail and I). A desolate tale of doomed love, which Truffaut invests with mystery and tragedy.

13. The Wild Child (1970)

Perhaps the closest Truffaut came to the cinema of confrontation or shock, The Wild Child was arguably a forerunner to Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Drawn from a sensational and mythologised case history from 18th-century France, it is the story of a “wolf boy” who is discovered living a feral existence in the forest. A doctor takes it upon himself to show the boy the civilising influence of education. Léaud plays Victor, the wild child, and Truffaut himself plays the doctor. The film returns Truffaut to his keynote theme: the vulnerability and intensity of childhood.

12. The Woman Next Door (1981)

A steamy melodrama, almost an erotic thriller, evidently inspired by Tristan and Isolde, which appeared at the time to lack the indirectness and lightness of touch that features in the best of Truffaut. Gérard Depardieu plays a happily married provincial man who is astonished when a former lover, herself now married, moves in next door – Fanny Ardant. Their relationship had been painful and tempestuous and of course soon reignites in secret, leading to calamity and violence.

Jeanne Moreau in The Bride Wore Black.

Jeanne Moreau in The Bride Wore Black. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

11. The Bride Wore Black (1968)

Another playful pulp gem from Truffaut, again based on a Cornell Woolrich novel: a revenge thriller that is said to have paved the way for Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Truffaut created a great role for Jeanne Moreau as the woman whose husband was shot dead on their wedding day – and who sets out to get payback by murdering the original killer and his four associates, including Michel Bouquet and Michael Lonsdale. Was the original crime deliberate, or an accident? No matter. The fascination is in her serial-killer’s procedural, working her way through the list of the guilty and getting satisfaction even after being caught and sent to jail.

10. Bed and Board (1970)

This is the fourth in the Doinel series, and perhaps the strangest or the saddest. Antoine and his wife, Christine, are living together as man and wife: the domicile conjugal of the French title, which is of course is not conducive to an enticing movie. Naturally, Antoine is to stray, after they have a child together, forming an attachment to a Japanese woman, Kyoko (played by the Japanese model Hiroko Berghauer, wearing dresses created by her husband’s design firm). Antoine’s job at this stage is dyeing carnations for flower shops – and could there be a more pointed symbol of the shallow futility of art?

9. The Last Metro (1980)

One of Truffaut’s biggest commercial prestige hits – a tragicomedy set in occupied Paris in 1942, where the populace would save on heating bills by crowding into theatres and cinemas before getting the last metro home. A theatre company, with Catherine Deneuve as the leading lady and Gérard Depardieu the new young star, believes that the show must go on, despite Nazi oppression – and the Jewish director is hiding out in the theatre’s cellar from where he is shaping the productions in secret. The actors are up against one of the most hateful critics in movie history – an odious antisemitic collaborationist called Daxiat, based on the real-life pro-Nazi journalist Alain Laubreaux. The idea of the director hiding in the cellar, an artist working in secret, suppressed by fate, is not so far from Charles Aznavour’s piano player in Shoot the Pianist.

Catherine Deneuve and Heinz Bennent in The Last Metro.

Catherine Deneuve and Heinz Bennent in The Last Metro. Photograph: 05/United Artists/Allstar

8. Stolen Kisses (1968)

Stolen Kisses is a late-breaking new wave gem, free-wheeling, improvisatory in feel; witty, flighty, dapper film-making that is self-aware in the most lighthearted way, but sometimes rather melancholy and wan. With its references to les évènements and the Henri Langlois row, it could be Truffaut’s most Godardian film. Antoine Doinel has left the army under a cloud, and is now a brooding misfit who in short order is hired and fired from a bizarre range of jobs such as private detective and TV repairman. He begins to fall in love with Christine, a young woman played by Claude Jade, but also has a farcical sexual experience with his employer’s wife, vampishly played by Delphine Seyrig. Doinel’s life is now at the romantic comedy stage.

7. The Green Room (1978)

Surely one of Truffaut’s strangest and most distinctive films, atypical but also intensely personal and heartfelt – based on some short stories by Henry James. Truffaut himself plays Julien, a veteran of the first world war, who works at a newspaper writing obituaries and is obsessed with death – the death in action of his wartime comrades, whose fate he didn’t deserve to avoid, the death of more and more of his contemporaries, and, chiefly, the death of his wife, to whom he keeps a shrine in his house. A disastrous fire leads Julien to a certain young woman, Cécilia, played by Nathalie Baye, with whom love and death fuse in a kind of occult redemption.

6. Small Change (1976)

Truffaut returns with heartfelt passion to the theme of childhood, but here it is not seen through the lens of the past: these children’s lives are happening in the present day. There is an ensemble of children and young teens here, suffering abuse, loneliness and shame, but also experiencing rebellious fun and first love. It is an episodic movie giving us little glimpses of lives, sometimes cheekily melodramatic or sentimental, sometimes wildly implausible, but these comic elements offset the brutally real pain that mottles the movie like marble.

5. The Soft Skin (1964)

Truffaut’s drama of amour fou is probably his most grownup depiction of love and sex: a movie conducted with suavity, subtlety and depth – despite the faintly preposterous or melodramatic nature of the story. Jean Desailly plays a literary celebrity called Pierre Lachenay who comes to Lisbon to lecture on Balzac and has a passionate fling with Nicole, an air-hostess (as flight attendants were quaintly known in those days) on his plane, who is staying at the same hotel – played by Françoise Dorléac. As their obsessive affair continues, sensuality turns into comedy and farce. At first brittle and elegant, the affair becomes compellingly tender as both reveal their vulnerability.

Charles Aznavour and Nicole Berger in Shoot the Pianist.

Charles Aznavour and Nicole Berger in Shoot the Pianist. Photograph: Les Films De La Pléiade/Allstar

4. Shoot the Pianist (1960)

Truffaut’s follow-up to The 400 Blows is based on the novel Down There, by Philadelphia crime author David Goodis, and shows his extravagant love of American pulp and American noir – a key article of faith for the French new wave. Charles Aznavour plays Charlie, the piano-player in a sleazy dive. His name is actually Edouard Saroyan, an internationally known classical concert pianist who abandoned his glittering career because of a terrible secret, and now he gets muddled up with lowlife and crime, due to the nefarious activities of his brother, with the Marxian name of Chico, played by Truffaut stalwart Albert Rémy. The scene where two mobsters abduct Charlie and his girlfriend Léna (Marie Dubois) and start gossiping among themselves is hilarious – especially when one confesses he used to wear his little sister’s silk knickers as a boy. And the weird Truffaut-esque keynote of unexpected innocence is established when a total stranger tells Chico: “There are more virgins here than in any other city.”

3. Day for Night (1973)

Plenty of movies are said to be love letters to cinema, but pre-eminent has to be this raffish comedy, in French titled La Nuit Americaine, the resonant term for the lens filter used to make a daytime shot look like night. This is the farcical, even screwball story of a film being made. Truffaut plays the director, who has hired a highly strung Hollywood star called Julie Baker, played by Jacqueline Bisset. His leading male, played inevitably by Jean-Pierre Léaud, has got his fiancee hired on the crew, but she is about to run off with a British stuntman. Like Fellini, Truffaut loves the rootless intensity of the loves and friendships on a film set, in comparison with which the claims of families and spouses at home are very dull. Even the longueurs and frustrations of filming have a dramatic shape and purpose lacking in the drab and messy wasteland outside the studio. Cinema is like real life, only better.

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Anotine Doinel in The 400 Blows.

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Anotine Doinel in The 400 Blows. Photograph: The Criterion Collection/Allstar

2. The 400 Blows (1959)

Truffaut’s marvellous autobiographical debut had a sublime freshness and candour – and with it he began his lifelong collaboration with Jean-Pierre Léaud, the child actor whom he recast as a version of himself, forever merging his own persona with Léaud in the public’s mind and also perhaps in Léaud’s mind. He was the 12-year-old Antoine Doinel, who, like Truffaut, is a delinquent, an unhappy kid from a troubled home. He steals things and bunks off, roaming around Paris with his mate, and, to explain his truancy, tells his teacher that his mother is dead. This lie is exploded when his mother and stepfather show up at the school and slap Antoine in front of the entire class. Finally, Antoine is sent to reform school from which he is to escape. Truffaut gives us the immortal sequence in which Antoine runs to the beach, having never before seen the sea, the final freeze frame showing the childlike face at the point of becoming a man.

1. Jules et Jim (1962)

It is the eternal love triangle that feels as if it is happening right in the swinging-60s present moment (like Godard’s triple-header Bande à Part), but in fact is set before and after the first world war. Oskar Werner is Jules, a diffident young Austrian living in 1912 Paris. He befriends the more worldly Frenchman Jim, played by Henri Serre. Both men fall for the same bohemian, beautiful force of nature: Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau, having persuaded themselves that she resembles a beautiful Greek sculpture that they have seen. When war breaks out, Jules and Jim must fight on opposite sides. Is Jules et Jim a secret queer love story? Or is their friendship an anti-war fable, Catherine symbolising what they have in common? Catherine is possibly a fatuous male creation, the original manic pixie dream girl, whose function is to showcase the men’s more substantial nobility. Yet perhaps her passion and restless unhappiness point up the essential flimsiness and mediocrity of these men. Moreau’s most remarkable scene comes when she insouciantly sings in front of Jules and Jim a song of her own composition, Le Tourbillon de la Vie, or The Whirl of Life, accompanied on the guitar by another of her lovers. She sings with a delicate, birdlike, non-fatale chirrup. And perhaps the film’s meaning resides in that idea of a fatal whirlwind. Catherine asks Jim to meet her in a cafe, and doesn’t show up. Later, she explains something about a hairdresser, and reveals she is marrying Jules. If she had made it to their date, and Jim had had the courage to get his proposal in first, would things have been different? Happier? Or even more unhappy? Do love and destiny hinge on something as random as a missed date? Catherine is missing from the title but she dominates the movie.

Lawrence U

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