Pledge Your Allegiance
Austin Film Society lets two iconic filmmakers square off in its new series
We choose sides because they are an easy signpost to our innermost selves. Think of the title-match scraps that break out whenever film fans linger outside a theatre or head to the nearest coffee shop: Silent vs. sound. Westerns vs. musicals. Hepburn vs. Hepburn. I could tell you my favorite color is blue, but I hang my heart on my sleeve when I say I prefer Keaton to Chaplin.
When our office first heard word of the Austin Film Society's upcoming auteur showdown between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard – both film-critics-turned-filmmakers and the two godheads of the French New Wave – there were no look-into-your-heart hard decisions to be made. That line in the sand was drawn a long time ago, our feet implacably planted with either Truffaut or Godard.
Of course, these either/or arguments demand absolute fealty, when in reality both filmmakers are essential. Pivoting week to week between directors, the AFS series offers an opportunity to reaffirm our case, reconsider the other team, and maybe even find a handshake place in-between. Stick around after the movies: I expect the Marchesa lobby will be lively. – K.J.
It was Godard who pulled the trigger. The evidence is everywhere. Cinematic shell casings have scattered far and wide across the ensuing years, staccato echoes ricocheting around the mise-en-scène of film history, jagged shreds of shrapnel lodging arterial-deep in everyone, from the morally wounded Quentin Tarantino to less obvious infectees like Arthur Penn (Bonnie & Clyde) and even Errol Morris, whose unending search for truth mirrors in documentary form Godard's own explosive probing into the corkscrewed trajectories of man, woman, love, and death. Face it: You can't spell Godard without g-o-d.
Breathless, released in March 1960, shattered the preexisting template for narrative filmmaking while still keeping a loose grip on Hollywood's iconic gangster/moll iconography. Jean-Paul Belmondo's sexy-thuggish Michel and a pixified and pixelated Jean Seberg as his American girlfriend are archetypes, but Godard's hypnotically spastic editing and subversive use of the camera eye marked a caustically gorgeous subversion of the Hollywood rule book, and everything changed.
Not so much so, however, that the director couldn't indulge himself in the marginally more traditional killing fields of romantic comedy. 1961's A Woman Is a Woman, pairing newcomer Anna Karina with Jean-Claude Brialy as a pair of bickering young lovers and Belmondo as the third point on a Godardian isosceles love triangle. The right angles are all wrong here, but true to his emerging form, Godard renders – in color and CinemaScope this time out, forsaking his 16mm black-and-white debut format – an alternately amusing and heavily stylized film unlike anything coming out of America at the time.
"Film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, violence, death ... in one word, emotion," says cameoing director Samuel Fuller in Godard's Pierrot le Fou. Godard mirrors Fuller's battle-honed eye but adds Marxist, transgressive touches to one of the most randomly grand love stories ever committed to celluloid. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Godard muse Karina positively ooze l'amour fou in this, our favorite of all nouvelle vague explosions.
Weekend's (1967) gallows humor preceded by mere months the real-world French chaos of the May 1968 student riots and general strikes. Duplicitous husband and wife Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc) venture out into the French countryside only to find themselves trapped in a cyclical series of violently comedic travails that both predict and mirror Mai '68 itself. Godard serves fair warning (as ever) that the future is unknown, and quite possibly dangerous. Chaos reigns.
Unlike most other French New Wave filmmakers working within the very structure Godard first blew apart (especially François Truffaut), his opening filmic fusillade is nothing short of an achingly wondrous assault and an emotionally turbo-charged battery committed upon the audience. He took Sam Fuller at his word and proceeded to bayonet hearts, minds, and the heretofore hidebound traditions of narrative, form, and function. Proto-punk and daringly DIY, Godard ripped it up and started over – and over and over, something he continues to do to this day. – M.S.
A bellow from behind a megaphone vs. a soft word in your ear: Godard wanted to start a revolution, and Truffaut wanted to tell stories. (Merely tell stories, Godard sneered to a journalist, just one in a long volley of public and private attacks against his former friend.) The story Truffaut told in The 400 Blows – his first film, and an unqualified masterpiece – was his own, inspired by his early truancy and an unhappy home life. After 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud answered a newspaper ad for an open casting call, the story became his, too.
When we first meet Antoine Doinel, he is joyful, resourceful, cagey, and wounded – qualities that would blossom, sometimes brittle, throughout the Doinel cycle. In The 400 Blows, Antoine is always on the run: playing hooky, running away from home, and finally taking flight from a juvenile detention center, which ends with that devastating freeze-frame of Antoine on a beach, turning to face the camera. It's a bittersweet conclusion: He's free, but for how long? And would it be so awful to be caught? (Depends on who's doing the catching.)
In 1962, there was the short film "Antoine and Colette," about first love and fatal rejection. In 1968 came Stolen Kisses, and a shock – the round-faced imp had aged into a lean, hard-angled man, but still on the run: When he gets his dishonorable discharge from the army (more autobiography), Antoine practically gallops to the nearest bordello. Moving at a bebop beat, Stolen Kisses comically positions Antoine as a private eye. Soon enough, he's sleeping with the client's wife – but not before he nervously calls her "sir" by accident, in the film's most prized moment, and bolts out of the room, mortified.
The fleet, très charmant Stolen Kisses feels thin by comparison to 1970's Bed and Board, which introduces Antoine as a husband to Christine (played by Claude Jade) and later a father. The first half is vibrant and bustling and bursting with life, a valentine to domesticity – until Antoine strays, and the viewer wonders if he will ever be comfortable rooted in one place. The movie wends its way back to a happy ending – Truffaut intended that to be the last word – but circumstance convinced him to make a bookend, 1979's Love on the Run.
It's a frustrating film. Truffaut was unhappy with it, feeling that Doinel – largely static, allergic to maturing – had become a man out of time ("Mickey Mouse can't grow old," in his own analogy). There are rich rewards in the cycle for regular watchers, with call-backs to characters, monuments, and camera movements. But Love on the Run, overloaded with flashbacks, presumes we haven't been paying attention. Still, there's a reason exes Christine and Colette conspire here to reunite him with an estranged girlfriend: Antoine inspires such devotion. Maybe Truffaut would have gone back again, were it not for the brain tumor that cut his life tragically short in 1984. But Love on the Run's final flashback – to Antoine in The 400 Blows, fighting pointlessly against gravity in a 'round-we-go carnival ride and grinning all the while – is a poetically apt place to stop. – K.J.
Godard vs. Truffaut
The Austin Film Society's Godard vs. Truffaut series runs Fridays and Sundays, Jan. 3-Feb. 23, at AFS at the Marchesa (6226 Middle Fiskville). Visit the AFS website (www.austinfilm.org) for complete details.
Godard: Breathless Jan. 3, 8pm; Jan. 5, 2pm
Truffaut: The 400 Blows Jan. 10, 8pm; Jan. 12, 2pm
Godard: Pierrot le Fou Jan. 17, 8pm; Jan. 19, 2pm
Truffaut: Stolen Kisses and "Antoine et Colette" Jan. 24, 8pm; Jan. 26, 2pm
Godard: Weekend Jan. 31, 9:30pm; Feb. 2, 2pm
Truffaut: Bed and Board Feb. 7, 8pm; Feb. 9, 2pm
Godard: A Woman Is a Woman Feb. 14, 8pm; Feb. 16, 2pm
Truffaut: Love on the Run Feb. 21, 8pm; Feb. 23, 2pm