An Event Sociologique: Truffaut in 1977

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François Truffaut (w/ Bob Balaban back right) on location, 1976

7 March 1978
Beverly Hills

Dear François,

We have finally seen Close Encounters. It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France. This type of popular science would be most appropriate for the compatriots of Jules Verne and Méliès. Both men were Montgolfier‘s rightful heirs. You are excellent in it, because you’re not quite real. There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet. In the South of France one would say he is a bit fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies.
These fairies who reside with you have agreed to let themselves be briefly borrowed by the author of the film in question.
Love from Dido and I.

Jean Renoir
[Source: Jean Renoir: Letters, edited by David Thompson & Lorraine LoBianco. London: Faber & Faber, 1994]

François Truffaut was pursued by a young Steven Spielberg to accept the role of a French scientist, Claude Lacombe, in his big budget Columbia Pictures venture, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  His response to Spielberg was one of amusement and a statement that the only person he knew how to play…was himself.  It was in 1976 that one of the founders of French New Wave cinema found himself at the forefront of a complex, effects laden production which both fascinated and horrified him.  It was thanks to Spielberg that Truffaut would cement his decision to never accept a directing offer from Hollywood.

The role of Claude Lacombe is of an especially interesting diversion for Truffaut because of its intelligence mingled with child-like wonder.  Lacombe resembles, in some fashion, the inverse of young Antoine Dionel, the troubled boy in director Truffaut’s stunningly moving debut film Les Quatre Cents Coups, better known as The 400 Blows (a French variation of the term meaning to raise hell).  In that classic film, the young boy Antoine seems older and wiser beyond his years, whereas Truffaut finds himself in 1977 as an older, but child-like man in his pursuit of the truth.  Lacombe does not seem to be jaded by the times, perhaps because of some scientist code of filtering all outside information as possible solutions without prejudice or judgement.  He sees the world through a child’s sense of curiosity and honesty and…with a smile.

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That smile.  Truffaut uses it to such a subtle, but great effect.  It is a knowing smile as he examines an elderly Mexican farmer who was sunburned by a light that sang to him.  It is a gentle smile as Truffaut approaches the main protagonist Roy Neary, played with every-man greatness by Richard Dreyfuss, to ask what he wants.  It is a grateful smile he flashes to the Visitor as they exchange rudimentary hand signals, such a boys would do in a tree-house ritual. He saves his best mischievous smile when he spies from a window the three escaping captives whom he knows have a need and a right to be there just as much as he does.  You cannot help but smile yourself  with Truffaut through all of this.  His presence adds levity and an intelligence to all the fantastical proceedings.  It grants us a peek into that inner child which these celestial visitors seem to bring out.  Lacombe is a scientist you would want to hang out with after work.

The great French director Jean Renior mentions Georges Méliès, in his letter to Truffaut above, which, in a sense,  perfectly highlights that path from the wildly imaginative Méliès films from the silent era to Spielberg’s rumination on contact with extraterrestrials.  Same other-worldly subject matter, but now with a larger budget and bigger special effects.  To witness Truffaut in the midst of this, is to see a man in love with cinema totally and completely.  He may be playing himself, which is charming in itself, but he manages to make us invest emotionally with the scientific aspect, which parallels the Roy Neary emotional investment of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  It makes us want more interaction between these two men; one that is searching for an answer as a man, with the other eternally searching for the truth as a scientist.

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“I saw plenty of differences in degree, but not in kind. I felt the same admiration for Kelly and Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain as for Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.

I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies both ridiculous and despicable.” 
― François Truffaut, The Films in My Life

These are the words of a true cinephile, a person who truly loves all things cinema regardless of subject matter, format, style, or period.  Truffaut was a film critic first before going behind the camera.  He talked about his ambitions to be a novelist, but found filmmaking to be a higher art form.  The absolute genuineness of his art and his life made Truffaut one of the great enduring figures in cinema.  His presence in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, was for many American audiences the first time one had ever heard of the name François Truffaut.  Steven Spielberg was nervous in asking Truffaut to be in the film because of his huge reputation and stature as one of the founders of such a formidable movement in cinema art.  To the unsuspecting American audiences, he was a French scientist with a very thick accent, who was extremely likable.  Who was this guy, they may have asked?  In the days before the internet, one had to search the library in newspapers, magazines, or books to find out more.  It could be by chance that some revival house or college would be showing one of his films that could be discovered.  Thanks to technology, we have a plethora of information and actual films of Truffaut waiting to be enjoyed at the click of a mouse.

It would be remiss to discount Truffaut’s contribution to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as merely a star cameo.  There is something more in his performance.  It has the substance of reality.  He was playing himself, but Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera captured something special.  Something much more.  Within those wonderful smiles, he was having fun with the whole process, and that, ladies and gentleman, is a very difficult measure to capture on film.  In a pivotal scene in the film, his character Lacombe pleads with an army major about this psychic connection, when it almost sounds like Truffaut is talking about the cult of the movie going experience;

Lacombe: I believe that for everyone of these anxious, anguished people who have come here this evening, there must be hundreds of others also touched by the implanted vision who never made it this far. It’s simply because they never watched the television. Or perhaps they watched it, but never made the psychic connection.

Walsh: It’s a coincidence. It’s not scientific.

Lacombe: Listen to me, Major Walsh, it is an event sociologique.

 

François Truffaut [February 6, 1932 – October 21, 1984] Writer, Director, Producer, Critic, Actor

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977, written and directed by Steven Spielberg, photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, music by John Williams

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[left to right] Bob Balaban,  François Truffaut, Lance Henriksen, director Steven Spielberg, producer Julia Phillips on location 1976
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