Woe is he: Two in the Wave

FILM, Film Festivals

Godard and Truffaut, head to head.

For those cinephiles already familiar with the history of legendary French filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Emmanuel Laurent’s Two in the Wave is likely to be an easy watch. Nevertheless, the film is an engaging hour or so, and may encourage some to revisit the many extraordinary films directed by these young men. For those who have yet to explore this rich cinematic legacy, Laurent’s concise and informative film is an ideal introduction to two of the most exceptional artists of the loose collective known as the Nouvelle Vague.

The film charts the personal relationship and gradually divergent paths of the two men over one of the most significant decades in film history, from the revelatory impact of their debut features—Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) and Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)—to the permanent, perhaps unavoidable rift between them. Along the way, we learn that the two obsessive film-buffs met at film club screenings in the late 40s, and that they wrote passionate and outspoken film criticism for Cahiers du Cinema in the 50s before transforming their critical theories into filmmaking practice. The newspaper clippings that dominate the visual style of the film also dominate its content, which for the most part eschews analysis in favour of biography.

The mentorship of left-wing Catholic film critic André Bazin had a huge influence on Truffaut and Godard. One of the founders of Cahiers du Cinema, Bazin was something of a father figure to them—on a personal level for the once-troubled Truffaut, on an intellectual level for Godard, and on aesthetic/artistic levels for both. Bazin’s criticism looked for ‘patterns in the tapestry’ of a filmmaker’s work, connections in style and content that defined an authorial voice (which of course came to be known as Auteur Theory). Bazin may have significantly influenced Godard’s anti-bourgeois impulses, as well as the mystical/philosophical ruminations that have appeared in his work since 1980, where the notion of God has been given serious consideration—not so much the God of religious dogma, but the Abiding Power and Mystery of Love.

Godard always maintained that cinema is (or should be) political, but Truffaut argued that art needs no justification. Ironically, Truffaut’s films would come to resemble the kind of cinema he once vehemently criticised, what he called le cinéma de papa, while Godard moved further to the left politically and artistically, at times pushing Brechtian alienation so far that some viewers found his films irritatingly impenetrable. But the political thrust of his work may, to some extent, mask a battle against his own bourgeois instincts, and in this light, Truffaut can be seen as an easy target for Godard’s occasional hostility. The infamous letter he wrote after storming out of a screening of Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973) led to an irreconcilable rupture, but one senses that there may have been tension from the start, and that there might be some truth in Truffaut’s outraged reply where he accused Godard of narcissism. Laurent stays well clear of such speculation, favouring an uncritical presentation of indisputable facts combined with general approbation.

Throughout Two in the Wave, Jean-Pierre Léaud is presented as the locus for the tug-of-war steadily brewing between the directors—the big-brother support of Truffaut, for whom Léaud was his autobiographical stand-in, against the artistic and political growth offered by Godard, with whom he made nine films, many of which are key films of the period. Laurent also offers the pouting presence of Isild le Besco as a stand-in of sorts for the viewer, an embodiment of ever-new generations of cinephiles researching this iconic period, flicking through newspaper clippings and traipsing around locations connected to the story. She also evokes the youthful sexuality (and vanity) of the Nouvelle Vague, the many similarly attractive female presences in Godard’s films (with their sensuous, idealised, unambiguous sexuality), but also the implicit voyeurism of the cinematic gaze.

One could speculate on how Truffaut might have progressed as a filmmaker had he not died so young (aged 54), but apart from a few notable exceptions, he had long been a spent force. That may be a little harsh, but Truffaut’s work could be numbingly mid-brow. Godard, on the other hand, remained vital. It’s tempting to read their divergent paths as attempts to transcend their backgrounds. Truffaut: under-privileged and lower class, making artful films with commercial appeal. Godard: wealthy and bourgeois, making politically committed (and politically credible) films with challenging cinematic rigour. It’s equally tempting to agree with Truffaut’s assertion that Godard changed cinema forever, but of course, the wealth of cinematic achievement in the 60s goes way beyond the work of one man. The significance of Michelangelo Antonioni alone cannot be overstated, let alone Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Miklos Jansco, Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Jacques Tati, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luis Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Glauber Rocha, John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage and the American Avant-garde, Stanley Kubrick, the Czech New Wave, the Japanese New Wave, the British New Wave, and so on.

Yet, the impact and enduring legacy of the Nouvelle Vague was (and still is) extraordinary, and it would be no overstatement to say that Godard is one the greatest cineastes in world cinema. The depth and rigour of his oeuvre is astonishing, and I suspect that few cinephiles can claim to have not only seen this enormous body of work, but to have absorbed it. A work like Helas Pour Moi (Woe is Me, 1993), for example, is a hard-ask for anyone to grasp in one sitting. As with nearly all of Godard’s ‘second wave’ films, it is a complex, richly layered, witty meditation on love, life, the ID, the ego, the Universe, and of course, cinema. This widely misunderstood film is one of many expansive, late-period Godard masterworks—beautiful to look at, gorgeous to listen to, and endlessly fascinating to ponder. Few filmmakers demand such a concentrated and reflective viewing attitude as Jean-Luc, whose films are far from casual, every-day viewing. For that, we have Truffaut—and I would like to think that François, the former widely feared film critic and voracious cinephile, would agree.

Dir. Emmanuel Laurent
France, 2009; 93 minutes
In French with English subtitles
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.