Director Series: François Truffaut’s Une visite (1954)

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Florence Doniol-Valcroze in Une visite (Source)

“Frankly, there’s nothing to say about this short film. For me, my first film was Les Mistons! Une visite didn’t count!” — François Truffaut

By all accounts — especially his own, on the rare occasions when he discussed it — François Truffaut had little affection for his first attempt at directing. Not only did he  consider Une visite unreleasable, “merely a string of sequences joined end-to-end,” shot on 16mm without sound, but in a 1974 interview he expressed pleasure (or relief) that it had become a lost film. “I am often asked for copies — I’m very happy that none exist any longer!” Perhaps his attitude toward it softened in the years following this interview, or perhaps curiosity compelled him to see if it was as bad as he remembered. Whatever the case, he eventually recovered a print, blew it up to 35mm and, near the end of his life, screened it privately for some of the people involved in its production. For the general public, however, Une visite remains unavailable for viewing; still, some sense of the film can be gleaned from what’s been written and said about it.

Truffaut first aspired to make his own film as early as 1950, when he was just eighteen, but the project he planned at that time — La ceinture de peau d’ange, or The Angel Skin Belt — never got off the ground. It wasn’t until late 1954 that he successfully committed anything to celluloid (though “successfully” is a relative term in this case). The celluloid in question was acquired through the aid of friends: Jacques Rivette, his fellow critic at Cahiers du cinéma magazine, who had already shot several 16mm shorts of his own, was able to borrow a silent camera and obtain affordable film stock; Robert Lachenay, his childhood friend (later the model for René in The 400 Blows [1959] and Antoine and Colette [1962]), paid for it. Both men were also directly involved in the actual shoot. “Rivette was the cameraman, and I was everything else: stagehand, electrician, assistant,” Lachenay recalled, adding that “in the credits, I found myself the producer of the film.”

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Laura Mauri in Une visite (Source)

Other friends and acquaintances contributed as well. Laura Mauri, who played the female lead, was romantically involved with Truffaut at the time (making her the first in a long line of actresses in his movies with whom he was romantically involved); she went on to work as the script supervisor on Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (1961). The two male characters were played by yet another Cahiers critic, Jean-José Richer, and by Francis Cognany, a friend of Mauri’s who later served as assistant director on a number of French New Wave films, including Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player (1960). For the setting, Truffaut used the apartment of Cahiers co-founder Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and his then-wife Lydie — a space that was loaned to him for the five-day shoot on the condition that the team look after the couple’s young daughter, Florence. “As they didn’t know what to do with her, they made her act,” Lydie Mahias (formerly Doniol-Valcroze) explained in Le Roman de François Truffaut, published shortly after the director’s death in 1984. Florence thus became the fourth and final member of the cast.

As this suggests, Une visite was improvised rather than carefully planned — to its detriment, according to Truffaut. “I was improvising, which is something absolutely senseless for an amateur; you can, even then, put in a little work before shooting,” he said in 1961. There was, moreover, no story, making it “incomprehensible and unshowable.” Mahias also commented on the difficulty of following the events of the eight-minute short and joked, “Maybe after all the story is the story of a babysitter!” Fortunately, a document donated to the Cinémathèque Française by Madeleine Morgenstern, Truffaut’s ex-wife, offers a summary:

A young boy (Francis Cognany) is looking to rent a room via the classified ads. We see him telephoning from a booth. He arrives at an apartment occupied only by a young girl (Laura Mauri). In the hallway, he trips over his suitcase and falls flat on his face, on the floor. The young girl laughs. The young man moves in. Later in the afternoon, the young girl receives a visit from her brother-in-law (Jean-José Richer), who has come to drop off his little girl so that she can be watched over the weekend (Florence Doniol-Valcroze). Taking advantage of his stop at the apartment, the brother-in-law clowns around and attempts in vain to flirt with the hostess. The brand new tenant, perhaps more sincerely than the brother-in-law, also tries his luck, clumsily, with the young girl and is likewise rebuffed. He puts his clothing back in his suitcase and leaves the apartment at the same time as the brother-in-law. Night falls on Paris, Place Blanche is shrouded in darkness. The young girl puts her niece to bed, closes the curtains and sits down, pensive, on the edge of her bed.

Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana include a similar summary in their biography of the director, with some additional details: the boy is described as “rather awkward and provincial,” and the girl “gently mak[es] fun of his shyness”; he “awkwardly attempt[s] to hold her hand,” while the brother-in-law “steal[s] a kiss on her neck; and the brother-in-law’s clowning includes “blowing puffs of cigarette smoke like a locomotive.” That last trick would be recycled in Jules and Jim (1962), as Carole Le Berre points out in François Truffaut at Work.

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Jean-José Richer in Une visite (Source)

Based on these descriptions, it appears that quite a few of the elements characteristic of Truffaut’s subsequent work could already be found in this initial effort. There’s the presence of the little girl, for a start, even if Florence Doniol-Valcroze was only incorporated into the movie out of convenience or necessity. Her mother made note of the fact that she was “the first child in Truffaut’s cinema,” because children would appear in the vast majority of his films, whether as central characters (The 400 Blows, The Wild Child [1970], Spare Change [1976]) or in smaller roles. Love triangles would recur again and again as well; Truffaut said that when he shot Mississippi Mermaid (1969), “it felt very odd to me to have only a couple” without a significant third party. Here, the would-be triangle is thwarted at its outset. It sounds — though it’s difficult to be certain without actually seeing the film — as if the girl is more mature, more self-possessed, less ridiculous than the boy and the brother-in-law. “I always have female characters that are stronger than my male characters,” Truffaut remarked at the time of The Man Who Loved Women (1977). In the same vein, the shy, clumsy, awkward boy comes across as a proto-Antoine Doinel, particularly the Doinel of Antoine and Colette and Stolen Kisses (1968).

Other possible similarities aren’t conveyed by these plot summaries. Although Truffaut went into Une visite without a story, he did at least have certain intentions: “The idea was to make a film in 16mm that would not be at all like an avant-garde film — that is, one in which there would be no dead people, no pools of blood, no poetic effects — and which would be light gray. It was a film in black and white, but I wanted it to be light gray like Cukor’s comedies.” He would continue to reject the avant-garde throughout his career. “Above all, François never wanted to make avant-garde films,” Morgenstern said in a 2014 interview, implying that this was tied to the sense of social exclusion he had experienced in his youth. “I make ordinary films for ordinary people,” he said.

As for the George Cukor connection, Truffaut — like many of his fellow Cahiers critics turned New Wave directors — was heavily influenced by Hollywood cinema, which had flooded French theaters in 1946 after being banned during the Occupation. “I have seen fifteen hundred American films,” he declared in 1966 while discussing Shoot the Piano Player. “What I love about these films is their atmosphere; I wanted to reuse these elements, recreating them in ‘a French manner,’ to pay a certain kind of homage to them.” He would again turn Cukor’s comedies for inspiration when he made Bed and Board (1970), but poor planning on Une visite hampered his attempts at homage or imitation. “I wanted to make a film in half-tones, not extremely funny, but slightly strange, and one that artistically resembled American films. That was absurd, since I was shooting without sound, but I proceeded as if people were talking, without asking myself what would happen.” Whether Une visite contains intertitles isn’t clear, though the comments about its being difficult to follow suggest that it doesn’t. Had Truffaut been happier with the way the project turned out, perhaps he could have had it dubbed at some point, even years later (as was the case with Éric Rohmer’s Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak, shot silent in the early 1950s and not dubbed until the early 1960s), but he was too dissatisfied with it to make that sort of effort.

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Laura Mauri and Jean-José Richer in Une visite (Source)

Truffaut edited the footage himself, using a borrowed viewer and Moviola. “I put in an enormous lot of time at that,” he said, yet the end result was such a disappointment that he refused to show it to anyone. At some point, he did make an exception: Alain Resnais wished to see it, and when Truffaut said no, Resnais offered to re-edit the film. “He asked me whether I would like him to work on tightening it, and he made a new cut that wasn’t bad. I seem to remember that I was pleasantly surprised when I watched it again,” he said in 1974. Still, he had no apparent interest in releasing it. According to Mahias, she was given the only copy as a souvenir, a kind of home movie of her young daughter, and it remained with her for a long time. “One day, it was reclaimed from me, in principle so that it could be projected at Berlinale. I was afraid that that was a pretext for its detruction. Wrongly,” she said in 1984. “Two years ago, [Truffaut’s assistant director and co-writer] Suzanne Schiffman summoned us, Rivette and me, to a screening. François had blown up the film to 35mm. We doubled over with laughter at Rivette’s enthusiasm about his light, his framing and especially a rough tracking shot.” Richer, too, recalled going to a screening around this time; Cognany had died some time earlier, and whether Mauri attended is unknown.

In a letter from Truffaut to Lachenay dated February 3, 1982, the director writes, “I’m very grateful to you for finding that forgotten reel of film” — in all likelihood the print reclaimed earlier from Mahias, unless another copy existed somewhere. (Intriguingly, writing to Japanese film critic Koichi Yamada the following month, Truffaut promises that “Une visite will leave by courier in a few days” for a screening, presumably in Japan.) His gratitude may indicate a change of attitude; no doubt nearly three intervening decades had done something to soften the blow of this first failure, which must have been particularly galling to him at the time. 1954, the year of Une visite, was also the year of “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” the article that established him as a scathing polemicist, the enemy of the established French film industry and its “tradition of quality.” It made him quite a few enemies of his own, to be sure, but it simultaneously put him in great demand as a critic, and he contributed to some half a dozen publications that year, writing an article every other day. Maybe his success made him overconfident when he set to work on Une visite; the idea that he could improvise the entire film from scratch suggests either hubris or naivete, or a mixture of both. (Neither quality would be surprising in a young man of twenty-two.) His knowledge of film from a viewer’s standpoint was vast, but moving from theory to practice was obviously more of a challenge than he had anticipated.

It would be three more years before Truffaut would make another film of his own. In the interim, he continued to write criticism and moonlighted as Roberto Rossellini’s assistant. “Between 1955 and 1956, Truffaut worked on a dozen film ideas, assembling considerable research material each time, summoning actors, scouting locations, writing synopses,” his biographers explain. Among these projects were a comedy with Ingrid Bergman playing a screenwriter, an adaptation of Carmen and an anthology film (à la Rossellini’s 1946 Italian wartime anthology Paisan) about life in the Soviet Union; none came to fruition. (Truffaut did do research for an eventually completed documentary on India but was unable to spend over a year traveling abroad with Rossellini, so their partnership ended there.) Per his biography, the experience “taught him resourcefulness, cunning with producers, and, above all, how to go from project to project, as dictated by imagination or financial opportunity.” Une visite taught him some valuable lessons as well, even if he claimed that it was such a mess that he “didn’t really know much more when it came time for Les Mistons (1957).” His main takeaway seems to have been the importance of eliminating unnecessary shots — characters entering buildings, walking upstairs, knocking at doors — through the use of ellipses, which would influence his style in the future. “I had made up my mind not to be boring and I had an obsession about blank places,” he said in 1961. “I suffer physically when I sense people being bored in a movie theater, even if the film isn’t by me. There are directors who don’t care one bit about the public, and in a certain sense they’re right.”

Sources

De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Trans. Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Diatkine, Anne. “François Truffaut, du côté de chez Madeleine.” Libération 10 October 2014. https://next.liberation.fr/cinema/2014/10/10/francois-truffaut-du-cote-de-chez-madeleine_1119224

Ingram, Robert. François Truffaut: The Complete Films. Cologne: Taschen, 2013.

Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.

“La passage à la réalisation.” Truffaut par Truffaut. La Cinémathèque française, 2014. http://www.cinematheque.fr/expositions-virtuelles/truffaut-par-truffaut/index.php?id=4

Le Roman de François Truffaut. Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, 1985.

Truffaut, François. Correspondence 1945-1984. Trans. Gilbert Adair. New York: Cooper Square, 2000.

Truffaut by Truffaut. Ed. Dominique Rabourdin. Trans. Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Truffaut on Cinema. Ed. Anne Gillain. Trans. Alistair Fox. Bloomington: Indiana University, 2017.

Director Series: François Truffaut
Une visite (1954) | Les Mistons (1957) | Une histoire d’eau (1958) | The 400 Blows (1959) | Shoot the Piano Player (1960) | Jules and Jim (1962) | The Soft Skin (1964) | Fahrenheit 451 (1966) | The Bride Wore Black (1968) | Stolen Kisses (1968) | Mississippi Mermaid (1969) | The Wild Child (1970) | Bed and Board (1970) | Two English Girls (1971) | A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972) | Day for Night (1973) | The Story of Adèle H. (1975) | Small Change (1976) | The Man Who Loved Women (1977) | The Green Room (1978)| Love on the Run (1979) | The Last Metro (1980) | The Woman Next Door (1981) | Confidentially Yours (1983)

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