“It was obvious, once the film was finished, that it wasn’t his or mine and that it would be logical for both to sign and to make a present of it to the producer who never made a fortune out of it.” — François Truffaut
In early 1958, after completing Les Mistons — originally intended as a segment in an anthology film about childhood — François Truffaut signed a new contract with producer Pierre Braunberger, this time to direct a feature film based on Jacques Cousseau’s novel Temps chaud. Although Truffaut was ready to begin shooting by mid-February, the producer decided to postpone the project until summer, believing that warmer weather would provide a more suitable atmosphere for what he described as “a slightly erotic story, with the heat bringing out unusual behavior in people.” Thus freed up temporarily (he was also beginning to withdraw from his role as a critic around this time), the director set to work on a short, the film for which was provided by Braunberger.
A recurring image in the news served as the inspiration for the short that would eventually be entitled Une histoire d’eau, or A Story of Water. “I had a very strong liking for floods — as for fire — because each year in the news, at the same point in the year, they would show people in a rowboat abandoning their house,” said Truffaut, noting that it was an image that appealed to him. In 1958, specifically, he was struck by footage of flooding in the Montereau area, southeast of Paris, where he had attended summer camp as a child (“just when the Germans were leaving and the Americans were arriving,” so presumably in 1944, when he was twelve), and it was there that he decided to shoot his film.
With cinematographer Michel Latouche and actors Caroline Dim and Jean-Claude Brialy (a friend of the Cahiers du cinéma critics, a seemingly ubiquitous presence in French New Wave movies and the would-be male lead of the never-to-be-completed Temps chaud), Truffaut spent two days shooting by the flooded Loing, but both the experience and the material he obtained proved dissatisfying. “I said to [Braunberger] that seeing the flooding I thought it was a shame that it should survive only in documentary,” the director said when explaining how he proposed his subject to the producer. “When you see a documentary, and you’re a real film addict, more a cinemaniac than a cinephiliac, you say to yourself: those deserts, those mountains, those pipelines — it would be real good if two characters, right there, were chasing each other. That is, you love cinema so much in its conventional form that you become incapable of admiring it just as a record of beauty.” He described this attitude as “the permanent warp you get from an apprenticeship with the American cinema.” However, once he was actually on site, creating a work of fiction in the midst of this real-life disaster seemed in bad taste, even though the water had started to recede. “The little water there was didn’t inspire us, because we saw people looking for boats to get their belongings out. In the middle of all that, to rent a boat and carry on like crazy struck us all of a sudden as pretty indecent.”
Besides these moral qualms, he was displeased with the film from an artistic standpoint. By relying more or less entirely on improvisation, without a sufficiently developed story to give it structure, he had repeated one of the major mistakes that plagued Une visite, and he decided to abandon the project as another failure. “I had brought along six hundred meters of film and I brought back six hundred meters of exposed film but it didn’t impress anyone but us and not even us,” he said. In all likelihood, it would have remained unseen and forgotten if Jean-Luc Godard hadn’t expressed interest in viewing the footage. Much like Alain Resnais with Une visite, Godard offered to edit the film himself, and he also added a commentary; as a result, the finished version of Une histoire d’eau is credited to both directors. (It would be released theatrically in 1961 to accompany Jacques Demy’s Lola.)
The story, as shaped by Godard from Truffaut’s material, is ostensibly simple. One morning, a young woman (Dim) walks out of her house and discovers that her suburb is shin-deep in water. Because the buses aren’t running, she resorts to hitchhiking in order to get to Paris for a class, and it’s thus that she meets a young man (Brialy) with a car. During their journey toward the city, they encounter numerous difficulties due to the flooding, yet in spite of these challenges — or because of them — they have fun, and a romance even begins to blossom between them.
What complicates the film, adding an extra layer (or several) to it, is the voiceover. The vast majority of this commentary comes from the woman, whose part is spoken by Anne Collette, an actress who starred in Godard’s shorts All the Boys Are Called Patrick (1957, also featuring Brialy) and Charlotte and Her Boyfriend (1958) around this time; the man adds occasional remarks and is voiced by Godard. In typical Godard fashion, it’s loaded with allusions, anecdotes, digressions and wordplay (the film’s title is itself a pun on the title of the erotic novel Histoire d’O), delivered so densely and almost unremittingly that it can be hard to keep up with, so that it threatens to overwhelm what’s happening on the screen at times.
Perhaps this sort of conflict is inevitable when one filmmaker provides the visuals and the other the audio. In fact, it appears that even the visuals aren’t all Truffaut’s work. Aerial shots of the flooding, accompanied by insistent percussion, punctuate Une histoire d’eau; considering that Truffaut had to borrow the film’s car from Claude Chabrol, it seems likely that this airplane-based footage was captured by someone else, and several shots of people rowing through the streets or entering their second-story windows via rope ladder also look as if they were derived from other sources, probably newsreels. On the whole — and logically enough, since Godard was responsible for both the text and the editing — the end product feels like his film more than Truffaut’s. As if aware of this imbalance, Godard includes a few lines in the commentary that seem to call attention to his co-director’s contribution: “Usually, I don’t care about the image. It’s the words that matter. But this time I’m wrong, because here, everything’s beautiful.”
The Cahiers du cinéma critics-turned-directors frequently collaborated during this early period, when they were just starting out, contributing to one another’s films in a variety of ways: Jacques Rivette serving as cameraman for Truffaut’s Une visite, Éric Rohmer scripting the Godard-directed All the Boys Are Called Patrick, Chabrol loaning his car to Truffaut for Une histoire d’eau and his apartment to Rivette for Le coup du berger (1956). Although their professional interactions wouldn’t cease entirely — Truffaut, for example, would co-produce such films as Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) through his company, Les Films du Carrosse, and sought Rivette’s advice on his own work at least as late as The Wild Child (1970) — their paths diverged as the years went by. “I also think that differences become more marked with the passing of time, because when one is setting out, one has the impression that everyone is the same, and it is not until later that one is struck by the differences,” Truffaut said in a 1974 interview. “That is why the articles on the New Wave cannot be taken too seriously, insofar as they try to draw things together into themes. Finally, I am more impressed by the differences that are becoming more accentuated, probably because we are also working with an awareness of what each of us is doing, and in reaction to it. That’s only human!”
Between Truffaut and Godard, however, the parting of ways proved decidedly acrimonious. The two drifted apart in the late 1960s as Godard became increasingly politicized, particularly after the strikes and demonstrations that rocked France in May of 1968. Asked about Godard in 1970, Truffaut said that he hadn’t seen him in a year and a half; the last time they had spoken, on the telephone, Godard had asked him to fund a twelve-hour-long 16mm film made by workers, but Truffaut had turned down the project, making it clear that it wasn’t because he couldn’t do it but because he didn’t want to. “He is making a different kind of cinema; he believes that after May one cannot make the same sort of cinema, and he holds it against anyone who continues to do so. As far as I am concerned, I have made my choice, I am very clear in my mind, I want to make normal films — that’s my life.”
In May of 1973, Godard would again seek funding from Truffaut, this time via letter, but only after excoriating him for failing to depict the darker side of movie-making in the just-released Day for Night. “Yesterday I saw Day for Night. Probably no one else will call you a liar, so I will. It’s no more an insult than ‘fascist,’ it’s a criticism, and it’s the absence of criticism that I complain of in the films of Chabrol, [Marco] Ferreri, [Henri] Verneuil, [Jean] Delannoy, [Jean] Renoir, etc.,” he begins. Truffaut was infuriated, not only by the harsh words directed at himself but also by a letter that Godard enclosed for actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. “I think it’s obnoxious of you to kick him when he’s down, obnoxious to extort money by intimidation from someone who is fifteen years younger than you are and whom you used to pay less than a million when he was the lead in films that were earning you thirty times as much,” Truffaut wrote, explaining that “because of that letter I feel the time has come to tell you, at length, that in my opinion you’ve been acting like a shit.” “At length” was right: his response, a catalogue of both recent and long-festering grievances, ran some twenty pages and put a definitive end to their friendship. Reportedly, Truffaut even refused to shake Godard’s hand when they ran into each other in New York years later.
When Truffaut’s correspondence — including the letter from Godard and his own furious reply — was published in 1988, four years after his death, Godard composed the foreword. In it, he writes of the early days of the French New Wave: “It was a good time to be alive. And the fame that lay ahead had not yet begun to weave the shroud of our happiness.” He says, too, that “in those days there still existed something called magic. A work of art was not the sign of something, it was the thing itself and nothing else.” That may well be said of Une histoire d’eau, a project thrown together on a whim that exudes the sheer joy of making films, especially on Godard’s side. If Truffaut was not so pleased with it, his images are, nevertheless, expressive of freedom, youth and playfulness: the woman walking across an elevated beam to avoid the water, the couple flirting and dancing, the car racing along with nobody else in sight.
“I’m not straying from the subject, and if I do, that’s my real subject, exactly like a car that strays from its usual path because a flood forces it to drive across fields to reach the road to Paris,” the young woman says during one of her digressions, thereby harmonizing the discursive commentary and the story playing out on-screen. Beyond that, there’s a certain harmony between the couple’s drive to Paris and the fledgling directors’ efforts at making the film: both journeys are adventures, in spite of the challenges they entail, approached with youthful enthusiasm and good humor (although perhaps more in Godard’s case than in Truffaut’s). The short ends with the couple gazing across the water at the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps there’s some connection with Autour de la tour Eiffel, a film that Truffaut was under contract to shoot for Braunberger but never did; he sought Godard’s help on revising the script, and Brialy would have played the male lead. Again, though, it may be read symbolically. Truffaut, Godard and their colleagues were quickly moving toward feature films; Chabrol, in fact, had already shot Le Beau Serge with Brialy and Truffaut’s Les Mistons stars Gérard Blain and Bernadette Lafont, which would premiere later that year. Le Beau Serge is often regarded as the first French New Wave film, though that’s a contentious title. (In his book The Films in My Life, Truffaut cites either Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman  or Alexandre Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres  as the start of the nouvelle vague, “depending on one’s point of view.”) At any rate, the New Wave directors were on the verge of taking the film world by storm; their goal was within their view.
Brody, Richard. Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Metropolitan, 2008.
De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Trans. Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.
Truffaut by Truffaut. Ed. Dominique Rabourdin. Trans. Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Truffaut, François. Correspondence 1945-1984. Trans. Gilbert Adair. New York: Cooper Square, 2000.
Truffaut, François. The Films in My Life. Trans. Leonard Mayhew. Da Capo, 1994.
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)