A Letter Written by Hand: The Green Room (1978)

Blurry

“There have been many, too many, deaths around me, of people I’ve loved, that I took the decision, after Françoise Dorléac died, never again to attend a funeral, which, as you can well imagine, does not prevent the distress I feel from casting its shadow over everything for a time and never completely fading, even as the years pass, for we live not only with the living but also with all of those who have ever meant anything in our lives.”

François Truffaut wrote these words in an early 1971 letter to actress Tanya Lopert, explaining his reasons for not attending the funeral of her father, film distributor and producer Ilya Lopert. (He did at least make an exception to this rule when his mother passed away in 1968, a year after Françoise Dorléac’s untimely death in a car accident, though not without reluctance.) The elegiac sentiment may seem a tad surprising coming from a man who was still relatively young, but he had just reached his thirty-ninth birthday, and middle age was looming; moreover, he was recovering from a devastating break-up with Catherine Deneuve (Dorléac’s sister) at the end of 1970, a break-up that triggered months of depression, including a ten-day stint in a clinic for a sleeping cure.

Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that when he returned to filmmaking in mid-1971, the result was Two English Girls, a chronicle of the romantic entanglements among a Frenchman and a pair of British sisters at the turn of the twentieth century. Like Truffaut’s earlier Jules and Jim (1962), the movie is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, but whereas its predecessor is often playful and lighthearted in spite of some serious themes, Two English Girls is a heavy, anguished affair in which the characters “become sick with love. That is the essential difference from Jules and Jim, which was a hymn to life, while this one is a film about grief,” the director explained. Death, heartache, lost youth, missed opportunities — all are present, increasingly pervasive as the film goes on, crystallized in a Musée Rodin-set epilogue that jumps ahead fifteen years. “What’s wrong with me? I look old today,” muses Claude, the male lead, as he studies his own reflection and speculates that one of the English schoolgirls frolicking through the museum’s grounds might be the daughter of Muriel, the woman he once loved. He sees no point in inquiring; what could the knowledge do but deepen his regrets?

Soldier

This scene of private desolation takes place after the international desolation of World War I, as the film’s narrator — Truffaut himself — indicates: “Fifteen years. Corpses and metal shards cover France. Thousands died in a war for reasons that have already been forgotten.” The equivalent episode at the end of Roché’s novel, set explicitly in 1927, makes no mention of the war, and even in the film the reference seems almost superfluous. It may be that Truffaut and screenwriter Jean Gruault simply wanted to establish the setting after the time jump, but it does at least have thematic relevance, this suggestion of grief and loss on a national or global scale as well as a deeply personal one. Although the war’s direct impact on Claude and the other characters is left to the viewer’s imagination, it’s impossible to think that they were left untouched by it, that their sorrows haven’t been compounded to some degree. There’s also that idea of forgetting. Has Muriel forgotten Claude? It appears, at any rate, that she’s moved on with her life; perhaps he has too, for the most part, yet it’s evident that the past continues to haunt him, especially at moments like this. He can’t forget.

From here, The Green Room is only a step away.

Coincidentally — or not — Truffaut’s 1978 film (La chambre verte) can be traced back to the time of his split with Deneuve, a period during which he read many of the works of Henry James, including a story that he had specially translated into French by friend Aimée Alexandre: “The Altar of the Dead.” James’s London-set tale, originally published in his 1895 collection Terminations, concerns a man named George Stransom, fifty-five at the start, who’s still grieving the death of his fiancée years earlier. To him, the deceased in general don’t receive the love and respect they deserve, they’re too quickly forgotten; he’s repulsed, for instance, when he learns that a recently widowed friend has already remarried. In order to honor his fiancée and the other people whom he’s lost throughout his life, he obtains permission to take over an unused chapel in a suburban church and covers its altar with candles, each light standing for one of his personal dead. Whenever he makes a pilgrimage to this shrine, he finds an unknown woman worshiping there, perpetually dressed in mourning. Eventually, the two strike up a slightly offbeat friendship, united by their reverence for the dead — until they discover that the one person whom the altar represents for her is the one person from Stransom’s life whom he refuses to commemorate.

Tomb

As was often the case for his period pieces — not only the two Roché adaptations but also 1970’s The Wild Child and 1975’s The Story of Adèle H. — Truffaut turned to Jean Gruault when he decided to attempt a cinematic version of “The Altar of the Dead.” Sending him a contract, suggestions (including elements from two other James stories, “The Beast in the Jungle” and “The Friends of the Friends”) and a rough outline for the screenplay in July 1974, he referred to the potential film as “a trial project” and noted various difficulties that he already foresaw. “The problem with James is that nothing is ever stated and film doesn’t allow that kind of vagueness; we’re going to have to explain everything, make everything clear, and we’re also going to have to find a thousand ways of emphasizing what I call the privileged moments . . . the religious ceremonies, the lighting of the candles, the rituals, all that sort of Japanese religiosity, which is our real reason for wanting to make the film.” Earlier that month, he had written to film critic Koichi Yamada in hopes of finding Japanese literature with details relevant to the themes of “The Altar of the Dead,” though he assured Yamada that there was no great urgency, as this “possible film” was “quite a long-term project.” He was right: it took over three years and some seven or eight drafts before he, Gruault and assistant director Suzanne Schiffman had crafted the script that they would start shooting in October 1977.

Chronologically speaking, The Green Room picks up right where Two English Girls leaves off, roughly ten years after the end of World War I. The George Stransom of James’s story has become Julien Davenne (François Truffaut), a veteran of the war who now works at a failing monthly newspaper in a small town in eastern France (though the film was shot in the Normandy region, mostly in Honfleur); his specialty is writing obituaries. A rather strange and solitary man, Julien lives with his housekeeper, Madame Rambaud (Jeanne Lobre), and a young deaf boy, Georges (Patrick Maléon). There’s also a fourth person who’s very much present in his home, in the spirit if not in the flesh: his late wife, Julie (Laurence Ragon), who died not long after their wedding about a decade earlier. He keeps a particular room — the titular green room — devoted to her, a fairly austere but meaningful space, with pictures of her on the wall and a piece of marble-topped furniture serving as a kind of shrine or altar, complete with a photograph, candles and a model of her hand. There, he can visit her, even talk to her. As he explains to Gérard Mazet (Jean-Pierre Moulin), a distraught friend who’s just lost his own wife, “I decided that, though she was dead for others, for me, she was still alive.”

Green Room

Hoping to purchase a ring that once belonged to Julie in order to place it on the hand, Julien goes to an auction house where many of her family’s possessions are about to be sold off. There, he meets the auctioneer’s secretary, a young woman named Cécilia Mandel (Nathalie Baye) — or, more accurately, re-encounters her, as he knew her late parents and had met Cécilia briefly some fourteen years earlier when they were both in Naples. Although he recalls this long-ago meeting vaguely at best, she cherishes fond memories of the man who spoke to her as if she were an adult instead of a child. She also has another reason for being interested in him: she’s often heard people say that he saw a vision of his wife at the moment she died, despite the fact that they were thousands of kilometers apart, and she had a very similar experience involving her father. The two would seem to be kindred spirits, fellow lovers of the dead, but they disagree about how far this should go when Julien expresses his outrage at the widowed Mazet’s remarriage. “You love the dead as opposed to the living,” Cécilia tells him.

When a storm causes a fire in the green room, Julien feels that he’s failed his wife. “I wasn’t able to protect you, Julie,” he says to her tombstone. “I must find an idea to keep you closer to me.” After commissioning and then furiously rejecting a wax figure made in her likeness, he stumbles across an abandoned, heavily damaged chapel at the cemetery and, like Stransom, decides to claim it and consecrate it to “all the people who counted in my life and who are dead now.” Around this time, he reconnects with Cécilia, who confesses that she’s started to come around to his way of thinking. What he doesn’t realize is that her change of heart is the result of the recent death of the man she loved, Paul Massigny; what she doesn’t realize is that he and Massigny were best friends for many years until Massigny betrayed him and soured his entire outlook on life. Julien may claim that he’s forgiven his former comrade, but honoring him in the chapel is an impossibility.

Chapel

Truffaut, who had played major roles in his own The Wild Child and Day for Night (1973) and had recently acted in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), decided to play the lead in The Green Room for several reasons. One was financial: knowing that this decidedly uncommercial film was unlikely to be a major box office hit, he had to save money where he could. It was something of a passion project, which was another reason why he was reluctant to entrust its protagonist to someone else. According to Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana in their biography of the director, “Truffaut feared that Julien Davenne might seem ridiculous, even pathetic — a madman with morbid passions.” He told L’Express that the only actor he had considered for the part was Charles Denner, who “would have acted it magnificently, but I had just made The Man Who Loved Women with him, where he is seen throughout. Besides Denner, I had no other idea.” (Suzanne Schiffman recalled a conversation between Jean-Louis Trintignant and Truffaut when the latter offered the former the male lead in 1983’s Confidentially Yours: “‘I’m not surprised to be shooting with you because there are films of yours where I have the feeling that I should have been the one acting.’ ‘Is that so? Which ones?’ ‘All the films where you act yourself.’ François stood there with his mouth open for a second, and then he laughed.”)

What Truffaut sought to achieve was intimacy, a personal touch, as he went on to explain in the same L’Express interview: “It seemed to me that, if I were to play the role, I would get the same difference as when, doing my correspondence in the office, I dictate certain letters, which are then typed, and I write others by hand. The Green Room is like a letter written by hand. If you write by hand it will not be perfect, the writing may perhaps be trembly, but it will be you, your writing.” There’s an undeniably stiff, awkward, uncomfortable quality to his performance. His biographers describe it as “expressionless, nearly mechanical” and say that Nathalie Baye had difficulty acting opposite him as a result; filmmaker Axelle Ropert, in a lecture summarized by Anne Gillain in Truffaut on Cinema, goes so far as to declare that, as an actor, Truffaut “is hard to love and actually rejects empathy and compassion with his whole body.” Ropert analyzes Truffaut’s “dissociated” body language in a television interview and, per Gillain, “emphasizes, in particular, the extraordinary quality of the look in his eyes: a blank stare that seems absent, in another reality, and the way he casts anxious sideways glances at certain moments, as if he wanted to escape. She notes that in his films, especially in The Green Room, these features are even more accentuated than in real life.”

Julien

One can imagine Denner (or Trintignant) delivering a better performance, a more natural and believable performance, yet in some sense the qualities that Truffaut brings to Julien work for the character. He may not be a madman, and calling him “mysterious and charismatic,” as Truffaut described the protagonist when he sent the screenplay contract to Gruault in 1974, would be a stretch (especially the second part), but he always seems like an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite fit into even the limited world in which he moves. Absent, in another reality — there’s ample evidence of that, whether it’s his habit of talking to Julie or the way he wanders off to look at the ring while Cécilia is reminiscing aloud about their first meeting, as if he’s suddenly become oblivious to her presence. “I rarely speak with someone as we’re speaking now,” he admits to her at one point, apologizing for speaking “brutally” in their argument about Mazet’s new bride. “I imagine I’ve lost the habit of listening.”

No doubt Julie’s death pushed him further into isolation, but it appears that he may have been moving in that direction even before that. Although the details of his betrayal by Massigny are never made entirely clear, what little Julien does reveal says a great deal about himself. “Through him, I saw that for certain people, life is a ferocious race with no holds barred, so I withdrew from the race gradually and, because of Massigny, I am now only a spectator of life,” he tells Humbert (Jean Dasté), his boss at Le Globe, who’s shocked by the unprintable obituary that he’s just dashed off upon receiving word of Massigny’s death. Exactly when the betrayal occurred isn’t clear either, but the fact that he later describes Massigny as the friend of his boyhood and youth suggests that he may have been fairly young at the time.

How old is Julien? That, too, is a bit vague. Truffaut, at forty-five, was worried about appearing too old for the role, to the point where he considered wearing a wig. (For what it’s worth, Denner was actually six years his senior.) He does look to be well into his forties, at least, and between his appearance and his personality, it’s a bit jarring when Humbert describes him as “young,” even if he is a septuagenarian himself. Still, considering that he was in the war a decade ago and that Julie would be in her early thirties now (born in 1897 according to her tombstone), it seems wholly possible that he’s meant to be in his thirties as well, perhaps prematurely aged by his experiences. On the other hand, his boyhood friends Massigny’s tomb looks as if it says “1881 – 1929,” making him nearly fifty. The crucial point is that Julien is one of the few physically intact survivors of a lost generation. As Humbert remarks, “In our region, there aren’t many men Davenne’s age who are walking on two legs!”

Opening

The significance of World War I is obvious from the opening credits, which superimpose Julien’s solemn, haunted face on archival footage from the conflict. Earlier drafts of the screenplay had placed the story in other time periods, from the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1970s, before Truffaut and his team decided to set it around 1928. (A title card following the credits declares that the story begins ten years after the war’s end, yet Julie, who’s said to have been dead for eleven years, passed away in 1919.) “I chose to transpose Henry James’s themes to 1928 because I wanted them to be directly linked to a memory of the First World War. The idea of massacre, of millions of deaths, is not evoked with as much power by the last War,” said Truffaut, presumably speaking from a specifically French perspective; he added that he also eschewed a nineteenth century setting in order to make the characters’ everyday lives seem less romantic, thereby creating a greater contrast with the scenes in the chapel. Reminders of the war are everywhere: battle helmets hanging off of crosses in the cemetery, wheelchair-bound men in uniform, a large sign in the office of Le Globe commemorating lost employees. It’s pervasive, yet maybe after ten years most people have grown so accustomed to these sights that they no longer give them much thought. Maybe even those who suffered major bereavements have begun to move on with their lives, at least in some fashion — but not Julien.

Julien’s military history is laid out in an exposition-heavy conversation between Humbert and another Globe employee, Monique (Monique Dury): he was a member of the anti-aircraft artillery, whom the Germans feared and had trouble locating; consequently, he and the other men with whom he fought weren’t wounded, though he lost many friends in the war. “So you think Davenne feels guilty about that? Yes, it’s possible,” Humbert muses. Besides his survivor’s guilt, it’s also possible, and probable, that he feels guilt over the enemy soldiers that he helped kill, though it’s said that they were few in number; a photograph of one of them, an apparently sleeping German, hangs in the chapel alongside pictures of his other dead. “You must admit that when you look at this photo, it’s difficult to think of this man as an enemy,” he says to Cécilia. Other photos are less soothing. An early scene has Julien showing magic lantern slides of maimed and mangled World War I casualties to young Georges. “These are wounded soldiers. Maybe they’re dead,” he explains to the excited boy, and, “That one’s head was cut off, probably by a shell.” Perhaps he simply hopes to teach the child what happened and ensure that he, like Julien himself, doesn’t forget, but there’s something at least a touch disturbing in the way he’s collected these graphic images and seems to enjoy sharing them.

Magic Lantern

The war also had a major impact on his relationship with Julie, to whom he became engaged just before it started. Four years of separation ensued, four years of precious time were lost, but they finally married, only to have her die a few months later — an especially cruel loss so soon after the war, with his newfound happiness and the promise of a brighter future snatched away in an instant. The fact that she died when they were still in the honeymoon stage of their marriage, before it had a chance to become mundane and possibly even before they got to know each other well, undoubtedly contributes to her being such an idealized figure for her husband. “Julie, eternal young woman. Loyal, brave, magnificent Julie,” he says while holding a large portrait of her. In a strange sense, they may be more united after her death than they ever could be in life, or maybe they really were a perfectly matched couple. Whatever the case, their nearly identical names suggest how closely tied they are. Julien can’t exist without Julie.

Intentionally or not, the name Julie also evokes the title character in Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968), a woman whose marriage proves even briefer than Julien’s: her husband is inadvertently but fatally shot by a man playing with a gun as the couple exits the church on their wedding day. That Julie takes revenge by hunting down the killer and his four companions. Julien (who hardly seems the homicidal type anyway) can’t pin the blame for Julie’s death on anyone in particular, so he fights back in his own manner against the world at large. The world wants him to accept consolation, “stupid words of resignation”; he refuses. The world wants him to move on, perhaps to fall in love and marry again; he refuses. The world, in short, wants him to forget; he refuses. “I don’t entirely identify with the main character, and sometimes I criticize him,” Truffaut said. “He is half-mad, with an obsession, but what is important is his refusal to forget.”

Green Room

There’s something undeniably moving and noble in Julien’s devotion to Julie and his other dead, his desire to protect them from what he sees as the callousness of the rest of society. He demonstrates fidelity in other ways too; for instance, he turns down the opportunity to work for a weekly newspaper in Paris out of loyalty to Le Globe, a dying thing itself, and its ever-shrinking list of elderly subscribers. “I want to stay here for them,” he tells Humbert resolutely. Still, the very strength of his views and feelings — his obsession — can also make him intolerant of others who don’t share his outlook. The most obvious example is his anger and despair when he learns that Mazet has married again mere months after being widowed. “Now that wonderful woman who devoted her life to him has been replaced like you replace a cleaning woman,” he says to Cécilia. Although it’s clear that his disapproval stems from a place of great pain rather than some cold intellectual judgment, he seems unwilling or unable to consider the matter from anyone’s perspective other than his own absolute one, unwilling or unable to make allowances for human nature or special circumstances. The new Madame Mazet (Marie-Jaoul de Poncheville), who met her husband by chance when he accidentally knocked on her door instead of his cousin’s, notes that many women of her generation were unable to marry due to the shortage of men created by the war, and the two appear to be happy together. What would be a sweet love story in many people’s eyes is a travesty and an oddly personal offense in Julien’s. “Do you think it’s forbidden to fall in love twice?” Cécilia asks him. “I don’t know,” he replies.

At this early stage in the film, Julien barely knows Cécilia, so it seems unlikely, though not impossible, that his distress over Mazet’s remarriage is subconsciously tied to feelings that she’s already awakened in him. The unanswered question is whether he ever develops a romantic interest in her — impossible to admit even to himself, sublimated in the act of sharing the chapel with her. “Cécilia, would you become the guardian of this temple with me?” he asks her solemnly; Truffaut wrote on the final draft of the screenplay that this “should be like a marriage proposal.” A scene not long afterwards has him visiting her house for the first time and acting almost flirtatious — though when she asks him to name the color of her eyes, he finds himself at a loss. Moments later, he discovers her connection with Massigny, and everything falls apart. Is he upset solely because his former friend has encroached on the sanctity of his chapel through Cécilia, or is there simple jealousy at play as well? “He is separating us,” Julien laments.

Candles

It’s only fitting that a dead man — or a dead woman, as Julie is certainly a barrier to a potential romance — should come between Julien and Cécilia. (Truffaut compared Massigny to Victor Hugo, an invisible presence separating his daughter from the object of her affections in The Story of Adèle H. The love triangle in Two English Girls offers another parallel: “Between them was a dead woman whose name he didn’t utter.”) Their relationship is inextricably linked to death from the very beginning, from their first meeting fourteen years back, when they were caught in a storm while visiting Pompeii, and through the intervening years, when Cécilia felt a bond with Julien because of their similar experiences with apparitions of their loved ones. “Whenever I thought about my father’s death, I also thought of you,” she tells him. (Her father, too, was named Julien, which adds another layer of possible meaning to their relationship.) She sees Massigny as a further point of connection between them: “Now we have one more thing in common. We both suffered because of him, you and I.”

Massigny, who only appears in still photos, is portrayed by Serge Rousseau. A friend of Truffaut’s (and the husband of actress Marie Dubois from Jules and Jim and 1960’s Shoot the Piano Player), Rousseau had played a memorable role in Stolen Kisses (1968) as Christine’s stalker. “I am definitive,” the character declares, promising that they’ll never spend a single hour apart and that she, the only woman he’s ever loved, will be his sole preoccupation. He sounds not unlike Julien, frankly; Massigny appears to have been the opposite, a sort of anti-Julien. Not only was he a public figure, a polemicist, politically engaged (he once went to jail for a journalistic attack on a government minister), but he was also a ladies’ man. (“The funeral is in two days. The hotels are full of people from Paris, politicians, journalists, but not only men,” says Humbert — a possible nod to Truffaut’s previous film, 1977’s The Man Who Loved Women, which starts and ends at the title character’s interment before a host of female mourners.) As with his betrayal of Julien, the details of Massigny’s involvement with Cécilia remain hazy, but it seems reasonable to suppose that she meant less to him than he did — and does — to her. “It’s true that Paul led me to the brink of despair, but I’ve forgiven him,” she says; Julien, despite asserting the same thing, is not so willing to absolve his erstwhile friend.

Massigny

Julien has never replaced Julie, of course (unless one counts the misbegotten wax figure), and during his tirade about Mazet’s second marriage he implies that he hasn’t replaced the friends he lost in the war either; as such, his declaration to Humbert that he never replaced Massigny as his best friend after their falling-out is telling. It suggests that he cast him into a kind of living death — further evidence of his own inflexibility, and also a sign of his desire for control, far more attainable with the dead than with the living. “Don’t think that you’ve lost her. Think that now you can never lose her,” he urges Mazet at the time of the first Madame Mazet’s passing, insisting to him also that “the dead belong to us if we agree to belong to them.” Living people can be difficult, unpredictable; the dead can more or less be whatever we want them to be. Cécilia says as much in a letter to Julien late in the film: “Like you, I know it isn’t easy to live with the living. It’s easier with the dead. We enclose them in transparent walls of imagination. What you didn’t understand and what I’ve decided to tell you is that I love you, but I know that for you to love me, I should be dead.” This damning statement adds an even darker note to an already bizarre, uncomfortable exchange during Julien’s sole visit to Cécilia’s house, in which he expresses a desire to take piano lessons from her: “If I were one of your students, I’d have some power over you.”

The idea of control becomes manifest in the chapel itself, with its myriad flames on myriad candles. Unregulated fire, like death, is a destructive force, as Julien sees when the green room ignites. Confined to candlewicks, tamed, fire becomes something beautiful — at least as long as nothing upsets it; the fire in the green room is started by candles knocked over by storm winds, after all, perhaps a foreshadowing of Massigny’s unwanted intrusion into the serenity of the chapel. (It also brings to mind the burning of Antoine Doinel’s shrine to Honoré de Balzac in The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s 1959 feature film debut.) The aesthetic and literal warmth that the fire creates stands in sharp contrast to the coldness of cemeteries, which Julien regards as prisons for the dead. “Look at the flames. Look how they move, how alive they are,” he says. Determined as he is that they should never go out, each one confers a small measure of immortality on the person it represents.

Auction

Physical reminders of the dead take many forms throughout The Green Room: candles, photographs, Julie’s ring (shaped like the number eight, or an infinity symbol when turned on its side), the wax figure, the returned copies of Le Globe sent to deceased subscribers, the items up for sale in the auction house. “Maybe it’s my profession, but I only like old things, things that once belonged to someone,” Cécilia says. There’s a romance to objects connected with people who have died, a sanctity; they outlast their owners and allow them to remain present in the world. The desire for something physical, some visible and tangible means of keeping his dead alive, is the driving force behind Julien’s chapel project. “For a long time, I thought their memory was enough. Now I know I must do more for them. This chapel can help,” he explains to a bishop’s skeptical secretary (Antoine Vitez).

The chapel itself is a casualty of World War I, damaged seemingly beyond repair, or at least past the point where anyone other than Julien can be bothered with it. Reviving it, giving new life to it as well as his dead, seems to invigorate him: he takes an active supervisory role in the restoration, he gives lectures to raise money for it (on entomology, it appears), his relationship with Cécilia — whatever it means to him — blossoms and deepens. This is his magnum opus, a lasting tribute to everyone who ever mattered to him. Julie, not surprisingly, is at the center of it, in both a physical and a spiritual or emotional sense. “You see, Georges,” he says to the boy, “I knew Julie would always be with us if I lived surrounded by her belongings, but I’m going to do more for her, a permanent refuge where her brilliance will shine.” Still, while she may be its star, Julien is the force behind the chapel, its arbiter, the person whose life and loves are represented there, and not until he dies can it reach its ultimate state. “Cécilia, I’ve chosen you to complete the arrangement,” he tells her. “It will only be complete when the last candle is lit, and I want you to light it” — his candle. It’s meant to be an honor, another quasi marriage proposal, but she immediately sees what it implies: “Tell me, if one day I must light a candle for you, then who will light one for me?” Is there no place reserved for her among his dead?

Henry James

In “The Altar of the Dead,” George Stransom adorns his altar solely with candles, each one distinct and significant to him but without obvious meaning to anybody else who might visit his chapel. “To other imaginations they might stand for other things—that they should stand for something to be hushed before was all he desired.” Julien goes beyond this by also covering the walls with pictures of his dead, making the space unquestionably his own — and it’s here that the profoundly personal nature of this film for Truffaut becomes clear. The people in these images are people who mattered in his own life, in the guise of fictional characters; it’s no coincidence that his performance may be most touching and natural when he explains the photos to Cécilia. Many depict artists he admired. Some he had known personally, like Jean Cocteau; others had died before he was born, including Henry James, described by Julien as an American “who loved Europe so much, he finally became British. Unfortunately, I didn’t know him well, but he taught me the importance of respecting the dead.” Some were still living at the time the film was shot, among them actor Oskar Werner as the German solider whom Julien can no longer think of as an enemy. Truffaut and Werner had feuded during the filming of Fahrenheit 451 (1966) — is this an apology, or at least an expression of regret on the director’s part?

Another figure who receives special mention from Julien is a musician. “I’d almost completely forgotten about him, but when I heard a piece he’d composed on the radio, I realized his clear and sunny music is perfect to accompany the memory of my dead friends.” Like his comments on Henry James, this is something of an inside joke: the man is Maurice Jaubert, whose work provides the soundtrack for The Green Room. (Truffaut had also used his music in The Story of Adèle H.) Jaubert had died at age forty while serving in World War II, mere days before France surrendered to Germany in June 1940. His career as a film composer may have been relatively short-lived, but even a partial list of the directors that he collaborated with in roughly a decade and a half is staggering: Jean Renoir, Alberto Cavalcanti, Maurice Tourneur, René Clair, Jean Vigo, Anatole Litvak, Robert Siodmak, Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné… Many of them, by then regarded as past their primes, became targets for Truffaut and his fellow young critics at Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, and even that period was far in the past by the time of The Green Room. Jaubert’s filmography also overlaps that of Jean Dasté, who plays Humbert; both had worked on Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934). How odd to think of Humbert as the passionate, vital, newlywed barge captain of L’Atalante — yet there’s Dasté, forty-odd years younger, carrying Dita Parlo in his arms. Film preserves; it might even be said to keep the dead alive.

Jaubert

“As we draw closer to death in time, it prompts us to forget our dead ones. Because, in forgetting them, it is our own death that we are forgetting,” Truffaut said in an interview about The Green Room. For all of his focus on morbid matters when he was shooting the film in the fall of 1977, he couldn’t have realized that he himself would pass on just seven years later, the victim of a brain tumor. Notably, though, after featuring cemeteries prominently in both The Man Who Loved Women and The Green Room, he would do so in a third consecutive film with 1979’s Love on the Run, which sees Antoine Doinel visiting his mother’s grave in the Cimetière de Montmartre — where Truffaut was buried in October 1984, aged fifty-two. The Green Room wouldn’t be his best film, or his most famous film, or even his last film (he managed to direct three more after Love on the Run, between 1980 and 1983), but this “letter written by hand,” this strange and imperfect and often beautiful work, provides a fitting coda to his filmmaking career.

“Now my dead have a place that’s irrevocably theirs. This former chapel won’t be a place of death or a place of rest, but a place of life. Even after we’re gone, you and I, these flames will continue to glow, breathing to the rhythm of the human heart. None of them should go out.”

Sources

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

James, Henry. The Altar of the Dead. Martin Secker, 1916. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/642/642-h/642-h.htm.

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

Roché, Henri-Pierre. Two English Girls and the Continent. Trans. Walter Bruno. Cambridge Book Review Press, 2004.

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, François. Interview with Danièle Heymann and Catherine Laporte. L’Express 13 March 1978. Rpt. in 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.

This post is part of The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon, hosted by Shadowplay.

5 thoughts on “A Letter Written by Hand: The Green Room (1978)

  1. Pingback: A Letter Written By Hand | shadowplay

  2. Reading this post, one wonders whether Truffaut had some vague sense of his own early demise. This is a lovely, thoughtful piece. I have to admit that I feel a bit somber after having read it, remembering the beautiful and gifted Dorleac, gone much too soon, and Truffaut, cursed with a relatively short life, too. Thankfully, the work of both remains and they are not forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It’s possible that he sensed something. The De Baecque/Toubiana biography says that he started to become concerned about his health at the very end of 1977 and the beginning of 1978 (i.e., shortly after The Green Room finished shooting), though it was nothing that seems to have been related to his eventual cause of death: he had sciatica, had colon x-rays done, he visited a cardiologist who didn’t find anything wrong. His mother also died in her fifties, though, and his maternal grandmother, who raised him early on, must have died fairly young as well, because her youngest child was still a teenager at the time. Dorléac is one of those performers whom it’s difficult to watch without at least a touch of sadness (I feel the same way about Montgomery Clift and Romy Schneider, to name just two), but at least she lives on through her work, like Truffaut.

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