In the freeze frame that ends The 400 Blows, Antoine Doinel, a rebellious, unwanted kid, has just escaped from a reformatory and run to the edge of the sea. That final image captures the face of a child on the brink of a bleak destiny, a future of isolation, crime, and certain failure. As we now know, that lost boy grew up to be Francois Truffaut, the French writer/director who spearheaded the New Wave and developed the auteur theory, which advocated that directors should write their own scripts and writers should direct their own films. Truffaut faithfully adhered to that credo throughout three decades of filmmaking.
A retrospective of Truffaut's work presented by the Castro Theater from May 14 to June 9 opens with the rarely seen Mississippi Mermaid, shown here with 13 minutes previously cut prior to its American release in 1969. Jean Paul Belmondo plays a rich factory owner on a lush tropical island who is too dazzled by the beauty of his mysterious mail-order bride (Catherine Deneuve without her usual regal bearing) to ask any hard questions. In this intensely atmospheric story of doomed love and deception, adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich, Truffaut expresses the fatalism that afflicted him throughout his life and permeated his films.
No Truffaut series would be complete without Jules and Jim, a primer on the allure and impracticality of a menage à trois. What gives the film its timeless appeal is Jeanne Moreau's memorable performance as the embodiment of the free woman. Truffaut created the film expressly for Moreau, of whom he once wrote, "With trembling lips, wild hair, she ignores what others call 'morals' and lives by and for love."
Many consider Truffaut's most brilliant work to be about the subjects that intrigued him most: troubled adolescence and the search for love. The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Two English Girls, Love on the Run, and Bed and Board form a canon -- a biography of the director -- and feature his alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. Also on the bill is an infrequently seen short, Les Mistons (The Brats, 1957), Truffaut's nostalgic film about a group of pubescent boys who hound a beautiful young woman with whom they are infatuated. "The virginal heartbeat has its own juvenile logic," says the narrator. "Too young to love Bernadette, we decided to hate and torment her."
"In all of his films, even the calmest ones, there's an undercurrent of violence," observes director Olivier Assayas in Stolen Portraits (1992), an illuminating biographical documentary comprised of anecdotes from Truffaut's friends, family, and associates, which was made after Truffaut's untimely death of a brain tumor in 1984, when he was 52.
-- Sura Wood
Mississippi Mermaid screens Friday through Thursday, May 14-20, at 1:45, 4:20, 7, and 9:35 p.m. at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro (at Market), S.F. Admission is $6.50. For screening times of other films in the Castro's Truffaut retrospective series, call 621-6120.
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