I watched the documentary Hitchcock / Truffaut this weekend. It is about a book of the same name, a book of interviews that Francois Truffaut did with Alfred Hitchcock. It is also about how the book lofted Hitchcock’s critical reputation and influenced a generation of filmmakers, including David Fincher, Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater.
But the documentary sadly didn’t touch on Hitchcock’s importance to Truffaut. Truffaut’s earlier French New Wave films like Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows are his more frequently seen and discussed movies. Perhaps you can throw in Day for Night, his reflexive movie about the making of a movie, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1974.
But if you care to delve deeper into Truffaut’s filmography, you’ll see that made several films in the style of Hitchcock. And like his idol, Truffaut had certain obsessions to which he turned again and again.
Let’s begin with The Soft Skin (1964). This controlled, formalist film about a man who turns his life upside down over his love of a flight attendant comes right in the middle of Truffaut’s radical New Wave period. Yet the film is Hitchcockian. Truffaut eschews the loose plotting and jumpy edits for the deliberate pace of Vertigo. The camera’s interest in characters is balanced by attention to talismanic objects, like a mistress’ hotel key: room number 813.
I might have thought nothing of this number, had I not soon after watched Truffaut’s ultimate film, Finally, Sunday (aka Confidentially Yours, 1983). Again the number 813 appears — almost twenty years later! — this time as a room that must be rummaged for clues in a murder mystery. What could possibly be going on?
I knew that Truffaut had a mischievous streak of quoting his own films. In both The Soft Skin and Day for Night, a stray cat wanders into frame, eating from the room service tray left by lovers outside a motel room door. And “Do you believe women are magic?” seems to have been Truffaut’s favorite pickup line. It recurs in his Antoine Doinel movies, and in Day for Night, and in The Man Who Loved Women. These are but a few examples. His films are Talmudic with self-homage.
The mirrored room 813 made me think of Stanley Kubrick, who pulled a similar stunt with the CRM-114 device in Dr. Strangelove. For the keen of eye, it returned as Serum 114 in A Clockwork Orange. I thought of A113, the Cal-Arts room number that has become PIXAR’s favorite Easter Egg, along with the Pizza Planet Truck. And speaking of vehicles, there is the station wagon that David Fincher’s art director carried over to Fight Club from The Game. And I thought of the Wilhelm Scream, a sound element that has become an inside joke as filmmakers echo it from film to film to film.
But something seemed different about Room 813. It was just an intuition, but I kept searching…
In Search of The Master
The Soft Skin and Finally, Sunday, along with The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid are Truffaut’s most explicitly Hitchcockian films. Hitchcock liked to cameo in his films, and he might repeat a distinctive camera trick from time to time, but Room 813 didn’t seem like a Hitchcockian move. Rather, Hitch’s favorite repetitions were thematic, emblematic, psychological. He would return again and again to the wronged man, the transference of guilt, the assassin’s bullet, the icy blonde.
And then I realized Truffaut had done the same. He too returned again and again to his own particular obsessions: cinema, literature and most of all, the destructiveness of love.
The theme of all-consuming love extends beyond his Hitchcockian Four. The central characters of Jules & Jim, The Man Who Loved Women, The Woman Next Door and especially The Story of Adele H. are all on some kind of continuum between love and obliteration. Truffaut of course, was a man who loved women to destructive ends. His close friendship with Jean-Luc Goddard was ruptured over Truffaut’s tendency to fall in love with his actresses.
I might argue that Truffaut’s obsessions with films and novels are of a piece with this view of love. It’s no accident Truffaut emerged as a critic, ready to burn down the cinema’s orthodoxy and cherish exotic masters. If, like Hitch, all Truffaut’s films function as a self-portrait, we can see the outlines of the artist within. Taken as a sum, they paint a man of passions: erotic, intellectual — and ultimately tinged with guilt and death. In writing a book about Hitchcock, a work Truffaut considered the most important of his too-short life, he engaged all of the above.
The Magic Number
Finally, Sunday is Truffaut’s best Hitchcockian film, in my opinion, because it is also an excellent Truffautesque film. After three attempts at imitation of the master, he succeeds instead by becoming the master. The style has both the breeziness of Truffaut’s earlier hit films and the control of Hitchcock’s most scrupulously storyboarded sequences.
The central hero, played by Truffaut’s stunning real-life mistress, Fanny Ardant, is a woman who engages in danger-courting behavior for a man she both hates and loves in contradictory measure. And the main villain’s confession makes little plot sense within the confines of the story, but complete sense if you’ve been paying attention to Truffaut’s common refrains. “Everything I’ve done was for women,” the murderer confesses. “Women are magic, so I became a magician.”
Still… Why here? Why again? There must be some little joke or hidden message. Perhaps it was Truffaut’s birthday, I thought. I googled, but I saw he was born on February 6. Then I glanced at the other birthdays Google had surfaced, among them Alfred Hitchcock’s: August 13 — or 8-13.
Like the end of Citizen Kane, the camera catches the metaphor. The Room 813s were more than a little self-homage, a number repeated back in confirmation. They were a tip-of-the-hat to his master.
The 813s bracket Truffaut’s career, as his obsession with Hitchcock — and with Victor Hugo and Balzac and with women and their magic — must have bracketed his entire life. Finally, Sunday was Truffaut’s last film, his final confession. In room 813, if you know what to look for, you will find the clues that will lead you to the man.