In response to: The François Truffaut essay “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” from the article originally printed in the French film magazine “Cahiers du Cinéma“
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
French filmmaker and film critic Francois Truffaut’s essay “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” presented such strong, impassioned convictions on what he thought and felt about cinema during his time. He capitalized on his emotions while still offering certain moments of objectivity through film examples that, unfortunately, made me lost while reading because there were just too many details that would require me to watch probably dozens of French films and find enough means to research and critique these works and those behind them before really understanding what he’s talking about. Overall, I still had a fairly good understanding of his key points, but I kind of felt that some personal agenda lingered around his thoughts and words. I may be wrong on this, but that’s the impression I got after reading the essay.
Truffaut referenced the auteur to the personal vision of the director. He eventually named auteurs he believed in, describing them as those who “often write their own dialogue and some of them themselves invent stories they direct.” As a background, Truffaut was part of an acclaimed, closely knit group of critics who wrote for the pioneering and globally regarded film magazine “Cahiers du Cinema,” alongside the cine-club movement anchored in the magazine’s writings. He raised a policy calling for a focus on criticism of film directors’ works, which he called the “politique des auteurs.” This required certain qualifications for filmmakers to be part of the circle of “auteurs,” authors whose individuality of style led them to the said domain.
As he jumped from one thought to another, from one film example to the next, I found myself a little confused in trying to understand his elaborations. He discussed the tendency of French cinema called “psychological realism” and the French films coined as part of the “Tradition of Quality,” but I never really found enough clarity on what these terms meant when anchoring their meanings simply on the basis of the essay. By the end of the reading, he raised the issue of psychological realism’s most dominant trait being its anti-bourgeois will, then he threw in the question “What then is the value of an anti-bourgeois cinema made by the bourgeois for the bourgeois?” I think this had something to do with how workers did not appreciate this form of cinema despite its aim of relating it to them. He also expressed how he did not believe on the peaceful co-existence of the “Tradition of Quality” and an “auteur’s cinema.”
Early on in the essay, he raised the issue concerning the making of adaptations. He expressed how there are “filmable and unfilmable scenes,” prompting for what he called as “equivalent scenes,” which are then “scenes as the novel’s author would have written them for the cinema.” He also brought up the “unfaithfulness to the spirit” degrading cinema, as a film adaptation translates quite differently from the written source material. I remembered some acclaimed filmmakers expressing how certain books were unfilmable, including “The Lord of the Rings” and “Watchmen”– and we eventually saw how successful and not that successful these film adaptations turned out to be. The debate will definitely be quite long for this one, but my take on it persists. For me, this concern on a film adaptation’s faithfulness to the originally written material raises a similar issue as the discussion of the realist tendency. One thing is for sure: a two-inch thick novel can never be faithfully translated into a two-hour film for its sheer length. Aptly adapting it for the screen would definitely require coming up with bridging scenes to accommodate lost chapters – and if being unfaithful to the original material, regardless of the creative efforts and respect duly taken into consideration would really be an issue, then most books would readily be rendered unfilmable.
Truffaut also brought up the issue on producing films anchoring on the requirements of the producer (as he discussed having to “cheat the producer”), as well as the requirements of “cheating the great public” with equal satisfaction. From my understanding, I believe he was referring to how a director would try to work on compromises and how he would make the general public content on his cinematic product.
Discussing the so-called “unfaithful” scriptwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost whom he described as essentially literary men instead of each being a “man of the cinema,” he expressed such strong words that seemed very judgmental for me, but perhaps I was just not that well-adept with their works for me to be credible enough in doing my own evaluation. Nevertheless, I still get Truffaut’s point on being “a man of the cinema” instead of being “literary men,” which for me, can apply to anyone working on a film project without much credence to the format.
He declared, “The artist cannot always dominate his work. He must be, sometimes, God and, sometimes, his creature.” At first, I didn’t agree with it, but looking deeper into its context, I would say that my further understanding allowed me to agree with how he used the word “dominate” in this statement.
Truffaut, François. “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” Cahiers du Cinéma, Phaidon Press, Paris, 1954.