Two in the Wave
Documentary traces iconic directors’ rift
Emmanuel Laurent named his documentary about Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard “Two in the Wave.’’ It quite easily could have been called “Le Divorce.’’ The film provides a history of the soured friendship between the most famous filmmakers of the French New Wave. In doing so, Laurent and the film’s writer and narrator, the film critic Antoine de Baecque, imagine a kind of marriage that begins with a common passion for movies, particularly a shared belief in the visual supremacy of Alfred Hitchcock, and ends in politicized nastiness.
That’s an illuminating perception. We tend to think of the men of the French New Wave as individual crests, even though it’s well known that they often collaborated with each other. Truffaut and Godard might have had the most fascinating relationship. Two film critics, fed up with the tired, rule-bound French movie industry, who once shot an 18-minute film together called “A Story of Water,’’ they set out to subvert the status quo. Truffaut made “The 400 Blows’’ in 1959. Godard made “Breathless,’’ which turned 50 this year. Both films expanded the parameters of what movies could be and do. When Godard struggled with the script for “Breathless,’’ he asked Truffaut for help. Truffaut had in mind an intense, moody crime film. Godard’s revolutionary idea was to turn the crime film into a lark, to de-intensify it.
The documentary is primarily a work of whimsy. Laurent oversees an immense assembly of film clips and found interviews. He also includes staged shots of the actress and director Isild Le Besco looking though back issues of Cahiers du Cinéma and old newspapers about the New Wave. She visits a movie theater and moves from seat to seat and eventually falls asleep. These are unfortunate asides, since their poor quality threatens to undermine the credibility of Laurent and de Baecque’s entire enterprise.
But the film puts forth so many terrific brief histories — of these men’s careers, of the French critic André Bazin, of the Cinémathèque Française, of the public’s indifference to the New Wave, of Jean-Pierre Léaud — that the movie becomes a wonder of archival randomness. Truffaut and Godard’s bond is the movie’s central artery. One of their last collaborative efforts was in joining a group of filmmakers in an attempt to shut down the Cannes Film Festival amid the assorted political strife of 1968.
The film doesn’t go into the general inefficacy of the move — how the festival was winding down anyway, how several filmmakers had pulled their movies in solidarity with striking workers, how members of that year’s jury had already resigned. Nonetheless, Godard was impassioned. Truffaut, according to Richard Brody’s tome about Godard’s career, “Everything Is Cinema,’’ appeared to be more ambivalent, if not a little nauseated by Godard’s vociferousness. “Two in the Wave’’ surveys the fallout.
That title suddenly suggests more apt turbulence. After ’68, Truffaut and Godard started to diverge personally and artistically. Honestly, before ’68, neither man’s movies could have been mistaken for the other’s. Godard was feral, polemical, and confrontationally modern. Truffaut was ambitious but accessible. In any case, the aesthetic difference became fraught politically. Godard found the films of his old friend increasingly irrelevant and aggravatingly bourgeois. Truffaut countered: Godard was using politics to exploit art.
Neither man allowed for them, but psychology and personal history count for a lot in this rift. Godard grew up in a relatively itinerant upper middle-class family. Truffaut’s childhood was unhappy. All those years later, Truffaut just wanted the contentment Godard abhorred. By the early 1970s, they were so thoroughly the men they were meant to be that it’s impossible to imagine, based solely on their filmmaking at that point, a lasting friendship.
What’s most fascinating about the documentary’s sense of the relationship’s demise is who got caught in the middle. For much of “Two in the Wave,’’ Léaud is at Truffaut’s side. Playing the director’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows’’ made Léaud an overnight sensation. He then spent a lot of his career figuring how not to be Antoine, whom he played for Truffaut four more times. One solution was to work with Godard, who, Léaud said, freed him from Truffaut’s gilded cage. As things worsened between the two directors, they worsened for the actor. The shock of this film is how much le divorce turned poor Léaud into the object of a custody battle.