TIFF is featuring a wonderful Truffaut and Hitchcock retrospective in honour of their screening of the Kent Jones’ documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. Details here: http://tiff.net/summer2016-cinematheque/hitchcock-truffaut-magnificent-obsessions Also click on Programmer’s Essay: http://tiff.net/summer2016-cinematheque/hitchcock-truffaut-magnificent-obsessions
François Truffaut was a rather huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock‘s work and collected extensive interviews with him on every film Hitchcock made. Truffaut then made these interviews into a seminal book on cinema. I’ll be talking about how Truffaut highlighted strong women in some of his films.
Although I love Hitchcock films, my view of how Hitchcock portrayed women is not favourable. Women were either depicted as pawns, cheats, liars, murderers, or wild women meant to be tamed. Although many great actresses like Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman became huge stars in his films, this was so because of the brilliance of their acting, Hitchcock’s direction, but also through the maintenance of a female trope Hitchcock played upon so well. A good article on this would be The Guardian’s Bidisha’s article, “What’s Wrong With Hitchcock’s Women?”
“when it comes to the ladies, it’s slim pickings. Indeed that is literally what his women do: pick their way slimly through a range of awful experiences and deceitful pathologies so extreme you’d be howling with laughter, were the art of cinema not so very serious. There’s the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy. Don’t worry, they all get punished in the end.”
While Truffaut was a lover of Hitchcock’s films, Truffaut’s leading women are far stronger than a plot device. Let’s take for example one of my favourite Truffaut films, The Soft Skin. The film is about a rich and famous author by the name of Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly). Happily married to a beautiful wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti ) he falls for airline stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac – sister of Catherine Deneuve) and begins a whirlwind affair with her. The film focuses a lot on Pierre trying to retain a regular life as a married man while hiding his rendezvous times with Nicole. However, the major shifts in plot take place when the women around Pierre do not follow his expectations. At a bar Piere and Nicole are conversing. She is excitedly talking aloud to Pierre. Pierre tells her to quiet down because she’s embarrassing him. She promptly shuts down and becomes unresponsive to his advances, setting her foot down on the way he treats people not as educated as he is. When she realizes that he would rather hide her than let her become a part of his life, she blooms rather than wilts. When Pierre decides to leave his wife, he starts making grandiose plans of living arrangements for Nicole and his daughter, Sabine. Nicole slows him down and makes him see that he never asked her and never considered her opinion in his decisions. In turn, Pierre’s wife, while strong headed and still very much in love with her husband, gets fed up with the way men treat women and takes matter into her own hands.
In Jules et Jim, Jeanne Moreau plays Catherine. Catherine is free spirited, smart, aloof, and holds her own with her two friends Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre). While both men fall for her, she marries Jules before the pair of men go off to war. When they get back a series of back and forth interplay between the three establishes a polyamorous love triangle that keeps the three together, even when tensions between them arise. The glue that holds them is Catherine’s strong pull of the two men and her dedication staying true to herself. She cares deeply for both Jim and Jules and the fun part of this film is that both men do not try to change her or mould into obedience. They see her for who she is, with her faults, and insecurities, but still an equal and maybe someone who even transcends the way they see world. But love is blind and Catherine’s charming attitude isn’t seen for the truth: she is in fact a manipulative narcissist who holds Jules and Jim as prisoners to her charms. She maybe strong and independent in her demeanor, but she utilizes her power to have men bend to her will.
Germaine Greer on Jules et Jim:
“I hope I am not wrong in thinking that most people seeing Jules et Jim for the first time will find the ending to be not an act of poetic justice, but the final atrocious extravagance of an indulged and destructive narcissist. The question is not, after all, whether a woman can love two men at once, because obviously she can. But for true love to flourish, as Jules and Jim could both tell you, the parties must be free and equal.”
The Bride Wore Black is Truffaut’s homage to Hitchcock. I like to go back and see how Truffaut used gliding film techniques (a signature for the French New Wave) to capture fluid scenes in his films. It’s in The Soft Skin (set in Truffaut’s home) and most especially in The Bride Wore Black, where Truffaut uses space in a very Hitchcock-ian way. Sets are enclosed in homes, apartments, cars, or studios eliciting a tension or claustrophobic suspense for the viewer. In The Soft Skin, Truffaut’s camera would follow Pierre and Franca through their home as they bordered on shouting matches or bits of conflict in the rooms and hallways. In The Bride Wore Black, Jeanne Moreau plays Julie a bride out on a vengeance killing spree against those who killed her husband on her wedding day. Each scene in the film very much takes advantage of the enclosed space constraint, however, Moreau as Julie inhabits that space in a very controlled fashion. She’s definitely in charge, luring men into her traps, but with enigmatic Moreau’s unique way of portraying a hundred emotions in her face, the room becomes hers. She’s hellbent on her self-determined mission and nothing will stop her, not even briefly showing a slight pity for one of her poisoned victims.
François Truffaut was a lover of many women and had various affairs with his leading ladies even while married to Madeleine Morgenstern. To be fair, it’s very problematic to write a piece showcasing strong women in Truffaut films. He might portray them as enduring, but they’re motivations are always skewed in favour of sympathy for the leading men in the film, with the exception maybe of The Bride Wore Black. This piece I found on Free Content says it best (please, if you know the author let me know so I can cite this correctly):
“even though women are strongly objectified in Truffaut’s work, in his reviews as well as in his films, he always reminds the audience of their humanity. He cannot be considered as a misogynist as he really loved and respected women, on the contrary, he has crystallized their beauty in art through very powerful and complex characters.”
This is the beauty of film and trying to parse gender and stereotypes through a director’s work. I enjoy both Hitchcock and Truffaut immensely. The French New Wave inspired my own love for film and how reality could be portrayed in a simple and natural shots. However, both filmmakers were men of their and as such while still using women as featured characters, their portrayal of them still leaves a lot to be desired in the here and now. What I can say is that female characters were well-fleshed out and not just mere ornaments in their films. A woman is a manifold person containing multitudes. On celluloid, Truffaut and Hitchcock tried and in their own ways succeeded in bringing women to the forefront of the picture.
- Alfred Hitchcock’s creepy infatuation with his leading ladies: https://www.yahoo.com/movies/bp/alfred-hitchcock-creepy-infatuation-leading-ladies-195816079.html
- A Second Gaze at Hitchcock’s Women http://sbccfilmreviews.org/?p=15302
- Sexism in The French New Wave: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2009/04/sexism-in-the-french-new-wave/
- A Queer Reading of Truffaut’s Masterpiece, ‘Jules and Jim’: http://www.popmatters.com/review/179048-jules-and-jim-on-criterion/