François Roland Truffaut is a French film director who is a national icon within the French film industry. Not only was he the director of over 26 films, he was also one of the founders of the filmmaking movement known as the French New Wave, a pivotal time in film history when classical cinematic elements were rejected for an iconoclastic, cinematically self-aware style.
Born in Paris, Truffaut was a child born out of wedlock – he never knew his biological father, and his mother virtually abandoned him with multiple nannies, until he settled down for a few years with his grandmother. It wasn’t until Truffaut was ten and the death of his grandmother that he lived with his mother and his adopted father. Truffaut’s childhood was unsettled – he infrequently attended school, eventually opting to be self-taught. He vowed to read books, and more importantly, see movies.
Truffaut’s obsession with the movies started when he was eight years old – in order to find some escape from his unsatisfying life. By the time he was sixteen, he was well versed in film, particularly the films of the U.S. – he even started his own film club. Through his club, he became good friends with film critic André Bazin, and Bazin even gave him a job as a critic at Cahiers du Cinema, the film magazine.
Truffaut quickly became known as one of Cahier’s harshest critics, even going so far that he was banned from the Cannes Film Festival. But it was in one of his articles that Truffaut came up with what is now commonly referred to as the “Auteur Theory” – the belief that a director was the author of their films, imbuing their work with their personal style and beliefs. Soon after, Truffaut made the leap to directing.
One year after being banned from Cannes, in 1959, Truffaut won Best Director at the festival for his film, The 400 Blows. Largely autobiographical, the film follows the character Antoine Doinel, a young boy, and his strikingly similar childhood to that of Truffaut. Finally, Truffaut started to apply all of the theories and ideas that he came up with as a critic, and this French New Wave became an international sensation. Only three years later, Truffaut directed what some consider his masterpiece, Jules and Jim (1962) – about a love triangle.
Truffaut’s varied career (he was also an actor, producer, and writer for his fellow New Wave directors) is full of successes, from Shoot the Piano Player (1960) to Day for Night (1973), which won him the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year; but most interestingly, the most personal character for him, Antoine Doinel, continued to return – ultimately appearing in five of his films. Truffaut continued to work until a year before his death in 1984, of a brain tumor.