The esteemed director, François Truffaut, is a name that come up in film school so often that I have no idea how people find him on their own. I guess my first real introduction to him was in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when my Dad told me that guy in the movie was actually a famous French director.

But I didn't see any of his films until much later... in film school.

So I am here (at No Film School no less) to tell you about him. If you haven't watched any of his stuff before, you should! Especially if you have been putting it off.

Let's dive in—bed and board, day for night, no small change left behind.

Who Was François Truffaut?

François Truffaut was a central figure in the French New Wave movement, a groundbreaking era in cinema.

Before becoming a director, he was a fiercely independent film critic whose scathing critiques of traditional French cinema helped ignite the New Wave movement. Truffaut was a proponent of the auteur theory, emphasizing the director's unique vision in shaping a film.

His work often explored themes like troubled childhoods, complex love affairs, and a deep, abiding love for cinema itself. Among his most notable films are the semi-autobiographical debut The 400 Blows, the iconic Jules and Jim, the genre-bending Shoot the Piano Player, the meta-cinematic Day for Night, and the wartime drama The Last Metro.

Truffaut's legacy rests in his championing of personal expression in filmmaking, his influence on modern film styles, and his elevation of film criticism as an analysis of serious art.

10 Filmmaking Lessons Inspired By François Truffaut

1. Personal Expression is Key

  • "There are no good and bad films, only good and bad directors."

Truffaut put his unique stamp on his work. His films often drew from autobiographical elements, reflecting his own troubled childhood and his passionate love of cinema.

Example:The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) (1959) is a semi-autobiographical exploration of a young boy named Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). The film reflects Truffaut's own experiences with juvenile delinquency and a difficult home life.

2. Love and Respect Cinema

  • "I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.”
Truffaut was a film critic before becoming a filmmaker, and this informed his deep understanding of cinema history. His films pay homage to directors he admired, including Alfred Hitchcok.

Example:Day for Night (La Nuit Américaine) (1973) is a film about filmmaking. Truffaut uses meta-cinematic techniques, blurring the lines between reality and the fictional movie being made within the story.

3. The Primacy of the Story

  • "Every film must have a beginning, middle, and end – but not necessarily in that order."

Though associated with experimental techniques, Truffaut believed in the importance of a strong narrative.

Example:Jules and Jim (1962) follows a love triangle between two friends and a free-spirited woman. The film has a non-linear structure, yet the story remains compelling and emotionally resonant.

4. Collaborate with Actors

  • "In the beginning, there are the actors. And if in the end it appears on the screen that the film was directed well, that is thanks to the actors.”

Truffaut loved working with actors, especially children. He valued their spontaneity and naturalism.

Example: Truffaut discovered Jean-Pierre Léaud and cast him as Antoine Doinel in several films throughout his career, creating a recurring alter ego.

5. Improvisation and Authenticity

  • "When working on a film, I often have the feeling that I'm merely taking dictation from the film itself.”

Though meticulously prepared, he left room for the unexpected on set. This led to moments of genuine emotion and serendipity.

Example: The final freeze-frame in The 400 Blows where Antoine stares directly at the camera was an unplanned, improvised moment.

6. Embrace Simplicity

  • “If working on a film doesn't make me happy, then I consider that I'm failing."

Truffaut's approach favored realism over spectacle. He often shot on location using natural light.

Example:Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez Sur le Pianiste) (1960) employs simple yet poetic visuals, emphasizing mood and character rather than elaborate set pieces.

7. Show Don't Tell: The Importance of Visuals

  • "To show is of the essence of cinema.”

Truffaut relied heavily on cinematic language, believing in the power of images to convey meaning and emotion.

Example: The beach scenes in Jules and Jim convey passion, freedom, and the shifting dynamics within the relationship triangle.

8. Attention to Detail

  • "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not interested in anything in between.”

Truffaut was obsessed with getting the details right. Small choices in costume, setting, and dialogue all contributed to the overall tapestry of his films.

9. The Music Matters

Truffaut worked with renowned composers like Georges Delerue and Antoine Duhamel, crafting scores that perfectly complemented the mood of his films.

Example: The jaunty score in Jules and Jim mirrors the film's sense of playful melancholy.

10. Never Stop Learning

  • "I learn something with every film I make.”

Truffaut continued to evolve as a filmmaker throughout his career. He was never afraid to take risks and experiment with form.

To truly understand the impact of François Truffaut and the profound shift he brought to filmmaking, the best course of action is to watch his films.

Allow yourself to be immersed in his cinematic world, and you'll discover why he remains a beloved giant in the history of cinema.

And let me know your favorites in the comments.