In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were the Lennon and McCartney of the French New Wave. Godard, the detached, acerbic one, was eggheaded and vinegary, a playfully acidic intellectual bomb-thrower who, as time wore on, acquired a streak of bitter accusatory leftism. (He became the postmodern Marxist Debbie Downer of cinephilia.) Truffaut, in dramatic contrast, was presentable and bittersweet and more or less harmonious, oriented by nature toward the establishment (though in the beginning, he tossed bombs at it, too), with a latent penchant for bourgeois sentimental craftsmanship that was enchanting at its best, but could also turn cloying.
That little description is, of course, incredibly simplistic, in the same way that Lennon/McCartney contrasts always are. (Paul, we all know well, could rock just as hard as John, and Lennon had a vast sentimental side too.) Nevertheless, it would probably be nitpicking to dispute the essential truth of it. Truffaut and Godard, from their social backgrounds (lower-class French vs. wealthy Swiss) to their looks and vibes and fashion choices (robust, cautiously tailored domestic lothario vs. bespectacled, balding, unshaven eagle-eyed lothario) to the reigning spirit of their films, always had a basic temperamental yin-and-yang that defined the French New Wave. In Two in the Wave, a tart new documentary that just opened in New York, their relationship, as both friends and artists, is as rangy and alive, as present-tense fascinating, as the meatiest celebrity gossip. (I wish I could say that the movie was coming to a theater near you, but coming to a Netflix queue isn’t such a bad option for it.) An elegant and revealing scrapbook of a movie, Two in the Wave shows you how these two spiky, driven figures changed the face of cinema not just by tearing up the old rules but by making up new ones more or less on the spot. It’s a heady dose of New Wave nostalgia that really does feel new.
The movie contains no talking-head interviews, which is sort of a loss, but it does feature amazing footage of Truffaut and Godard at work and at play. The two started out as film critics who, from their perch at the center of the 1950s Paris cinema demimonde, could be as caustic as Simon Cowell. They were out to tear down official French film culture, and they did, though from the start, Truffaut had a gift for cultivating that same establishment. He maneuvered his brilliant and haunting first feature, The 400 Blows, into the 1959 Cannes Film Festival only a year after he’d been banned from it. The movie was a sensation, and Godard, coming around the bend with his revolutionary youth-cult crime caper Breathless — forget the jump cuts, it was a story told entirely in irony, a razory jump-cut splice through the very idea of emotion — enjoyed a similar blast of overnight celebrity. The two fed off each other, cross-pollinating ideas and finance schemes, even as the glow of success from those early films wore off.
Much of this material has been covered before, but Emmanuel Laurent, the director of Two in the Wave, does an incisive job of capturing exactly how Truffaut and Godard’s movies fit into the landscape of their time, before the directors (and the films) had ossified into legend. The central event in the history of the New Wave, apart from the original one-two punch of The 400 Blows and Breathless, was the May 1968 protest/riot/uprising in France that boomer lefties still get misty-eyed about. It was a national earthquake that shut down the Cannes Film Festival (sacrebleu!), and there’s a startling piece of footage from Cannes in which Godard, shaky and full of an anger he hasn’t figured out what to do with yet, accuses all the best young filmmakers — Polanski, “François” (who’s sitting right next to him), even himself — of making irrelevant films that ignore the concerns of “workers and students.”
This was the point at which Godard and Truffaut began to split apart like a married couple who’d been hiding their differences; they were just like John and Paul after the Beatles broke up. It all came to a head in 1973, when Godard, after walking out in disgust in the middle of Day for Night, Truffaut’s love poem to the conventional cinema, accused Truffaut of making a movie that was a “lie,” and Truffaut replied with a 20-page letter in which he nailed Godard — accurately, in my view — for being the incredible radical-chic hypocrite he had become, a man who believed everyone to be “equal” in theory only. (I actually like some of Godard’s films from this agit-prop period, like the 1972 Tout Va Bien, but the notion that any of them would appeal for one second to “workers” is an almost psychotic folly.) The two never saw each other again. Their greatest films live on, though. And in Two in the Wave, so does the romantically fraught, art-is-life mythology of a time in the 20th century when changing movies seemed like changing the world.
So are you a Truffaut person or a Godard person? And what are your favorite films of each of theirs? Here are mine: The 400 Blows and The Story of Adele H. (Truffaut) and Contempt and One Plus One (Godard).