On 21 October 1984, François Truffaut dies of brain cancer. He is 52 years old. Jean-Luc Godard does not attend the funeral, which, in Montmartre Cemetery, brings together the whole family of French Cinema. For ten years the two filmmakers have been enemies. Since 1973 the two former friends, leaders of the New Wave, have not seen each other. They are no longer on speaking terms.
But Godard is terribly upset by Truffaut’s death. Memories flood back: their shared love for the cinema, the years spent together in the cine clubs and movie theaters, how these two rebellious kids learned about life, watching and adoring the same films. In the December 1984 special issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, dedicated to Truffaut, Godard writes: “François began making films with his hands, with daubs of ink, and throwing stones into a pond. We had Diderot, Baudelaire, Élie Faure, André Malraux, and François. Afterwards there were no other real critics of art.”
A few weeks later, Godard feels forsaken and vulnerable. In January 1985 he writes: “It’s not by chance that François died. A whole period has disappeared. He managed to do what the rest of us didn’t attempt and failed to do – he was respected. Through him, the New Wave still had respect. Because of him we were respected. Now that he’s gone, we are no longer respected. In his own way, François protected me. I’m very frightened now that this protection no longer exists.” Four years later, in 1988, François Truffaut’s letters are published; everything again foods back. Godard writes a preface to the volume: “The battles of film lovers of the beginning, which we inseparable, then the excursion to Cannes in May 1959, with the triumph of The 400 Blows; and “Cocteau, Truffaut, Léaud, on the Croisette”; and then the birth of Breathless, Truffaut’s “gift” to his two-year-older friend, Godard. It was a time of camaraderie and complicity. Godard describes himself as playing Athos to Truffaut’s d’Artagnan. And he recalls the films developed together from Jules and Jim to Two or Three Things I Know About Her, from Shoot the Pianist to Vivre sa vie, the allusions and friendly nods they contain, the little telegraphed words of encouragement; money is passed back and forth; they stick together. Jean-Pierre Léaud moves easily from one universe to the other: Antoine Doinel becoming the clumsy investigator of Masculin, féminin or the apprentice revolutionary of La Chinoise.
Then there is the quarrel in the spring of 1973. They exchange insulting letters, incredible invective. Godard talks about it: “Why did I quarrel with François? It had nothing to do with Genet or Fassbinder. It was something else. Luckily that something else has no name. It was idiotic, dim-witted. Saturn swallowed us whole. We tore each other apart, little by little, neither wanting to be eaten first. Cinema taught us life. It took its revenge. Our pain talked and talked and talked. But our suffering was pure cinema, that is to say, it was silent. Maybe François is dead. Maybe I’m alive. There’s no difference, really, is there?” Actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is trapped between his two “fathers”. They fight over him like separated parents fighting over a child.
Letter from Jean-Luc Godard to François Truffaut: mid-July, 1959, one month before shooting Breathless:
"I’ve finally found the coherent story line that will give Breathless its emotion. Old daddy George de Beauregard is working out pretty well. If Carolus (Bitsch) is not busy, I take him as first assistant. He’ll always be one shot behind me, but so much the better. I’ll let you read the shooting script in a couple of days. After all, it’s your screenplay. I think that, once again, you’ll be surprised. Yesterday, I talked about it with Melville. Thanks to him, and to screening some rushes of the Big Momo (Eric Rohmer was shooting The Sign of Leo], I’m in top gear. There’ll be a scene where Jean Seberg will interview Rossellini for the New York Herald. I think you won’t like this film even if it is dedicated to Baby Doll, but via Rio Bravo. I’d like to write you a longer letter but I’m so lazy that this effort will prevent me from working until tomorrow. We start shooting 17 August, rain or shine. In brief, the story will be about a guy who thinks about death and a girl who doesn’t. The events concern a car thief (Melville is going to introduce me to some specialists) who’s in love with a girl who sells the New York Herald and who is taking a course in French Civilization. It’s uncomfortable introducing something of me into a scenario that is yours. But we are becoming complicated. The thing to do is to shoot film and not try to be too clever. With friendship: one of your sons."
Text on Jean-Luc Godard: “Two or Three Things I know about Him” – by François Truffaut; 1966:
"Why did I get involved? Is it because Jean-Luc has been my friend for 20 years? Or is it because Jean-Luc is the world’s greatest filmmaker? Jean-Luc Godard is not the only director for whom filming is like breathing, but he’s the one who breathes best. He is rapid like Rossellini, sly like Sacha Guitry, musical like Orson Wells, simple like Pagnol, wounded like Nicholas Ray, effective like Hitchcock, profound like Bergman, and insolent like nobody else. Professor Chiarini, Director of the Venice Film Festival, says: “There’s cinema before Godard; and cinema after Godard.” It’s true, and as the years pass it’s increasingly clear that Breathless has marked the cinema, that it’s a decisive turning point, like Citizen Kane in 1940. Godard blew the system up, he messed it up, just like Picasso did with painting; and like Picasso, Godard has made everything possible. More prosaically, I can say that I have become a producer of the thirteenth film of Jean-Luc Godard because I noticed that the people who invested money in the preceding twelve masterpieces got rich."
Two letters from Jean-Luc Godard to François Truffaut (not dated, mid-1960s):
“Me too, dear Francesco, I’m totally lost. I’m wandering in a strange place. I think there is something very beautiful is prowling around close to me. But when I tell Coutard to catch it with a quick pan, it’s gone."
"We no longer get together, you and I, it’s really idiotic. Yesterday I went to see Claude Chabrol, who was shooting, and it was awful, we have nothing to say to each other. It’s like in the song, in the pale dawn, not even friendship survives. We’ve each gone off onto our own planet; we don’t see each other in close-up, like before, just long shots. The girls we sleep with separate us more and more instead of bring us together. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be."
Letter from Jean-Luc Godard to Truffaut end of May 1973:
“Probably nobody will call you a liar. Well, I will. It’s not more of an insult than ‘fascist”. It’s a critique. And it’s the absence of critique in such films, your film, and in the films of Chabrol, Ferreri, Verneuil, Delannoy, Renoir, etc., which I complain about. You say, Films are big trains passing in the night. But who takes the train? Those are trains too. What class of seat do they get? And who drives the train with the bosses’ spy standing beside him? They make film-trains too. And if you’re not talking about the Trans Europe, then, maybe it’s the suburban train, or maybe the train for Dachau-Munich, and of course we will never see that station in Lelouch’s film-train. You’re a liar because the image of you and Jacqueline Bisset the other evening Chez Francis (a restaurant on Place de l’Alma) is not in your film. And I’d like to know why the director is the only one who doesn’t fuck in Day for Night. I’ll come to a more material point. To shoot A Simple Film I need five or six million francs. Given Day for Night you should help me, so the audience will know that yours is not the only kind of film that gets made. If you want to talk about it, okay.”
Truffaut’s answer to Jean-Luc Godard, June 1973
“I’m sending back your letter to Jean-Pierre. I read it and I find it disgusting. It’s because of that letter that I think the moment has come to tell you, in detail, how, according to me, you act like a shit. I don’t give a damn what you think of Day for Night. But what I do find pathetic on your part is that, even now, you go to films like that when you know very well in advance they don’t match your idea of cinema or your idea of life. It’s my turn to call you a liar. At the beginning of Tout va bien, there’s this line: “To make a film, you need stars.” That’s a lie. Everybody knows about how you insisted on having Jane Fonda – who refused – while your financers told you to pick anybody. Your couple of stars, you got them Clouzot style. Since they work with me, they can work for one tenth of their salary for you, etc. Karmitz, Bernard Paul need stars. You don’t. So that was a lie. You’ve always had it, this way of posing as a victim, like Cayatte, like Boisset, like Michel Drach, a victim of Pompidou, of Marcellin, of censorship, of distributors who cut films, while in fact you get by very well doing exactly what you want, when you want, the way you want, and above all, keeping this your image as a pure tough guy, that you want to keep , even if at the expense of people who can’t defend themselves. When I saw Vent d’Est and the sequence “how to make a Molotov cocktail”, the only feeling I had for you was contempt. And a year later you shied away when we asked you to distribute La Cause du peuple in the street with Jean-Paul Sartre. The idea that men are equal is just theory for you. You don’t feel it. You just want to play a role and it has to be a big role. I think the real militants are like cleaning ladies: it’s not pleasant work, it’s daily, it’s necessary. But you, you’re like Ursula Andress, a four minute cameo, time for the flashbulbs, a few striking quips, and, poof, you disappear, back to the lucrative mystery. Shitty behavior! Really shitty behavior! For a while after May 68, nobody knew what you were doing. Rumors spread: he’s working in a factory; he’s formed a group, etc., then one Saturday we hear, it’s announced, that you are going to speak on RTL. I stayed in the office so I could hear you. It was one way of finding out, getting news about you. Your voice was trembling; it seemed full of emotion. You announced that you were going to shoot a film, The death of my Brother, about a black worker who was sick and whom they let die in the basement of a television factory, and listening, and inspire of the quiver in your voice, I knew first, that the story was probably not precisely true, or that you had tarted it up, and, two, that you would never make the film. And I said to myself: if this dead guy had a family, then they are going to live with the hope that the film is going to be made? There’s no role in the film for Yves Montand or Jane Fonda. But for fifteen minutes you gave the impression that you were “doing good”, like (Prime Minister) Messmer when he announces that the voting age is being lowered to 19. Fake! Dandy! Show off! You’ve always been a show off and a fake, like when you sent a telegram to de Gaulle for his prostate. Fake, when you accused Chauvet of being corrupt because he was the last, the only one to resist you! Fake when you practice the amalgam, when you treat Renoir and Verneuil as the same, as equivalent; fake when you say you are going to show the truth about the movies, who works for no pay, etc. If you want to talk about it, okay…”
I think it's pretty obvious who won the fight. FAKE! DANDY! SHOW OFF!