Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.16: Francois Truffaut's The Green Room

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 75 (B+)

The Green Room comes at a strange and sad time for Francois Truffaut. The director had lost several mentors throughout his life, from critical predecessor Andre Bazin to Cinematheque head Henri Langlois to director Roberto Rossellini. Truffaut also realized that most of the cast of his second feature, Shoot the Piano Player, had died in the years since. Truffaut himself had gone from enfant terrible to middle-aged elder statesman. The Green Room, then, is Truffaut’s most direct attempt to deal with perhaps the most universal and frightening of all themes: death.

Julien Davenne (Truffaut) is a man surrounded by death, but it is by choice rather than by fate. Davenne is a World War I veteran, and his wife died shortly after his return from the front. Rather than moving on, Davenne has dedicated his life to remembering the dead, often detailing loving obituaries for subscribers to the paper he writes for. When Davenne comes in contact with Cecilia (Nathalie Baye), a young woman whose own dedication to the dead stems from an otherworldly experience  with her deceased father. Davenne eventually realizes that his own memories are not permanent enough a dedication to the dead, and decides to build an altar for his departed in an abandoned chapel.

The Green Room is more deeply flawed than many of Truffaut’s film- the austere tone sometimes feels a bit self-conscious and overwritten, as if Truffaut’s playful side has been cut off completely. Truffaut’s stoic performance is cut from the same cloth, though that has as much to do with miscasting as with the film’s tone. He’s good as a mentor figure in The Wild Child or Day For Night and great as the humanistic scientist Lacombe in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but deeply emotional and reverent characters are outside of his limited range.

But these flaws can’t obscure Truffaut’s talents as a filmmaker. The Green Room is as deeply felt as any of Truffaut’s films, and as passionate, with a literary influence of Proust, Tolstoy, and Henry James (whose stories inspired the film) without the suffocation of Two English Girls. The low-lighting and faded look of the film suits the haunted nature of the protagonist and of the narrative, and Truffaut’s separation of Davenne and Cecilia (well played by Baye) from the rest of the characters is often breathtakingly beautiful and sad. When Davenne sees a friend who has remarried since his wife’s death, he hides from him behind a glass door in a stunning image that serves as a wonderful metaphor for his separation from the living. Equally gorgeous is a shot that pans from a funeral for a former friend of Davenne’s to Cecilia, the man’s mistress, hiding behind the headstones, sobbing to herself about a love that society cannot acknowledge.

Davenne’s dedication to keeping the memories of the dead alive is as admirable as it is off-putting. “The dead belong to us if we belong to them…they can continue to live”. That works as consolation for a friend, but the degree to which he pursues his obsession is both unsettling and deeply sad. He refuses to maintain connections with most of the living in order to focus more closely on the dead. His altar for the dead is outright creepy, a mausoleum that matches the way he keeps his own house. Davenne’s behavior comes not only from his experiences with death, but from a break with his former best friend that left him scarred for life. “It is easier to live with the dead than the living”, as one character says. It’s both true and a sign of sickness within those who truly cannot move on. The film is especially poignant for Davenne’s death- Truffaut could not have known that he only had six years to live (he wasn’t diagnosed with a brain tumor until 1983, a year before his death), but the acknowledgement of his own mortality nonetheless leaves an impression nearly thirty-five years later. Time would catch up to Truffaut, sooner than even he knew.

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