Love is all you need?
By Michael Roberts
"In love, women are professionals, men are amateurs".
- François Truffaut
François Truffaut's devastating examination of adultery and its consequences came as the 4th film in his meteoric directing career. The rollercoaster of success continued as his third film, the immortal Jules et Jim was a huge hit, but this downbeat fable was ultimately too dark to connect with the public of 1964 and it would be 4 years before he made a film in France again. Truffaut cast the ill-starred Françoise Dorléac as the air hostess who represents the 'dream girl' that middle aged writer and lecturer Pierre Lachenay falls for. Dorléac was the elder sister of Catherine Deneuve, who used their mothers maiden name to differentiate herself from her sister, and who would be tragically killed in a car accident in 1967. Jean Desailly, a kind of 1960s Fabrice Luchini, was cast as the intellectual Pierre, having worked for years in the Comédie-Française and recently completed Le Doulos for Jean-Pierre Melville. Ubiquitous Nouvelle Vague figures Raoul Coutard as cinematographer and Georges Delerue as composer completed the talent pool and Truffaut delivered the sermon in a dour black and white with a haunting and memorable score.
Pierre we discover is a busy man, with little time for his wife and young daughter, and we meet him running late for a lecture he's to deliver in Lisbon and he needs to get to the airport in a hurry. Truffaut sets up the expectation that he's used to everything clicking into place for him, as the plane is held up to accommodate his tardiness. Pierre is a famous intellectual, and even has a press corp waiting upon his arrival, he stands on the step of the plane and a photographer asks him to pose with Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) an attractive air hostess. Later at the hotel Pierre pursues the young woman, she's impressed by Pierre as she's seen him on TV, and he eventually starts an affair with her that leads him to scheduling time with her when she's between flights in Paris. The couple deal with the secretive and duplicitous world that the adulterous affair comes with, until Pierre's betrayal is discovered by his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and Pierre leaves the marriage, hoping for a future with Nicole.
Truffaut provides a scenario that is, at one level, a middle aged man's wet dream, but he pushes it into a territory that leaves it clear where the blame lies for the destructive consequences and shows the damage and dangers. Nicole is beautiful and young, a little superficial, but not stupid, and it's possible she sees a father figure in the plain and ernest Pierre. Titillated by the fame of Pierre she embarks on an emotional arc that moves from the frisson of a new attachment, to the realisation that the sordid nature of their assignations makes it difficult to justify the investment, with no future possible while he remains married. Pierre is drawn into a fantasy world, Nicole is little more than a fairy tale princess, indeed his first notice of her is when she's changing her shoes behind the curtain on the plane, his Cinderella. He fusses over her poses on some photos he takes of her that will eventually come back to haunt him, moving her around like a pliable doll. He lapses into the kind of soft, mushy speech that has no place in any other part of his life, coming off like a talking valentine's day card.
Pierre, who resembles nothing so much as one of the men falling like rain in Magritte's surreal and superb Golconde, is acting out of some deep compulsion, possibly self destructive, as he has everything a man in his position could wish for. Truffaut makes Franca a passionate and gorgeous wife, stylish and erudite, and absolutely still in love with Pierre. Franca has stood by Pierre during his demanding rise through the ranks of the public intellectual, raised their daughter and provided a stable home for her husband to be comfortable in, she was an impeccable wife at every level, and a sexy woman. Why would Pierre jeopardise this with a beautiful but empty cipher like Nicole? Nicole herself at least has the wit to recognise there is a gap, "I irritated you, you almost hated me", she says to him after he gets angry at her lack of comprehension of one of his long soliloquies. Pierre is shown as an almost obsessive compulsive in a sequence where he's juggling Nicole in a hotel room as he prepares for his lecture in Reims. Truffaut runs the long sequence like a precision operation, Pierre getting in and out of his car, entering and exiting buildings, a mechanical process that seems to suggest if Pierre keeps connecting the dots he will eventually slot it all into place, as he always does. Nicole throws the whole process out of kilter by refusing to be the prize toy at the end of the game, "I'm fed up", she says, and tired of the petty humiliations she forces him to leave Riems and focus on her solely.
Pierre's middle aged fantasy world proves to be exactly that, and he may have had a premonition of its ridiculous nature as he passed Nicole's father anonymously on the stairs at her apartment, like passing his own reflection, more akin to him than to her lover. His insecurity as to his inadequacy against Nicole's former lover, a pilot, is hinted at a couple of times, and perhaps Pierre held no realistic hope that the relationship could survive. Pierre comes to his senses after Nicole sees the affair for what it is and she ends it, and he then attempts to call Franca to reconcile. Franca has already left their house to find another solution to their problem. Truffaut builds these suspense in these sections like his hero Alfred Hitchcock, small details take on great importance, everyday banal activities become events that will cause cataclysmic consequences. The narrative continues to collapse into a spiral of regret and recrimination, the outcome seems to be the destination Pierre would always arrive at once he'd made his choice with Nicole.
Truffaut has some subtle digs at the intellectual world versus the world of mass culture, pitting Pierre's cerebral and bookish writer, against a contemporary international symbol of airhead artificiality, the air hostess. Pierre's intellectualism is no match for the earthy impulses Nicole's 'dream girl' unleashes in him, he is trapped in a web of behaviour and he's powerless to undo it himself. This is not a love story, no fairy tale Pretty Woman ending in store, Truffaut made a film for adults in the tradition of Jean Renoir (with whom he became close in Renoir's later years), a film about grubby adult behaviour, no trite farce and no 'nudge, nudge' ethos on show here, just a compelling and bleak morality fable about the dangers of mistaking lust for love. Brilliant filmmaking.