Time went by and he would sit ever closer to the screen, as though wishing to literally lose himself inside the images that promised a better, more stable world. Outside, he was at best an indifferent student, usually ignored by his self-absorbed parents and often brutalized by unsympathetic teachers. But once inside a theater like the Gaumont-Palace, beguiled by larger-than-life fantasies and excited by the danger of discovery, Truffaut blossomed like some exotic night-blooming orchid. Here, in the magical kingdom of lights and shadows, he was a prince of the realm.
"For me," Truffaut would say three decades later, "cinema is not a sad imitation of life. It is an improvement on life."
Little wonder, then, that after years of immersing himself in his favorite art form, of discovering cinema with all the attendant ecstasy and guilt one normally associates with sexual awakening, Truffaut chose film as his life work.
He began as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, the celebrated French film magazine, where he proselytized for a "cinema of the first-person singular," encouraging the creation of movies "even more personal than an autobiographical novel, more like a confession or an intimate diary."
When he was ready to make the transition from critic to creator as a founder of the maverick nouvelle vague ("new wave") movement, he took his own words to heart. And while he was at it, he made a timeless masterpiece.
The 400 Blows, Truffaut's profoundly affecting and enduringly influential first feature, is on view in revival screenings this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It's a frankly autobiographical drama, at once brutally specific and brilliantly emblematical, about Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a 14-year-old boy whose acute sensitivity makes him tragically vulnerable to the hard knocks of an emotionally deprived childhood. Don't look for anything so comforting as rosy-hued nostalgia here. "Adolescence," Truffaut pointedly noted in a 1959 essay, "leaves pleasant memories only for adults who can't remember." Truffaut, who was 26 when he filmed 400 Blows, couldn't forget. Read more here.