Two in the Wave
Details: 91 mins , France,
Synopsis: Two in the Wave is the story of a friendship. Jean-Luc Godard was born in 1930; Francois Truffaut two years later. Love of movies brings them together. They write in the same magazines, Cahiers du Cinema and Arts. When the younger of the two becomes a filmmaker with The 400 Blows, which triumphs in Cannes in 1959, he helps his older friend shift to directing, offering him a screenplay which already has a title, A bout de souffle, or Breathless. Through the 1960s the two loyally support each other. History and politics separate them in 1968, when Godard plunges into radical politics but Truffaut continues his career as before. Between the two of them, the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is torn like a child caught between two separated and warring parents. Their friendship and their break-up embody the story of French cinema.
New Wave gets old treatment.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Cinema brought Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard together, and it tore them apart. The seeds of their separation were sown, ironically enough, in a public showing of solidarity, when they successfully pushed for the cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival during the student riots of ’68. The incident left them with conflicting interpretations of the role of cinema in society, and the divide climaxed in a series of venomous letters, after Godard walked out of Truffaut’s autobiographical Day for Night and called him a “liar,” with Truffaut in turn strongly denouncing the label from whom he’d previously called “the greatest filmmaker in the world.”
In 2009, as the French New Wave turned 50, Emmanuel Laurent’s spotlight on the directors’ former alliance premiered where both their careers begun, at the Cannes Film Festival. Two in the Wave charts the history (and ultimately, histrionics) of arguably the most famous filmmakers in French cinema. Laurent tells their story through a series of archival footage, photographs, quotes and narration from critic Antoine de Baecque, as Godard and Truffaut first form their philosophical approach to cinema, then apply it their own films. Injected are intervals of actress Isild Le Besco thumbing through magazines and photos of the duo, as her eyes trace over what were extraordinary events in the evolution of moviemaking.
It’s because of this classical approach that the documentary is so perplexing. It's neither celebratory nor analytical, sidestepping new insight and re-assessment of the duo’s often-told narrative. It handles two confrontational figures with kid gloves, never stepping into the ring itself, preferring to simply call the action retrospectively from the safety of the stands. It's an issue Two in the Wave never takes head-on. Its conventional, stale treatment is at odds with its provocative and dynamic subjects.
As you’d expect, there’s great footage – Godard, darkened glasses and a permanent cigarette in hand, like a character in his own movie, pushing his cinematic theories in numerous interviews; and Truffaut, strolling the streets of Cannes as he waits for the jury’s decision, and later serving as guide to his young star Jean-Pierre Léaud. There are many more of these great moments but beyond these visual delights, there’s little examination or playful interpretation. It’s as if the production had a checklist of highlights to get through, nothing more, and nothing less. (Oddly, almost all of the footage goes undated and clips of the films unlabelled.) Like a museum without curators, it doesn’t come to life, lacking the pulse necessary to make it live in the now.
Documentaries on celebrated filmmakers are a tricky task for directors. The bigger the subject, the less surprise, with most examples unable to bypass the bullet point treatment of the subject’s highs and lows, or the circle jerk nature of “remember when” interviews. The distinction between cinema and TV documentaries should be revelation – such as a major new angle to the story, or a goldmine of lost footage rediscovered. They often work well when a light is shone on contributions that cannot be judged clearly by those outside the circle (The Kid Stays in the Picture), or ride shotgun on a director’s descent into production hell (Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse; Burden of Dreams; Overnight).
Two in the Wave would have benefited from narrowing its focus to a singular issue or event, namely how their theoretical pissing match affected the other filmmakers in the movement and world cinema as a whole, then and now. (Richard Brody’s account of the ‘Auteur Wars’ in the April ’08 issue of The New Yorker is an excellent springboard.) If the aim was producing a visual equivalent of a trip to a French film archive, why not simply give credit to the careers of Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and the rest of the French New Wave?
Two in the Wave should be enough for new fans, but those hoping for more will have to make do for the time being with a cinematic wikipedia entry.
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