That is the second time that I associate Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut in a same article. The first one was somehow addressing the revolution of cinema that directors like them — but also Chabrol, Varda, Rohmer, Rivette etc. — triggered with the New Wave. This revolution consisted in an embrace of cinema for what it really was, breaking all conventions including the one that consists in making the viewer forget that (s)he is looking at a screen. From the mid 1950’s to 1968, this cinema was produced in collegiality between this group of friends who worked together and produce each others’ films. In the case of Godard and Truffaut, it resulted in movies that each strongly contributed in changing cinema forever (The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jules and Jim (1962) for Truffaut, Breathless (1960), A Woman is a Woman (1961), 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1966) for Godard).
This side of the (hi)story is not the one that I would like to write about here. In 1968 the Cannes Festival is occupied (by Godard and Truffaut among many other people) and finally cancelled as part of the political movement of May 68. From here, nothing will be the same in the relationship between Godard and Truffaut as the documentary Two in the Wave (2010) by Emmanuel Laurent illustrates. While Truffaut remains convinced that an artist, although (s)he can be a political activist, cannot make his or her art with a political agenda, Godard, on the contrary, think that it is the only thing an artist can do (see past article). In 1972, Godard directs with Jean-Pierre Gorin the film Everything’s Going Fine that clearly marks such a manifesto for art as a political manifesto. A year later, Truffaut releases the film Day for Night that will finish to separates the two directors. In it, Truffaut who more or less plays himself tell Jean-Pierre Léaud — who also more or less plays his own role – that “movies go along like trains in the night.” Godard, furious after having seen the movie writes a letter to his old friend:
You say films are trains in the night. But who’s aboard? What class? And who’s the driver spied on by the boss? ANd if it’s not a Trans Europe, maybe it’s the suburban train, or maybe the Dachau-Munich train, from which we’ll never see the station. You are a liar.
Truffaut answered with an even more aggressive letter that sealed their separation. But beyond the end of such a prolific friendship, we are left with this dilemma: should we follow Truffaut in his admiration for Henri Matisse who lived through three wars (1870, WWI and WWII) without changing his focus in his painting; or should we rather follow Godard who invites us to empower the exploited against the exploiters?
Although I would tend to agree more with Godard than with Truffaut, I cannot help but notice that, before 1968 i.e. the formulation of such a theoretical dilemma, Truffaut was making some films that had some strong political implications (The 400 Blows (1959), Fahrenheit 451 (1966) etc.) and Godard was making some films that no artists ever dared doing before (To Live One’s Life (1962), The Little Soldier (1963), The Chinese (1967) etc.). It is therefore difficult to find definitive answers to the question of the status of the work of art; what is for sure however, is that a work of art does not need to be explicitly political to ask important political questions; and that each of these work requires to be the product of an absolute necessity; a sort of passion that make their non-existence simply impossible. This is certainly the case for the twenty three pre-1968 films that Godard and Truffaut made and we can legitimately think that they strongly influence the revolutionary imaginary that triggered the May 1968 students and workers political movement in France.