François Truffaut was the subject of a major retrospective at BFI Southbank earlier this year and I’ve been trying to find time to return to a study of his films. I wonder what audiences in 2022 made of this film? It is seen by many of Truffaut’s fans as his misfire, leaving many wondering what he was up to. This is surprising, partly because the film presents many familiar Truffaut elements and connections with his other films. The most direct connection is to Truffaut’s early short feature Les Mistons (France 1957) which is included as a very welcome ‘extra’ on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray for Une belle fille. I like Les mistons very much but it probably needs its own post. It features Bernadette Lafont (1938-2013) in her first film and the suggestion is that Une belle fille comme moi is Truffaut’s gift/hommage to the woman who became, in Dave Kehr’s words, “the nouvelle vague‘s most memorable embodiment of earthy sexuality”.
The second connection is to Truffaut’s love of hard-boiled pulp fiction, published in French as Série noir novels and as part of American crime fiction more generally. There are four distinct Truffaut noirs/polars based on such novels: Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), La mariée était en noir (1968), La sirène du Mississipi (1969) and Vivement Dimanche! (1982). Une belle fille comme moi is perhaps related to Vivement Dimanche as a ‘comedy crime film’, but its plotting is more closely related to La mariée était en noir (which is not a comedy). The original novel which Truffaut and Jean-Loup Dabadie adapted was by Henry Farrell, whose writing career covered novels, screenplays and teleplays. He wrote the novel for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (US 1962) and the screenplays for the follow-ups, Hush . . . , Hush Sweet Charlotte (US 1964) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). These were all ‘gothic horror’ crime stories. Une belle fille comme moi is something rather different. As a crime comedy it also uses elements of the musical and the farce.
Camille Bliss (Lafont) is a prisoner at the start of the film, convicted of murder. She is interviewed by a young sociologist Stanislas Prévine (André Dussollier in his first film feature role) who is preparing a thesis on ‘criminal women’. Camille begins to tell her story through flashbacks and Stanislas soon finds himself in love with her despite the lurid story she tells. He’s convinced she is innocent. In the first flashback to her childhood we get an inkling of the kind of film we are going to see when little Camille is kicked by her drunken father across his farmyard and she literally flies through the air to land on top of a hay wagon. She spends her girlhood in a ‘Home for Observation of Juvenile Delinquents’. Her later escapades involve marriage and her initial escape from that into flings with various men. In all Camille hitches up with six men over the course of the narrative. Five of them are vanquished. The 5:1 ratio is a reminder of Les mistons (five young boys pursuing Bernadette Lafont) and La mariée était en noir with five men despatched by Jeanne Moreau. I won’t spoil the narrative though the film’s critics suggest that the ending is obvious from the start.
So what is the problem? Critics argue that Truffaut can’t handle a full-blown feature of broad comedy like this and that he made a mistake in making his lead such a trollop. Actually, quite a few call her a ‘slut’ or a ‘tart’ or worse. Some of them seem to suggest that Truffaut’s problems with sexuality lead him into a certain kind of sour prudery. I think that if you take only a casual glance at the film, it can in some instances seem a bit like a series of Benny Hill sketches with Camille in various stages of undress running from lecherous men over whom she eventually triumphs. But look more closely and think a bit more about the narrative and the performances and a different film emerges I think. At the centre of the film is Bernadette Lafont, let off the leash and given the chance to take control of the narrative, in fact she literally narrates her own (fictional) story. She had been a dancer and she commands the screen partly through the way she moves. In my ancient guide to the ‘400 key figures in French cinema’ by Marcel Martin (1971), her entry describes her as having a “gay but unsophisticated frankness”. That seems a good call. Camille is the simple country girl who realises that she can get whatever she wants by offering herself for sex which she clearly enjoys. She may appear to be exploited but in fact she remains in control. It was still unusual in 1972 for a narrative to feature a woman with this kind of narrative ‘agency’. Although Truffaut was adapting an American property, the film does have elements in common with Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate (France 1969). This also featured Bernadette Lafont in the lead role as a young woman in rural France living in a marginalised family who eventually turns to prostitution as a way of gaining control over the locals who look down on her. Kaplan’s film (known in the US as Dirty Mary) became something of a feminist text in the UK in the early 1970s and was screened at various conferences (including at the NFT in April 1973) as well as in late night cinema shows. It’s also worth remembering that the early 1970s was a period when there were many European sexploitation films in UK cinemas (usually dubbed) as well as UK softcore productions, whereas in New York when Truffaut’s film opened it was competing with hardcore titles like Behind the Green Door (1972) with Marilyn Chambers and at another extreme one of Bergman’s most powerful films Cries and Whispers (Sweden 1972) which was nominated for five Oscars (and won one).
In the circumstances it isn’t surprising that Truffaut’s film should be rejected by some of the most high profile critics. Jan Dawson suggests in Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1973) that despite using a familiar structure as seen in his other films, Truffaut fails because the “breathless quality that he seeks to impose on his heroine’s odyssey is more suggestive of exhaustion than effervescence”. By contrast Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) offer a detailed analytic reading which I find most helpful. They point out that the film’s aesthetic presents the scenes involving Stanislas in an almost realist mode, whereas those presenting Camille’s re-telling of her story are much more ‘anti realist’ – drawing on cartoons, slapstick and musical numbers. They suggest that Stanislas represents the familiar Truffaut figure of the patriarchy, the representative of rules and conformity trying to contain Camille’s energy in his book. The book is intended to be about ‘criminal women’ but it is the woman who is the protagonist and the one with whom a popular audience might identify. I think every scene in the film is carefully thought out and I don’t find the overall effect to be one of exhaustion. Every scene deals in some way with the same concerns found elsewhere in Truffaut’s work. To be fair to Dawson she does discuss what she sees as an effective sequence in which Stanislas and his young secretary are searching for some film footage of Camille which could be evidence to use in court. When they find it, they have to negotiate with a 9-year old boy who doesn’t want to show the footage to them because it is not yet edited, as clear a reference to the cinema obsessed young François as you could ask for. Other reviews spend time discussing Truffaut’s various hommages to Hitchcock, Hawks and Renoir but I don’t want to go there just at the moment.
I surprised myself in enjoying Une belle fille comme moi more than I thought I would. At other times I have found Truffaut’s approach to his female characters to be a problem but his approach here is consistent and makes good use of his star. The film has an excellent score by Georges Delerue and the cinematography is by Pierre-William Glenn who also shot La nuit américaine (1972) and L’argent de poche (1976). It was filmed mostly around Béziers in the South of France. There is a mystery about the intended aspect ratio for the film. IMDb suggests 1.85:1 but this is clearly wrong. A contributor on DVD Beaver suggests that it was shot ‘Open Matte’ and that it was intended to be projected at 1.66:1. The Artificial Eye Blu-ray is presented as 1.33:1 and I can’t see how many of the scenes could be cropped for widescreen without destroying the compositions.
Holmes, Diana and Ingram, Robert (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press