Francois Truffaut and the hallmark of a critic

One of the reasons I’m fascinated by Francois Truffaut is that he was a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema, before he turned into a filmmaker and made The 400 Blows. From what I’ve read, Cahiers du Cinema had a bunch of enthusiastic film critics, many of whom went on to become filmmakers and kickstarted the French New Wave.

I had always been curious to know what kind of criticisms these critics wrote. Finally, I got my hands on Truffaut’s The Films in My Life, a collection of his film criticisms. Reading one of his reviews from this book has given me a terrific insight into what makes a great critic.

The hallmark of a great critic is being able to identify the fundamental flaw in a film, when you criticise it. Truffaut does it beautifully in his review of Le Ballon Rouge (The Red Balloon).

The Red Balloon is a French short film (35 minutes), directed by Albert Lamorisse. It’s a splendid tale of a boy, who finds a red balloon one day, that becomes his magical companion. Watch the film before reading further. It’s definitely worth your time.

Honestly, I loved the film, especially its uplifting climax. I couldn’t find any flaw with it. So I was all the more curious to read Truffaut’s criticism.

He hated the film and here’s why.

He makes a very subtle point. His problem with the film is that the balloon behaves like a puppy and therefore, the film is neither true to balloons nor to puppies. Truffaut’s criticism stems from an underlying philosophical belief that every object or organism has its innate nature and characteristics to which an artist must remain true. And he argues that by humanising the balloon, Lamorisse has gone against this principle.

In fact, he also criticises Disney films using the same logic. Humanising the behaviour of animals and non-living things is a rule of thumb for animated films. A classic example is the magic carpet in Aladdin. This is usually done to make the non-human characters be more relatable to human audience. In fact, I distinctly remember a shot from Madagascar, in which after a cub has gone to sleep, the mother lioness crushes a glowing insect, the same way humans turn off the bedroom lamp. A gentle ripple of laughter spread through the cinema hall that day. But today, Truffaut has made me look at such scenes and films from a different angle.

In this song, watch the carpet kiss Jasmine’s hand like a human before she hops on.

Whether I agree with Truffaut’s point or not, I was amazed by the depth of his perception and his clarity in expressing it. It’s no wonder that he went on to make The 400 Blows a few years later.

Here’s another lovely passage he wrote on the function of film criticism.

I loved these parts too!

I would consider an artist courageous when, without disparaging the role of criticism, he could disagree with it even when it favoured him.
Art is not scientific; why should criticism be?

And here’s a funny anecdote on the difference at the Cannes Film Festival when Truffaut went there as a film critic and later as a filmmaker :)