Beautifully structured and produced, stuffed with satisfying little nuggets of information on the partnership between legendary directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Emmanuel Laurent's Two In The Wave is a great example of how to put together a populist documentary on a fairly highbrow subject. It doesn't go for any especially incisive analysis, plus it's a little too obvious - as a French production - the film is falling over itself to paint its subjects and their friendship as part tragic martyrs, part national heroes, part history of two modern-day saints. Still, even for those with little or no interest in their output, it's a hugely entertaining and ultimately surprisingly moving watch.
Bookended by the final shot from Truffaut's famous debut 400 Blows (it doesn't spoil anything, for the wary) Two In The Wave properly gets under way with the film's rapturous reception at Cannes 1959. Hailed as a reinvention of a national cinema Truffaut and Godard's generation felt had grown stale and hidebound under an autocratic critical system, it dominated newspaper headlines and discussion in the renowned magazine Cahiers Du Cinema. Writing for Cahiers, Truffaut had upset the establishment so much he was banned from Cannes 1958 - now, a year later, he was the festival's golden boy.
Truffaut went on to help Godard, whose work was also published in Cahiers, to stardom with his own debut, Breathless. Using his new-found fame to convince producer Georges Beauregard to take a chance on the script, the resulting feature also made cinematic history as between them, the two men became the catalyst that launched the New Wave in French cinema. Both films were hailed as the epitome of cool - Breathless in a more literal sense, the first film to come up with a perfect encapsulation of a younger generation in thrall to Americana yet, through that adulation, voicing a need for change their elders could never quite understand.
But what we'd think of as the backlash against the New Wave kicked in surprisingly fast as the cinema-going public began to find it confusing, even alienating. While the movement became steadily more influential it was increasingly obvious it wasn't about to tear down the established order overnight. Both men's follow-ups failed to live up to people's expectations. Truffaut's experimental gangster flick Shoot The Piano Player flopped at the box office and Godard's The Little Soldier, dealing with French military involvement in Algeria, was banned by the government for several years.
While each began to move in different directions from this point on - Godard fiercely dedicated to advancing his philosophical and political beliefs, Truffaut the more reflective cineaste - what really drove a wedge between them was the famous May 1968 protest movement, when millions of workers took to the streets in protest at the policies of Charles de Gaulle's government. Both directors marched alongside their contemporaries, but these events resonated far more with Godard, who decided from that point on there was little or no worth in cinema that didn't consciously stand up behind an issue, be it political, moral or anything else.
The cracks in their friendship widened until the point Godard, after walking out of Truffaut's love letter to the film-maker's craft in 1973's Day For Night, wrote to the other man accusing him of living a lie. Truffaut fired back a furious twenty-page letter effectively attacking Godard as a hypocrite and a walking caricature, blind to the way his radical polemics appeared to everyone else. It seemed they'd never speak again, and Truffaut's death in 1984 ensured they never would.
Two In The Wave doesn't go out of its way to provide any deep, objective look at either director's worldview. The film is largely a linear narrative moving steadily from one era to the next, and more of an elegy for lost youth than an attempt to lay blame in any sense. Its unfettered adulation for its subjects is amusingly over-the-top, at times, and though the lack of talking heads is to its credit it doesn't seem quite sure what to use instead. Throwing Isild LeBesco in to page silently through yellowing issues of Cahiers Du Cinema and old newspaper headlines seems fairly superfluous.
But other than that Two In The Wave is hard to fault. It mines a wealth of archive materials from the period, from the moment it kicks off with The 400 Blows at Cannes. We see the two men and their entourage holding court, on top of the world; interviews with ordinary Parisians coming out of the cinema after being confronted with Breathless for the first time; footage of the 1968 demonstrations, even Godard angrily denouncing the film industry as a sham at Cannes that same year. Clips from many of their most important features are thrown in to illustrate the evolution of each man's body of work.
More importantly, even though Two In The Wave views Godard and Truffaut's friendship from something of a remove, it does so with more than enough grace and even-handedness it's impossible to remain unmoved regardless of whether or not you've seen any of their films. Starting with the genesis of The 400 Blows and Breathless establishes just how much they meant to each other at the beginning of the movement, and it's gently reinforced by a wonderful sequence towards the end showing how each arguably still influenced the other even once they'd stopped talking.
Two In The Wave also manages to convey a great deal of pathos by its portrayal of Jean-Pierre Léaud, who got his start playing Antoine Doinel, the 14-year-old lead in The 400 Blows, as tugged between the two men like a child between two parents. Truffaut revisited Doinel at different stages of his life in three more films after that, yet Léaud continued to work with Godard even while the two directors began to fall out. It's a melodramatic narrative device, but an effective one nonetheless, and winding up with the young Léaud's original audition is sure to leave more than a few in the audience misty-eyed.
Ultimately, Two In The Wave is simply a great, great story more than a historical document (though it does a fine job of that, too). While the film could have taken a less rose-tinted look at the bond between two industry legends, the craft and attention to detail here mean even though Two In The Wave never questions either man's importance, such unquestioning respect still manages to say something emotional, even genuinely profound. Unless you have a pathological aversion to the French New Wave and its legacy, consider this one strongly recommended.
(Two In The Wave was screened as part of the 17th Bradford International Film Festival, held at the UK's National Media Museum from 16th-27th March 2011.)