Drawn from Henry James’s “The Altar of the Dead” and “The Beast of the Jungle,” La chambre verte is one of François Truffaut’s oddest and most deeply affecting films. It is set ten years after the end of the Great War and was made ten years after Jean-Luc Godard’s mobilization of street protest against the firing of Henri Langlois as director of the Cinémathèque Française (February 1968). Truffaut and Godard had been fellow critics at Cahiers du cinéma, among those who founded the nouvelle vague, and close friends. Their subsequent and ferociously bitter falling-out, as Godard held true to their original sympathies and extended these politically leftward while Truffaut pursued bourgeois adulation and a bourgeois career, is encapsulated in Godard’s response to Truffaut’s La nuit americaine (Day for Night, 1973), both in the form of a personal letter to this former compatriot and the film Numéro Deux/Essai Titres (1975). Truffaut would call Godard an imposter and an egotist. Truffaut’s death from brain cancer in 1984, Godard would say, left him “feeling nothing.”
It is perhaps not a stretch to find in the disintegration of the Godard-Truffaut friendship signs of the wreckage of Leftist dreams in European politics that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, also in 1968, launched. But what interests me at the moment in all this is Truffaut’s Green Room in light of the lost friendship. Julien Davenne, who writes obituaries and devotes his heart to commemorating his dead wife and dead friends, is played by Truffaut himself. One other deceased soul obsesses Davenne: Paul Masigny, the close friend who, he feels, betrayed him. I cannot say whether Truffaut was conscious of what I am about to suggest, but I have no doubt that it participates in the meaning of this film: Masigny suggests Godard.
Others have pursued other interpretive paths in Truffaut’s film. My own contribution may be therefore minor. However, I find it clarifies how Truffaut, consciously or otherwise, tried to grapple with the loss of what had been an important friendship. For me, this is what makes the film a bleeding event.
Truffaut wasn’t the best actor around, as this film reminds us. But that misses the point, doesn’t it? This is one part he himself had to play.
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