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Literature Film Quarterly (2007) - François Truffaut Rewrites Alfred Hitchcock: A Pygmalion Trilogy




François Truffaut Rewrites Alfred Hitchcock: A Pygmalion Trilogy

This paper examines the influence of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) on two of François Truffaut's films, Tirez Sur le Pianiste (1960) and Jules et Jim (1961). (Of course the influence exceeds these works by far.) On his way toward defining his own voice (as well as shaping the modern cinema of the early sixties) Truffaut both absorbed from Hitchcock and rebelled against him. Such a case study should prove particularly rewarding because Vertigo holds a special position within Hitchcock's oeuvre, and it is intensely reflexive in that it is consciously concerned with the artistic act of filmmaking.

My treatment of Truffaut's relation to Hitchcock draws heavily on my (mis)understanding of Harold Bloom's theory of literary influence. According to Bloom, any strong poem, no matter what its ostensible topic, is essentially about an earlier poem (or poems). It is the enactment of the latecomer's anxiety lest he be imaginatively constricted by his precursor, since "everything has already been said." The younger poet thus adopts a highly charged "oedipal" relation to his "father" poet. If he is strong enough he deploys certain strategies (the six "ratios" specified by Bloom) that enable him to "swerve" away from the precursor at the point where the aspirant feels he deviated from what would have been the right course. Thus the ephebe revises, rewrites, or as Bloom usually puts it, misreads the old poem.

<indent>To live, the poet must misinterpret the father, by the crucial act of misprision, which is the rewriting of the father.</indent>

He thereby gains an illusory sense of having originated the old masterpiece rather than having been influenced by it.

<indent>Poets tend to think of themselves as stars because their deepest desire is to be an influence, rather than to be influenced, but even in the strongest, whose desire is accomplished, the anxiety of having been formed by influence still persists.</indent>

The psychological and rhetorical strategies enable the ephebe both to negate the influence and also maintain it emotionally, through a repressed processing of it. The drama envisioned by Bloom is a veritable power struggle (a "wrestling"). There is no correct interpretation whether by poet or critic; there are only stronger or weaker misreadings.

<indent>Poetic strength comes only from a triumphant wrestling with the greatest of the dead.</indent>

One should note that in the case of Truffaut, critic turned filmmaker, his relation to Hitchcock is not a relation to a "dead poet," as Bloom's theory of influence would seem to require, Hitchcock at the time being very much alive and at the peak of his creativity. Moreover, as we shall see, much of Truffaut's cinematic reaction to Vertigo is fully conscious, which in no way excludes there being repressed features that are not explicitly dealt with in the present study.

My starting point is Hitchcock's "vertigo shot," when James Stewart looks down the tower stairway in the first chapel scene, and the corresponding shot in Jules et Jim (1961), when the two men discover the Greek statue for the first time. Truffaut emphasizes the discovery of the Greek statue by Jules and Jim through a special shooting technique. The camera backs away from the statue in a "dolly" movement, and at the same time the lens approaches it with a "zoom in" movement. These contrary movements jointly induce giddiness, as the statue's size remains fixed, while the space between it and the background shrinks. This is a distinctive cinematic expression of the emotional impact the statue has on Jules and Jim, and also a cinematic ploy that draws Catherine out of her material reality, suggesting her transcendent or "divine" quality. Since looking at the statue has a dizzying effect on the spectator, Catherine comes to be perceived as...

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(c) Literature Film Quarterly (2007)