Francois Truffaut and Milos Forman’s love of Charlie Chaplin


Francois Truffaut and Milos Forman were leading film directors of their respective movements, the former of the French New Wave, the latter of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Both movements were known for their opposition to their respective predominant national cinema, their search for an inherent truth, their iconoclasm, their self-conscious styles, and so on.

However, both Truffaut and Forman also represent the more traditionalist spectrum of their respective film movements. While other contemporaries, such as Jean-Luc Godard in France and Vera Chytilova in Czechoslovakia, posited new ways of reading films, Truffaut shared an essential desire to continue the tradition of fiction filmmaking. This did not prevent their works from carrying substantial political value, but certainly prompted a more existentialist response and, generally speaking, opened a discussion with audiences much more than with film critics.

It is no wonder that both their films, while dramatic, could also be funny, and owed a debt to the comic style of slapstick comedians. And, given the importance of humour, irony, and satire in the works of both Truffaut and Forman, it is no wonder that both shared a love for Chaplin.

I happened to have come across within a short space of time two interesting quotes that describe the filmmakers’ admiration for Chaplin. The quotes refer to similar aspects of Chaplin’s figure that both men loved – his ability to communicate and his universality first and foremost.

For a long time, due to the contrast of his works with the politically charged intellectual life of France in the 1960’s, Truffaut was regarded a commercial auteur. This led Truffaut to retort:

The word ‘commercial’ almost always gets us nowhere, since the most commercial metteur in scéne in the history of cinema was also the greatest, Charlie Chaplin.

Truffaut admired Chaplin’s universality, and he understood his popularity to have been as a direct result of the link he was able to create between himself and the audience:

It is difficult today, probably because of the trivialization of personalities by television, to imagine the celebrity of Chaplin. One photo from L’Illustration, taken in the 1920s, shows him from behind, on a balcony of the Hotel Gillon, greeting a crowd that has assembled in the Place de la Concord, not only to acclaim him, but also to thank him.

Forman remembered that Chaplin was his first favourite film director:

“The first filmmaker who really touched me was Charlie Chaplin. All of his films. I don’t know if I started his films because Chaplin was so good or if he touched something that was already in me that I didn’t know about before. I was very moved by his mixture of laughter and tears.”

It is important to note that Forman and Truffaut admired each other’s works, and that their paths crossed after the former made The Firemen’s Ball (1967), which features an ingenious mixture of cinema verité style and comedy invention, which is certainly a peak of the Czechoslovak New Wave. The film managed to outrage not only the Communists who ruled Czechoslovakia, but also the Germans and the Americans… and producer Carlo Ponti, who withdrew his financial involvement. Truffaut was among those who endorsed the film, which was eventually rescued and went on to be Academy Award-nominated, as well as blacklisted in Czechoslovakia until the late-1980s.

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