It’s always tempting to look at the latter films of a director’s career through the lens of looming mortality. That may be an apt approach when considering John Huston’s last film, The Dead, directed when he was 80-years-old and confined to a wheelchair, but often it’s a foolhardy approach, gifting the creative talent with an improbable understanding of the arc of their own existence, as if their career was just another narrative being shaped. François Truffaut was in the last decade of his life when The Green Room was released in 1978, but he was also a hale man in his forties. He surely didn’t know that the time was right to begin crafting elegiac works.
And yet The Green Room is about a man obsessed with death, which means the film naturally shares that gloomy preoccupation. Based on the Henry James short story “The Altar of the Dead,” the film follows Julien Davenne (played by Truffaut), a World War I veteran haunted by the carnage he saw on the battlefield and the later demise of his one true love. Taking place 10 years after the war in a provincial French town, the film finds Julien still in the throes of enduring grief. At the funeral of a friend’s wife, Julien castigates the priest for offering embalmed condolences and spiritual inanities. Mourners don’t need soothing, he argues. All they want is their departed loved ones to return.
Death is such a constant presence in Julien’s life that it even dominates his working day. He writes death notices for the local newspaper, where he’s considered “a virtuoso of obituaries.” (Even the publication is dying: Julien’s boss is about to abandon it to go work in Paris and another character expresses surprise that it still exists.) He goes home every night to a solemn household where he looks at slides of battlefield misery and sits before the upstairs shrine he’s assembled to his dead wife. No one’s going to describe him as “the life of the party.”
Unfortunately, Truffaut doesn’t have much presence in the role, a problem he can’t quite erase by having the character described as cold and distant. In fact, it’s only when he’s required to show flashes of anger that Truffaut seems engaged as an actor. Even then, the dialogue is usually so stilted and direct in its address of the film’s themes that it seems more like he’s stepped out of character to become the director again, scolding the audience for presumably not grasping the extent of his subtext.
At one point, Julien befriends Cecilia Mandel (Nathalie Baye), a young woman who works for a local auction house and remembers him from an encounter when she was a girl. He’d spoken to her with respect when others were dismissive to her, which is apparently good enough to strike up a fresh friendship despite his standoffishness and morbidity. There’s not much to their relationship and many of their scenes together play out as lackluster frames to drape Julien’s arguments over. Cecilia’s viewpoints shift to suit whatever direction the plot needs to go in, draining any emotional investment from her character and the secrets she holds.
Eventually, Julien refurbishes an abandoned, damaged chapel to serve as the site of a candlelit tribute for every one of his loved ones and acquaintances that have shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s a flickering polemic against those who feel it’s the responsibility of the living to persevere after enduring personal loss. Julien wants to keep these people alive somehow, anxiously fashioning specters out of his fading memories of them. By this point, the character has clearly proceeded to a whole other level of damage, but Truffaut has lost his deftness, leaving the film a muddle. Even his usual command of creative technique is largely absent. While there are some nice examples of framing here and there, a surprising number of the conversation are dully presented as a series of alternating close-ups. It’s as if even Truffaut is bored with the film.
Even if the gloom of personal mortality wasn’t necessarily on Truffaut’s mind, it’s possible that the dourness of the film was a reflection of the director’s feelings about the state of cinema and the movement he’d help launch. By this time, Truffaut had been making movies for over 20 years. He was well removed from the status of upstart, with a compulsion to break all the rules or at least reshape them to his liking. He was an old hand, revered and institutionally honored. What’s more, the French New Wave movement he’d helped start was reaching the waning days of the immediate influence it had held over important American cinema since at least Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Certainly, someone like burgeoning box office titan Steven Spielberg thought highly enough of it to imperfectly braid sci-fi trepidation with existential questing in his 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even casting Truffaut in the film to emphasize its unlikely ancestry. Meanwhile, George Lucas just thought samurai movies would be cool with space lasers added, especially if he could sell a few toys on the side. By 1978, it was already clear which side was winning.
The walls of the chapel-turned-shrine are covered with photographs, ostensibly of Julien’s dead friends. In actuality, they were largely pictures of people Truffaut knew or idolized, including collaborators like Jeanne Moreau and Oskar Werner. It makes the film feel like a rueful farewell to an era, which may explain why Truffaut labors so ineffectually to imbue the film with any spirit, richness or churning internal meaning. The film itself and the style it represents had both been arguably knocked asunder. Thus defeated, how could it still be expected to rouse an audience?
by Dan Seeger