For the uninitiated, Le secret perdu, in French, translates as “the lost secret”. These three words were integral to the work that went into my recently completed thesis for my MA by Research in French Studies degree at the University of Birmingham, entitled: “In search of le secret perdu: How French film director, François Truffaut, was influenced by silent cinema”.
Truffaut, revered French filmmaker, who has been gone some 35 years, was at the centre of the cinematic movement which came about at the cusp of the revolutionary decade of the 1960s, namely La Nouvelle Vague, or “The New Wave”. This movement believed in naturalistic filmmaking, often on a shoestring budget, using real-life locations and little-known actors, for example. Truffaut’s chef d’oeuvre, you might argue, was his first film, the semi-autobiographical Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), a film about a wayward Parisian adolescent, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is trying to make sense of life as he begins the transition to adulthood.
A Parisian himself, Truffaut grew up during the Occupation years of the Second World War and, often playing truant, his education came mainly from the cinema. He quickly became a film obsessive, often seeing the same film hundreds of times, to the point of being able to recite the dialogue by heart. Truffaut was raised on a range of pre-war cinema which included classics from the Silent Era. His favourites included the early work of famed Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock – better-known for his talking thrillers, such as Psycho (1960) – and the work of the universally adored Silent Comedians such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Truffaut believed that filmmakers of the silent era had something “extra”, qualities which sound filmmakers didn’t or couldn’t possess, namely “le secret perdu”. This was particularly true of the way said filmmakers visually rendered emotions in the absence of sound. From my findings I concluded that there did not appear to be one single definition of the “lost secret” and, if it did exist, it has gone to the grave with Truffaut. I acknowledge that this subject is certainly open to further research, and that the fun of studying Truffaut is finding out that he was not always transparent; as the man himself once said, “what interests me […] is to contradict myself. […] I like anything which is confused”.
Photo by Jack de Nijs on Wikimedia Commons.