The well-known love/hate relationship between Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut emits an irresistibly folklorish aura, and as such it’s hard not to pore over a detail-rich article like Richard Brody’s “Auteur Wars” with the imaginative humility typically inspired by Bulfinch’s Mythology. Never mind that Rohmer and Chabrol technically produced the first shorts and features: Godard and Truffaut were the Romulus and Remus of the Nouvelle Vague, precocious aesthetic malcontents who suckled greedily at the royal teat of Cahiers and clawed their way up the smooth precipice of international cinematic renown in tandem. As evinced by the era’s correspondence and testimony, the Godard-Truffaut story appropriates the Cain and Abel motif as well, or even—to draw a parallel with more cultural resonance to the duo—the bloody dynamic between equally impassioned but ever-so-slightly disjunctive visionaries like Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat. But the many, busy, self-contradictory layers of their relationship may additionally reveal what appeared so provocatively fresh in films like The 400 Blows or Breathless—the progenitors of these works were operating in an environment that needn’t, or couldn’t, distinguish between the personal, professional, political, or traditional.
A fecund fluke of an artistically protective bubble like that couldn’t last forever, however, as Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary Two in the Wave half-heartedly attempts to examine. Ostensibly a study of how Godard and Truffaut grew from snot-nosed critics with chips on their shoulders to ground-breaking auteurs that could no longer orbit one another’s philosophies respectfully, the film trots indolently through a truncated history of the Nouvelle Vague, associatively editing between archival interviews, photographs, news articles, and narrated anecdotes. This arrangement of explicating ephemera forms reasonably adept exegeses of Godard and Truffaut’s distinct if somewhat sister styles, but as a narrative of curdling brotherhood Laurent’s movie is unfocused, tarrying far too dotingly on the directors’ breakthrough films and glossing over the strained days of their waning friendship after the May 1968 uprisings. As a result, we gain a more nuanced understanding of Godard and Truffaut’s working methods and cinematic principles, but little about how those theories may have been subtly colliding from the beginning.
Occasionally, Laurent hints at the more intrepid documentary that might have been compiled; one particularly piquant editing stroke juxtaposes an interview wherein Godard describes the dangerous yet glorious verisimilitude of cinema with Claude Jade discussing how Truffaut staged many of their lover’s quarrels verbatim in Stolen Kisses. The point being made is essential to any conceptualization of the Nouvelle Vague roster: These were directors who shared cinematic epiphanies that by their very nature fostered wildly cacophonous artistic quiddities. But the movie ambles both to and from its most daring comparisons, forcing us to endure recklessly copious film clips and oddly sterile footage of Isild Le Besco traipsing about Paris. In short, Laurent’s approach to the material is more Truffaut classicalism than Godard angularism, and the latter would have undoubtedly rendered the tragic tale of l’amour fou with more livelihood (this affinity is sneakily compounded by Laurent’s ending the documentary with the final scene from The 400 Blows, rather than with Godard’s infamous smear missive). I never would have thought it possible, but somehow Two in the Wave makes the concurrent careers of Godard and Truffaut, and their unforgettable milestones, seem like dead history rather than vibrant art.