A Dream Realized At Last
Truffaut's assistant, Suzanne Schiffman, is now a director, with her second film wrapped up and a third on the way
WASHINGTON — SHE sounds like Piaf, but she shoots films like Truffaut, one of the great French directors who always focused on humanity in comedy or tragedy. She is Suzanne Schiffman, who has made jump cuts in her life for 30 years from Fran,cois Truffaut's script girl in '59 to script writer, then assistant director, and finally, after his death, to directing her own films. Along the way she won an Oscar for the script of Truffaut's delightful film about moviemaking, ``Day for Night,'' and a C'esar, the French version of an Oscar, for the script of ``The Last Metro,'' Truffaut's elegy for Jews who suffered in Nazi-occupied Paris.
``Actually I became a grandmother on my first film,'' says Mrs. Schiffman. ``I started quite late shooting films,'' she explains because she was also raising a family beyond the range of the camera.
Suzanne Schiffman says it matter-of-factly in a low, throaty voice rich as chocolate mousse, the French voice that is bigger than she is. She is a petite woman, small enough to look like a teen-ager in her white jeans, billowing white shirt, and moccasins. Under a cap of dark brown hair salted with gray, there is a sophisticated face with wide brown eyes that have seen it all and still crinkle with amusement.
She pours French coffee from room service and talks about the film that brought her here recently for the Sixth Annual European Community Film Festival. The film, her second, ``Paperback Woman,'' toured the US with the festival, under American Film Institute sponsorship.
``Paperback Woman,'' at first seems as different from her first film, ``Sorceress,'' as medieval castles are from skyscrapers. ``Sorceress,'' a beautiful and moving film, is also a controversial one. It deals with a 13th-century phenomenon, a woman of the forests with healing powers who uses them to help local villagers until the province's priest denounces her as a heretic.
But ``Paperback Woman'' is a beguiling comedy dealing with a charming but unscrupulous publisher (Jean-Pierre L'eaud) who has a hot manuscript written by a man who wants to remain anonymous; L'eaud decides to hype the novel with a glamorous cover photo of his girlfriend (H'el`ene Lapiower) as author. His plot works, turning the novel into a best seller, until the merry but just denouement. In the film, the heroine is treated like a redheaded version of the proverbial dumb blonde by L'eaud, who gives her a mink coat she later finds out is just rented for publicity. But she has the last laugh.
In writing of Schiffman's debut as a director, New York Times critic Walter Goodman described ``Sorceress'' as a ``somewhat obvious but intriguing movie'' in which she kept her film under control as director. But he took exception to the ``programmatic'' screenplay written by Mrs. Schiffman and Pamela Berger from a medieval manuscript source. ``Mothers, babies, and nourishing breasts are much in evidence, as Miss Schiffman and Miss Berger pay 20th-century tribute to the women of the time, memorialized here as victims of sexual indignities and heroines of comfort and survival.''
Mrs. Schiffman smiles at that one. Asked if she tried to make a feminist film, as this review suggests, she says, ``I think as soon as you put a feminine figure in the middle of a film, and you [as a woman] are doing the film, it is interpreted as a feminist film. Pamela [Berger] is more of a feminist than I am. ... I've never participated. ... I've never gotten involved in the movement.''
She points out: ``When working on the script, I didn't have the feeling it was a strictly feminist subject; it was a human-interest subject. It was about people, whether they be woman or man, priest or monk, or little people of the village. It was about people. That's what I liked.
``Now we have to speak about Truffaut, and it is always difficult now to speak about him. He kept saying that the strong character in this film was woman, and he believed that woman was actually the real strong character in the world, and not man. Men were like children ..., playing with the toys all life through, even though toys became power and money and things like that ..., where women were really dealing with the real thing, which was [that] life, and the pursuit of happiness - giving happiness, having happiness - are more important.
Schiffman notes that in their research on ``Sorceress'' they discovered that there were ``healing women'' in certain parts of France until 1935. ``And the knowledge of healing during the Middle Ages was in the hands of women, really. And strangely enough, when it passed into the hands of men, more and more women healers were looked on as sorcerers. ... They took the power of healing from them...''
Does she see any parallels between her medieval tragedy and contemporary comedy?
`Do you?'' she parries. ``I know that they are both [focused on] a central female figure, who is seen as weak and unable to assert herself through men's eyes, and ends up by asserting her personality or being accepted or recognized. Also the subject is treated much more lightly in the second film. So I suppose it would also be a film feminists would like, even though I don't consider myself a feminist.''
Suzanne Schiffman notes that, up until recently, there have been few women directors in France, apart from Agnes Varda ( ``Le Bonheur,'' ``Vagabond,''), who had started directing about the time of the French ``New Wave'' that included Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Truffaut, and others.
``So there were very very little [in the way of] women directors in France,'' she says. ``So it's still happening, and it will be happening because they're starting younger and younger, and they were not raised the way we were raised and don't have those same problems. But there's always, unless you give up completely on having children, there's always that problem for a woman. I mean, I've worked in the cinema for over 30 years, but I raised two boys at the same time'' in her marriage to American painter Philip Schiffman, an Abstract Expressionist.
Suzanne Schiffman was only 16 when she decided to be a filmmaker. ``I was at the Sorbonne [studying the arts], having an excuse for not working and having plenty of time to see film, trying to figure out how I would get into cinema one day.''
She met Truffaut and the other New Wavers (like Eric Rohmer, Jean Gruault, Godard, Rivette). ``We met because I was a movie buff, and he was a movie buff, and some others were movie buffs, and we kept going from the Cin'emath`eque to the Cine-Club in the Latin Quarter, to all the cheap or free screening available in Paris. And we all sat in the first row because we wanted to be almost in the screen.'' She laughs softly. ``We loved it so much.''
FROM those friendships eventually flowed her career in filmmaking. She was script girl for Jean-Luc Godard on 11 films and in between worked as script girl with other celebrated directors like Jacques Demy, Orson Welles, and Tony Richardson.
The heart of her work, though, was with Truffaut, for whom she was script girl on six films, from ``Shoot the Piano Player'' to ``Jules and Jim'' and ``Stolen Kisses.'' She became his assistant for ``The Wild Child,'' then co-writer, as well as assistant, for six other films, including ``Day for Night,'' ``The Story of Adele H,'' and ``The Woman Next Door.''
Did Truffaut encourage her to direct?
``Yes, he did. He was always telling me I should, asking me when I was going to make a film. We kept on joking about it. There was no time for me to make a film then. I was so happily busy with him.''
Certainly Schiffman has paid her dues to become a director or R'ealisatrice, as the French say. But from the start, it was not easy. She had no cinema connections, was not aggressive, and at first settled for ``going around'' cinema.
From the Sorbonne she went to the Center for National Research to work with Edgar Morin on his book ``Cinema and the Imaginary Man,'' then on scholarship to the University of Chicago to study mass media. Next, she and her husband spent a year in Mexico, then returned to Paris, where she worked for Radiodiffusion Francaise.
Her first dip into film came with scriptwriting for Rivette's ``Paris Belongs to Us,'' and suddenly it did; Truffaut, who had wanted her as script girl on his first, famous picture, ``The 400 Blows,'' had been overruled by his producer. On his second film, ``Shoot the Piano Player,'' he told her, ``This time you're on my crew. No one's going to tell me anymore who I'm going to take.' That's the first film of Truffaut I worked on, and I never stopped until...'' - she can't finish. The tears stop her, but she means the death of her longtime friend and mentor, Truffaut.
She has dealt with sorrow before. As as a child in Paris during World War II, her Polish Jewish father and their family were forced by the Nazis to wear yellow stars identifying them as Jews. Schiffman's own father lived hidden in a cellar for safety, like the director in ``The Last Metro.'' Her mother and two brothers, caught crossing the line between occupied and unoccupied France as the family fled south, died in Germany.
For Schiffman, filmmaking is all in the family; the Schiffman's older son, Mathieu, 29, has been a cameraman, grip, and actor, and he has shot a feature film. Guillaume, 27, a cameraman, has also shot a short and is married to a young assistant director.
And their filmmaking mother is already at work on two more films: a script for a drama to be shot in the south of France by Argentine director 'Eduardo De Gregorio, and a third film of her own. She describes it only as ``a fantastic film with no special effects.'' She hopes to finish the script this summer and shoot it next March.