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1001 Overlooked Movies - The Green Room (1978)

A war veteran obsesses over preserving the memory of those who have passed away, including his late wife.

Directed by: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Francois Truffaut, Nathalie Baye, Jean Daste

It always feels strange to describe any film from as vaunted a director as François Truffaut as overlooked. Considering how many thousands of words have been written about his work, both during his lifetime and since his death in 1984, it's hard to imagine that any of them could have been missed. And while his 1978 film 'The Green Room' did not want for critical acclaim upon its release, it rarely gets cited as one of his great works, which is a tremendous shame considering how wonderful it is.
Set in the aftermath of World War I, Truffaut stars as Julien Davenne, a man who is obsessed with death and the dead. His experiences during the war, when he saw death and destruction on an incomprehensible scale, combined with the shocking death of his young fiancée, have left Julien a man forever haunted by loss, preferring to honour the memories of those no longer living than spend any time with the living. He sets a room of his house aside as a memorial to his fiancée, filling it with her possessions. When he discovers that his best friend, a widower, has remarried, Julien considers it to be a betrayal of his friend's wife and cuts off all contact with him. Even his professional life is touched by death: He specialises in writing florid obituaries for a local newspaper.
Julien's morose solitude is shaken when he meets Cecilia (Nathalie Baye), the daughter of an old friend who now works at an auction house. She helps Julien to purchase a ring which belonged to his fiancée, and they strike up a friendly, slightly flirtatious friendship.
As with many of Truffaut's films, 'The Green Room's central relationship is as much an opportunity for philosophising as it is an end in and of itself. Through their growing intimacy, Julien is able to expound upon his opinions as someone who has reached the point in his life where he knows more dead people than living. Cecilia has a similar reverence for the past, but nowhere near the level of fanaticism that Julien exhibits, which provides for a neat tension between the two that grows more pronounced as the story progresses.
It's an interesting dynamic Truffaut explores in 'The Green Room': His characters are brought together by their broadly similar ideas about life, but gradually are driven apart by the differences that lie in the finer details. Where Julien wants to spend every day wrapped up in mourning over what he has lost, Cecilia feels that the best tribute to the dead is to live. Once Julien buys a tomb and turns it into a monument to all the dead in his life, the schism between the two becomes painfully obvious, even as they continue trying to persuade each other that their own point of view is correct.
As a director, Truffaut seems to favour Cecilia's position - though he also values Julien's reverence - but as an actor he really conveys the character's fervour as he retreats further and further from life. Although originally based on several Henry James stories, 'The Green Room' was an immensely personal film to Truffaut, one which he spent most of the seventies working on around other projects, as he became aware of how many deaths had occurred in his own life. This gives an authenticity to his performance, a performance that Truffaut was so self-conscious about that he almost brought the film to a halt through his fear of doing a bad job. Even though Truffaut's aim as a director is to disprove Julien's view, or at least to question its intensity, it is a testament to his performance that the difference between what he was doing as an actor and what he was doing as a director never feels disingenuous.
Though it was one of Truffaut's least financially successful films and is rarely listed as a classic, 'The Green Room' deserves just as much consideration as any of his unqualified masterpieces. It's a uniquely sad, beautiful film about the weight of death, the beauty of life and the transience of existence, handled with Truffaut's customary wit, intellectual subtlety and emotional depth. Like the people Julien mourns, it deserves to be remembered.

The official '1001 Movies' list includes the following movies from 1978 - The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Five Deadly Venoms, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, The Deer Hunter, Grease, Days of Heaven, Dawn of the Dead, Shaolin Master Killer, Up in Smoke, Halloween

Edwin Davies
For more from Edwin, visit his site 'A Mighty Fine Blog'.