Though a relatively minor work, as a co-directorial collaboration between the two leading figures of the French New Wave on the eve of their breakthrough into the mainstream, Histoire d’eau is both highly significant historically and fascinating for the insight it reveals into Truffaut and Godard’s different approaches to the same material.
Initiated at short notice by Truffaut early in 1958 to fill in the time while he waited to direct a first feature for producer Pierre Braunberger (the film in question, Temps Chaud, was never made), the short was originally planned as an improvised comedy utilizing the natural phenomenon of the floods as a colourful backdrop. However, while filming, Truffaut felt embarrassed to be making a light comedy in the presence of people who were struggling to save their homes and as a result he shot it hurriedly and unenthusiastically and then decided not to finish it. But Godard, after seeing the rushes, thought that he might be able to make something of it, so later in the year edited the footage together and recorded voice over and music to go with it.
Godard’s re-imagining of the original conception took the film in a wholly new direction. While Truffaut’s inspired compositions and Brialy and Dim’s lively performance suggest the original film, if completed, would have been quintessentially Truffautesque in style – part Italian neo-realism, part Hollywood screwball – Godard’s disruptive editing and arch voice-over are more akin to the kind of cinematic Modernism seen in À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and beyond. As noted by New Yorker film critic Richard Brody: “Truffaut told a story, while Godard used a story as a pretext for flights of manic invention.”
Beginning with its title – a pun on the erotic novel Histoire d’O, Godard’s droll, digressive narration, spoken by Anne Colette and himself, is a riot of quotations and references, jokes, puns and asides. Those cited include Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, Georges Franju, Petrarch, Henri Matisse, Baudelaire, Homer, Degas, Balzac, Paul Eluard, Jean Giraudoux, Wagner and Rasputin. Often what is being talked about has very little to do with what is on screen suggesting that Godard simple wrote down whatever he had on his mind on the morning of the recording – the detours taken by the characters reflecting the detours of his imagination. As Dim’s character says at one point: “I’m not straying from the subject, and if I do, that’s my real subject, exactly like a car that strays from its usual path because a flood forces it to drive across fields to reach the road to Paris.
The film’s editing further upsets the narrative coherence, abruptly cutting away from the characters on the ground to aerial shots of the floodwater accompanied by the sound of African tribal drumming; this a clear nod to the work of documentary-maker Jean Rouch, one of Godard’s major influences.
At the time Godard was re-editing Histoire d’Eau, Truffaut was in the middle of shooting Les Quatre cents coups (1959). Their collaboration would continue the following year when Godard took Truffaut’s original story about a cop-killing car thief and turned it into his own debut feature À bout de souffle (Breathless). The Nouvelle Vague was about to take off and the two directors’ friendship and shared vision was at the heart of it.
As the 1960s wore on, however, their friendship fractured and their approach to cinema diverged dramatically. With hindsight it’s possible to see Histoire d’eau as a foretaste of the schism to come. Godard’s replacement of Truffaut’s free-flowing Renoiresque original with his jazzy, montage style hints at a certain disdain that would later become increasingly vociferous culminating in a bitter exchange of letters in 1973 that effectively ended their friendship for good. But in 1958 that was still a long way off and the two directors, despite their differences, shared a mutual respect. Godard acknowledges as such towards the end of the film when he has his female character say: “Ok, I’ll be quiet. Usually, I don’t care about the image. It’s the text that’s important. But this time I’m wrong, because here everything is beautiful. No noise, no music, silence.” And for a brief few moments Truffaut’s visuals hold sway.