Based on Henry James’s The Alter of the Dead, this film is one of Truffaut’s strangest and most impressive works. Set immediately after the First World War, it deals with its hero’s obsession with the memory of his dead wife, which becomes an immersion in the rituals of death itself and a desire to preserve the memory of his dead friends by dedicating a chapel to their honour. Julien’s intensity makes him overlook until too late the attentions of a girl (Nathalie Baye) who is devoted to him. His moral fastidiousness ultimately drains him of all life. The part is played in an appropriately stiff and intense manner by Truffaut himself.
If the tone of the film seems uncharacteristically morbid for Truffaut, nevertheless there are certain preoccupations which can be traced to his other work. He has always been fascinated by obsessive love which drives people into peculiar excesses of behaviour. The style too takes on a particularly personal colour, with a plot that has echoes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (the absorption with death and the preservation of a dead girl’s memory) and a terse manner which recalls Bresson. The personal note breaks through overwhelmingly in the film’s central sequence, when Julien allows the girl into the chapel to participate in the ‘consecration’ of his dead friends. The pictures we see are those of men who helped form Truffaut’s own artistic sensibility James, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Cocteau. It is both a tribute to the way in which the cinema allowed Truffaut to preserve his own artistic ‘friends’, and, in its sense of claustrophobia, a suggestion of how his own cinematic and literary obsessions might have stifled his capacity for ‘life’.