"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 31, 2012

Classic Film: "The 400 Blows" (1959) by Truffaut

French New Wave director François Truffaut (1932-1984) has often sought his inspiration in his own autobiography, like literary authors do. His first feature-length film, The 400 Blows, released in 1959, was based on his own troubled childhood and adolescence.

In the 1950s, Truffaut had already established himself as a vitriolic critic for the magazine Les Cahiers du cinéma and with the young colleagues at that magazine (Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer) he would play a pivotal role in the French New Wave. Truffaut and his collaborators advocated that the director of a film should stand artistically speaking over and above any other person involved in the production - like the author of a novel. It was not a movement with a structured ideology, and in the 60s differences between the various proponents widened - for example between the politically engaged movies of Godard and Truffaut's autobiographical "comedies of manners." But there were also similarities, such as the lack of plot and use of non-professional actors and natural dialogues, not to speak of the low-budget productions.

Truffaut's most representative series of autobiographical films is the so-called Antoine Doinel series, that consists of four feature-length films and one short, and was made between 1959 and 1979. I will discuss the first film The 400 Blows (made when there was no idea yet about a series), but will also give notes on the other four films.

First the title, because "400 blows" calls up a rather violent image, as of a British boarding school. Nothing could be farther from the truth, it is a wrong translation of the French title which is an idiom. "Faire les quatre cent coups," means "to live without respect for morals or conventions," "to lead a disorderly life." This refers ironically to the hero of the film, Antoine - it is how society wrongly sees him - , and a better title would have been something like "The Wild One," or "Wild Oats."(I will continue using "The 400 Blows" in order not to cause confusion).

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 13-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a small apartment in Paris. It is so small they are always in each other's way. His tight-sweater wearing mother (Claire Maurier) neglects him as she is too busy with her lover, his uncultured step-father (Albert Rémy) misunderstands the sensitive and artistic boy. Because his creativity is not acknowledged, Antoine starts to rebel against authority and gets into trouble at school, where the teachers are insensitive bores just droning up their lessons. Finally, Antoine runs away from home and goes into hiding at the place of his best friend, René.

The boys need money and steal a typewriter from the office where Antoine’s father works. But they can't sell the heavy machine (it is too obviously stolen and has a serial number) and not knowing what to do with this heap of iron, Antoine tries to smuggle it back into the office. There he is caught by the night watchman. The police is called, and the parents, anyway not very much interested in educating the boy, place him in an institution for delinquent teenagers. At the end of the film, Antoine manages to escape during a game of soccer, and runs and runs, until he comes near the sea, which he sees for the first time in his life, and which gives him a feeling of liberation.

Despite its serious theme, The 400 Blows is great fun. It is full of humor, very different from the suffocating atmosphere in Godard's first film made around the same time, A Bout de Souffle. But that film was about real delinquents, Truffaut rather tells the story of a boy who is misunderstood. The film was made on location in Paris, and fun is the shot where the class following the physical education teacher on a jog through the city gradually diminishes as more and more pupils peel off. Also the last long shot is fantastic: Truffaut's camera follows Antoine for several minutes without any cuts when he runs away, until he reaches the beach, does a few steps in the water and then comes running towards the camera. Only then follows a cut, after a zoom-in to freeze-frame of the boy, and this is the end of the film. This shot is famous for its ambiguity.

This charming film proved popular with both critics and the public at large. It won Truffaut Best Director Award at Cannes in 1959 and brought in enough money for Truffaut's own production company, Carosse d'Or (named after a Renoir film) to continue making films and even invest in films by other New Wave directors. It is dedicated to the man who became his spiritual father, André Bazin, who died just as the film was about to be shot. It was highly praised by filmmakers as Kurosawa, Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Cocteau and Dreyer.
[10 points out of 10 for Antoine who, when burning a candle to the spirit of Balzac, sets fire to the house]. 
Criterion essayEbertSenses of Cinema.

Antoine and Colette (1962). A short film that was part of a collection of four pieces by different directors called Love at Twenty. Antoine Doinel (again (Jean-Pierre Léaud, who acts as Truffaut's cinematic alter ego in the whole series) works in a factory which makes records. He has lost his wildness and loves music and books. At a classical concert, he sees a nice girl, Colette (Marie-France Pisier), and falls in love with her. But Colette sees him more as a "brother" with whom she can exchange books and records. Antoine in fact gets closer to her parents - surrogate for the real parents he never meets anymore after what happened in The 400 Blows - than to her and at the bittersweet end of the film she goes out with a real boyfriend while Antoine watches TV with her parents.
[8.5 points out of 10] 
Criterion essay

Stolen Kisses (1968; Baisers volés).
This film shows two love affairs of Antoine that are more successful than the one in Antoine and Colette. But above all it is about Antoine's efforts to find a job that fits him. At the start of the film he is discharged from the army - he joined the military as a volunteer, presumably to forget the failed love affair with Colette, but everyone who has seen the previous films in the series will realize that Antoine and the army are not meant for each other.

Back in civilian life, the 20-year old Antoine first gets a job as night watchman in a hotel, but when he allows a private detective to upset a couple of lovers and catch a philandering husband, he obviously gets the sack. The detective agency kindly hires him, but he is not much better at this work, either. He bungles the case of trailing a magician with a secret love life. Next, he is assigned to the shoe-shop of the paranoid Mr Tabard, who believes everyone is hating him and wants the truth of that feeling thoroughly researched. Antoine again bungles his job when he falls in love with the beautiful Madame Tabard (Delphine Seyrig from Last Year at Marienbad) - his secret meetings with her in a hotel are logged by a colleague from his own detective agency, so that is the end of another job.

While all this is going on, Antoine is also making love to Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) - he even steals a kiss from her when fetching wine in the cellar of her parents - parents, by the way, with whom he is again on very good terms. Will Antoine and Christine marry?
[9 points out of 10] 
Criterion essay
P.S. I have seen this film criticized because, made in 1968, it ignores the student protests then going on in Paris (the film does, however, refer to the inconvenience caused by all the strikes). But that is nonsense, we don't demand that all films made in the U.S. between, say, 1968 and 1975 address the Vietnam War, do we? Films can engage with what happens in society, but they don't have to. We are not living under a social-realist regime. Truffaut was very much politically engaged, but he preferred to express this in other ways than film. And in a way, that is more true to how we all live: whatever goes on in politics or society, as long as it does not touch us directly, we go on with our daily lives, as these for us are the most important thing in the world. Finding a job, finding a partner, getting your life settled, has more relevance than marching against the government.

Bed and Board  (1970; Domicile Conjugale).
First the title: "Domicile Conjugale" means the "marital home," and is especially a legal term used in case of separation. In other words, in this film Antoine Doinel is 26 and married to Christine, but he bungles it again....

The couples finances are not very stable: Christine gives violin lessons, Antoine works for a florist, dyeing flowers. After the flowers die during an experiment, he goes for an interview with an American construction company. He gets the burlesque job: operating radio-controlled boats in a pond. Here, in the entourage of a customer, he sees Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer), a Japanese woman to whom he feels attracted. His wife has just given birth to their first child, but that seems no objection to start an affair with Kyoko. Christine learns what is happening behind her back and is so angry that she kicks Antoine out of the marital bed, and next makes him leave the marital home. Is the marriage already over?

The best elements in this film are where we see the married life of Antoine and Christine, in their daily details. The job situation is also funny, like in the previous film. But the description of other cultures is hopelessly stereotyped: not only the boisterous American boss, but most of all the Japanese girlfriend, who is unrealistically quiet and non-verbal, and to make it worse, harbors thoughts of suicide. She also sits on the floor... in a Western apartment (in 1970, Japanese were already used to Western-style rooms and in a Western room would always use chairs; Kyoko fails, however, to tell Antoine that he should take off his shoes when sitting on the floor). In other words, this part of the film is so wrongly stereotyped that it is almost unwatchable.
[7.5 points out of 10]

Love on the Run (1979; L'Amour en fuite).
Antoine Doinel is in his thirties. He has become an author and published an autobiographical novel; at the same time, he works as a proofreader. The events in the previous film have indeed led to a divorce between him and Christine - this film starts with the legal proceedings. But he still sees her regularly and is fond of his son, Alphonse. He has an affair with a record shop girl, Sabine (Dorothée), but this is not developing very well. By chance he then meets his first love,  Colette (Marie-France Pisier), who is now a successful lawyer, in the station and jumps on the train to talk to her. In this way, by meeting various persons from his past, Antoine comes face to face with his chaotic life, but he keeps running around and falling in love. He can't help himself... In the end, Christine and Colette will join forces to bring Antoine back to Sabine...

This last installment is surprisingly lightweight and at least one third of the film is made up of material recycled from the previous four films. That is a questionable practice, and wholly unnecessary in our day of DVD boxes. Of course, in the 60s and 70s, earlier films like the short Antoine and Colette would have been sadly unavailable to the general public, so there is some reason behind all these flashbacks... but it does not make a very good film, although the "new" parts are just as full of humor as ever.
[7 points out of 10] 
Criterion essay.