25 January 2006

100 films: Les Quatre cents coups

400 blows
buy The Adventures of Antoine Doinel from Amazon.com

starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, and Guy Decomble
written by: François Truffaut, adaptation by Marcel Moussy & Truffaut
directed by: François Truffaut
NR, 99 min, 1959, France

In Les Quatre cents coups[1], the first chapter in François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, we meet our hero (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as a disobedient 12 year old Parisian. A child of whom his parents seem to care little, he has a penchant for dishonesty that gets him in constant trouble both at home and at school, so he decides to run away, promising to return when he has become a man. After he steals a typewriter, he's sent to military school, where he escapes through a hole in a fence and heads for the sea.

Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series is a landmark of cinema, as it marks a rare instance of an actor originating a character as a child then continuing to play that character in five films[2] over the course of twenty years, but more importantly because it serves as a backbone of the French New Wave. The series as a whole is a fascinating look at how a young man such as Antoine grows up, matures (well, to an extent), and essentially adapts to life. All five chapters are good, but there's no question in my mind that Les Quatre cents coups is the crown jewel. Partly because he is a child and children tend to not see potential complications, this is the most focus we see from Antoine in terms of his goals and desires. He knows simply that he does not like home or school and that he'd rather be elsewhere, whereas in later segments we quite often see Antoine torn between multiple options.

And why shouldn't he? Truffaut essentially tells us as much in the famous final shot[3] of Les Quatre cents coups where Antoine, having successfully run away, reaches the ocean for the first time in his life. He takes a few steps into the surf, then turns back, but he is unsure where to go. He has achieved his goal of running away to the shore and now hasn't a clue what to do next, so he just stands there. At the height of his dilemma, Truffaut freezes the shot and zooms in on that face full of indecision. He is stuck, completely unsure what to do next, and that is the theme Truffaut continues to explore throughout the series.

As this is one of the first films of the French New Wave, he appears to be placing the art form as a whole on that beach with Antoine. The New Wave, many have said, birthed the modern film era, taking it out of the classic period with its tendency to follow formula and essentially breathed new life into it. Truffaut, Godard, and their cohorts showed a complete disregard for the conventions of cinema and made their films by any means necessary. This often included filming in the streets of Paris without permits, employing friends as actors, and working with little to no budget. But, necessity being the mother of invention, they found ways to create techniques and methods and images that would resonate world-wide. It could be argued that there isn't an American film from the last five years that isn't at least indirectly influenced by the New Wave. So Truffaut is asking the film medium what it wants to do. Does it want to go back to the military school and continue making the same films over and over again, or does it keep running into the unknown. The answer, clearly, is the latter.

Les Quatre cents coups is, at least to me, a deceptively simple film. At no singular point does it seem as if you're watching a great film. That is, there isn't that point where a single moment blows you away[4], but the sum total of the film does exactly that. This is Truffaut's first film, finished at the age of 26, and it's easy to see the effect of that innocence on the screen. This is the look of a filmmaker who doesn't yet "know" what he can and cannot do, so he just does what he thinks will be the most effective. And he's pretty much correct every single time. The film, largely based on his own childhood as a rebellious child prone to skip school and go to the cinema, seems to understand children better than most, and it understands Antoine Doinel most of all. But it refuses to fully condone his actions, instead sympathizing with him in a way that makes them understandable, even if they are wrong.

He also bring a bit of whimsy to the film as he shows how the children as a group respond to authority. In a clever scene the children are on a physical education run through the streets of Paris, trailing behind a gym teacher and his incessant whistle-blowing. Truffaut puts the camera on a roof and follows the class as the students peel away from the group and head for freedom until finally there are only two students following him. They are either the least clever of the students or the most obedient or a combination of the two. Regardless, they are tied to the status quo while their classmates are off living their lives in the Parisian streets. Morally, Antoine Doinel and his like may be classically wrong, but they are choosing to do things by their own rules, and when you live by your own rules, it's hard to judge those actions by classical morality.

[1] Translated in English as The 400 Blows.

[2] They are: Les Quatre cents coups (1959), L'Amour à vingt ans (1962), of which only the segment Antoine et Colette applies, Baisers volés (1968), Domicile conjugal (1970), and L'Amour en fuite (1979). You can buy the entire set as a Criterion box set.

[3] This shot has been copied numerous times over the last fifty years. Hell, even I stole it without remorse for L'Attente, the short film I just finished.

[4] Except, of course, for the final shot.
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