Monday, February 16, 2009

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)

This is only the second French New Wave film I've ever seen, but I think it brings with it all you ever need to know about the genre. A few months ago I watched Jean-Luc Godard's debut Breathless, and though I found it to be a technical watershed and could see its influence immediately in numerous movies, I found myself alienated by what I perceived to be an air of great pomposity, of -- as much as I hate the term in the world of cinema -- style over substance. What I saw in that film was the obsessiveness of the New Wave, an anal-retentive need to be in control of everything to the point of myopic self-absorption. I feel like I need to give that film another go, and luckily I'll be watching it in my film class in a few weeks, so perhaps locking myself in a room with no distractions to see it on a big screen will help. Happily, I have absolutely no reservations about the debut of Godard's colleague, François Truffaut.

Also a contributing writer of the groundbreaking French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut took the auteur theory to heart with this debut, pouring his own life story into the tale of the young delinquent Antoine Doinel. To aid him, he found 14-year-old actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who delivers one of the all-time greatest performances from a child actor in this film. So personal was Antoine's story, and so successful were Léaud and the film as a whole that the actor and director would continue Antoine's life over the course of four other films.

Antoine has a hard life, to the say the least. At home, his harpy of a mother screams at him for the smallest things. When she is not outraged with her son, she simply acts as if he isn't there; she's too occupied with lamenting her poverty to her friends and conducting an affair with one of her co-workers. Conversely, Antoine's stepfather seems nice enough, and even enjoys a friendly bond with the boy. However, he never feels truly attached to him as a son; when his wife accuses him later on of not supporting the boy enough (oh, the irony of that statement), he replies angrily, "I gave him my name! I put food on his table!" Amicable as he may be, the stepfather views Antoine as little more than baggage and cares little what happens to the boy.

Because his family neglects him, Antoine must essentially be raised by society. First that responsibility falls upon his teacher, who views Antoine as little more than a rebel (the title of the film itself is a French idiom for "raising hell"). It certainly doesn't help that the boy can't seem to catch a break: a pinup calendar makes the rounds amongst all the lads in the room, and the teacher spots it when it reaches Antoine's hands. As punishment, the boy must remain inside for recess, where he starts to scribble a half-apology/half-apologist statement on the wall, only to be harangued once more. When the teacher assigns him extra homework, Antoine stays home "sick" the next day. He misses another day, and tells the teacher his mother died. The teacher is of course stunned and reaches out to the boy, until the mother shows up at school and he rages once more.

The school dismisses the boy as a liar and a delinquent incapable of learning. Yet we see the real Antoine behind closed doors: he pours over Balzac and even sets up a small shrine to the man's work. When he lights a candle for it and the whole thing (made of cardboard) burns down, he's so devastated that even his parents forgo yelling at him and take him to the movies. The boy even pays tribute to Balzac's style in an assignment, but the teacher simply accuses him of plagiarism.

Finally sick of it, Antoine runs away from all of this with his friend René. Their friendship is the only genuine and touching bond we see in the entire film. As they roam the streets trying to survive, Antoine begins to sneak into the cinema, and we get beautiful shots of Léaud's awed face looking up at the flickering gods. As a boy, Truffaut himself was a delinquent, neglected by a mother who wished him to be neither seen nor heard. As a result, he read and snuck into the theaters through the emergency exits as a kid, and found happiness and meaning in what he saw. When Truffaut stated "Cinema saved my life," he wasn't kidding.

Eventually Antoine gets arrested for yet another misunderstanding, and now society shifts the responsibility for him onto guards and wardens, who send the child to work in a camp near the sea (his mother wanted him to be able to see the ocean). The film ends with that justly famous tracking shot of Antoine escaping, running and running until he reaches the beach and stopping only when he reaches the water. Then he looks into the camera and the film freezes. What do this ending tell us? That no matter how much Antoine tries to escape, he'll never break free, that even if he somehow breaks free of society nature itself will hold him back? Yes, but there's also an uplifting beauty to this last shot, unmarred even by the decades of cheap ripoffs found in everything from comedies to commercials. There's a hint of defiance in Léaud's face: I might not ever win, but damned if that means I'm gonna give up.

Though certainly not a happy film, The 400 Blows overflows with oy, albeit from behind the camera. "I demand a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema," he once wrote, and that unbridled happiness fuels Antoine's journey as much as Léaud's incredible performance. His camera moves throughout the children in the classroom and in the theater as if one of them, pausing to capture their faces, focused and down-turned on their schoolwork and ecstatic as they look up at entertainment. Later, Truffaut jogs the streets of Paris with Antoine and René, and that ending tracking shot contains in it more boundless joy than 99% of all fantasies combined. Breathless may have set a standard, but for my money The 400 Blows is the French New Wave film you simply have to see.

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