Saturday, March 15, 2008

Target #202: Les Quatre cents coups / The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut)

TSPDT placing: #46
Directed by: François Truffaut
Written by: François Truffaut (scenario, adaptation), Marcel Moussy (adaptation, dialogue)
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flamant, Patrick Auffay

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

I'm a little hesitant about rating and reviewing François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, as my first viewing was a rather dysfunctional and muddled affair, one of those moments when you wish that DVD technology had never been invented as a substitute for the perfection of the cinema screen. A remarkable feature-length debut from the revered critic-turned-director, Truffaut's touching and funny portrait of juvenile angst proved one of the pioneering films in the French New Wave. Just a few days ago, I decided to attend my university's film society for a showing of the film, but, inconceivably and unforgivably, the screening was started a full thirty minutes into the picture, and, due to a wearisome technical fault, we missed a further ten minutes in the centre of the story, including the moment when young Antoine reveals himself to have never seen the ocean, a remark that proves extremely significant once we arrive at the conclusion.

Fortunately, I had a copy of the film back at home, and promptly viewed the scenes that had been neglected, allowing me to better appreciate the intricate depths to which the film explored its characters and their respective situations. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) was born out of wedlock, and practically abandoned by his parents to live with relatives. After several years, Antoine returns to his resentful mother (Claire Maurier) and his friendly, if inadequate, stepfather (Albert Rémy) to hopefully commence a normal lifestyle, but, driven by the discomfort of his uneasy home relationships, Antoine descends into a life of mischief and petty crime. When his misbehavior becomes overwhelming for his strained parents, Antoine finds himself in a correctional facility for juvenile delinquents, and, despite the institute's strict disciplinary action, he still finds himself yearning for "a life of his own," to be completely independent of his elders, and to live unrestrained by their narrow-minded restrictions.

Léaud, in only his second film appearance, is wonderfully natural in the main role, portraying Antoine's tortured confinement – stemming both from society's restrictive disciplinary system, and his stagnant family relationships – with poignant, and often funny, enthusiasm. He would reunite with Truffaut on a further four occasions between 1962 and 1979 to complete the story of Antoine Doinel's life. There's little doubt that The 400 Blows is at least partially autobiographical. Truffaut himself never knew his natural father, had a detached relationship with his mother and frequently found shelter in his love for cinema. During the film, Antoine discovers a passion for the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac, whose successful career was borne from a life plagued with personal and professional difficulties, his willful nature often squandering his attempts at business success. Always thirsting for independence from those who dictate rules to him, Antoine relates easily with Balzac, even building a candle-lit throne to the author, but his word-for-word "homage" is mistaken for plagiarism by his short-sighted school teacher.

The film's final moments are rightfully celebrated for their touching and poignant ambiguity, as Antoine escapes from the juvenile institution and proceeds towards the ocean, which he has never seen before; his arrival at the rolling waves representative of that almost-unattainable independence of which he was so desirous. In a single, extremely smooth long-shot, Antoine ambles across the sand, always moving forward but seemingly getting nowhere. As he finally kicks at the breaking surf, Antoine pauses, perhaps uncertain of his path from here. Having acquired his goal of independence, he suddenly finds himself alone and purposeless, a small boy playing dolefully in the water. Antoine turns his back to the ocean and faces the audience directly (does he see his pursuers approaching in the distance?), and the camera zooms in on a captured frame of Antoine's face, his soft, inquiring eyes asking us what he's supposed to do now.
8/10, though a less-fragmented viewing is very much in order

Currently my #5 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
3) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
5) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)


ressot3 said...

Have you seen any other Truffaut? I saw the 400 was a bit to meandering for my tastes. Antoine goes here, does this...then he goes there and does that, then he comes here and does this, and so on. But it was decent enough. 8/10'd it too. Didn't really inspire me to seek out any more Truffaut. :(

ackatsis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ackatsis said...

You appear to be the only person interested in my escapades!

No, I haven't yet seen any more Truffaut [though I thought he was decidedly excellent in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - the sort of person you'd want to represent Mankind during an extraterrestrial visit].

I'm actually quite interested in seeing more of his work. His style is less "difficult" than that of Godard [judging from my admittedly lmited experience], and I could readily relate with Antoine. It was also rather funny in places. Next on my Truffaut list is probably "Jules and Jim (1962)," or "Fahrenheit 451 (1966)."