Friday, February 17, 2012

The 400 Blows (1959)

Les quatre cents coups, France, 99 minutes
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writers: Francois Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
Photography: Henri Decae
Music: Jean Constantin
Editor: Marie-Josephe Yoyotte
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Remy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flament, Patrick Auffay, Daniel Couturier

Back when there was such a thing as Tower Records, I was wont to use Christmas week as a time to go gather up my disappointing purchases of the previous year and haul them into outlets of the record store chain to exchange as unwanted gifts, in which case, because of the holiday spirit upon the air, I could take away products of equal value. A pretty good deal all round for all of us, I thought. One year the booty included a VHS copy of The 400 Blows, which I had acquired via some movie club deal conducted through the mails—the retail value scanned in at $80! I was so excited. I roamed the aisles wantonly gobbling up titles in a kind of drunken daze from my windfall.

I must have got four or five replacement movies out of that single copy of The 400 Blows, but you know what I'm going to say next. In the fullness of time I have come to realize that the lot of them together couldn't possibly be worth this sturdy, brief, delicate landmark of French New Wave cinema. When it came to Francois Truffaut for me it always seemed to be Jules and Jim, over and over, until I hate to think how many times I've seen it, but not The 400 Blows. And the truth is that The 400 Blows was a bit lost on me the first time—it seemed almost simplistic, quite evidently low-budget, stripped to bare bones and stark tones, lyrical yet disconcertingly homely too, with an odd, sudden ending. It didn't seem to amount to much. But if that is your first experience too I urge you to look again. Give The 400 Blows one more chance.

Count me among those now pretty sure that The 400 Blows, the other landmark of early French New Wave cinema, is actually much the better film—certainly every bit as in love with the thrilling possibilities of filmmaking as Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless. But Truffaut grounded and framed The 400 Blows, his first feature, with material that is deeply personal, a coming of age story operating very close to straight autobiography. The psychic reverberations are as inevitable as they are unmistakable. In a very real way Truffaut arrived as the documentarian Lumiere brothers to Godard's Melies fantasist, and perhaps for that reason Truffaut's first feature film is ultimately, for me, the much more gratifying picture.

All the usual hallmarks of French New Wave are in evidence, of course: elemental production values, camera and narrative liberated to move intuitively, feeling to their points, and a sensibility drunk on cinema. Here we roam the streets of working-class Paris at will—it looks like the working-class London of "Seven Up!," which came only five years later. The opening titles play across a compendium of shots of the Eiffel Tower taken from street level at strange angles in a moving vehicle. It's disorienting and exhilarating and fascinating. Then the first scene is a classroom scene virtually straight out of The Blue Angel. Here, too, Truffaut seems to me every bit the equal of Godard in his ability to shift seamlessly back and forth between fresh innovations of raw new technologies and a paradoxical sense of history for the art form in which he's chosen to work, however modern (or, perhaps, postmodern).

I think it's Truffaut's greatest stroke to make this autobiographical, a shrewd strategy that enables him to move effectively between the intellectual and abstract and the concrete and emotional. Nor is the scene he sets any childhood idyll or panacea, either, with its semi-fractured family and disagreeable (yet likeable) parents and Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud as a 14-year-old, and not actually all that recognizable) turning to more serious transgressions that put him in ever more precarious positions, which will ultimately lead to a downfall that could well turn out to be tragic.

At the same time Truffaut's light touch, particularly with children, is already apparent. In fact, it's arguable that nowhere else does Truffaut control and use the element so deftly. Some of the cutting up and fooling around that the children do in the classroom, particularly one longish sequence played behind the back of the normally all-seeing teacher, crosses the line or certainly veers close to fanciful or silly, even, but nonetheless remains exuberant and charming.

Another of my favorite passages is also among the least believable. It's when Antoine is briefly infatuated with the work of Balzac, to the point that he builds what turns out to be a dangerous shrine to him in the tiny apartment in which the family dwells. Even in such a fleeting set piece, however, Truffaut finds ways to ground it to reality. Something in me identifies almost viscerally with Antoine's experience of discovering Balzac, the fascination and amazement he felt at what Balzac was capable of doing in his novels. Truffaut was nearly as much a writer (and reader) as he was a cineaste, and here he almost effortlessly communicates the raw charge of the first pleasurable encounters with reading and literature.

The Doinel family, such as it is, has its own lovely moments too for that matter. There is nothing simple about The 400 Blows. The family is not always bickering and suffering. One scene in which they head off to the movies on a notion is characteristically enough Truffaut in the way it incorporates movie-going into some of the most important moments in life, but it also reminds me of the family in the David Bowie song "Kooks," in which the loopy singer and father of the family in that song sings, "And if the homework brings you down / Then we'll throw it on the fire / And take the car downtown."

There's a powerful dynamic in The 400 Blows working between whimsical larking and the realities of desperate lives. That may be its greatest single strength—the stakes are so real and so high. Truffaut also borrows from Italian neorealism, with mean cold apartments all too liable to burn to the ground, clothes wearing away from use and age and neglect, and, more generally, small lives with irrevocable regrets not far from losing everything. But alive to everything all the same. Truffaut's ability to balance and juggle his critical themes is impressive, and The 400 Blows could well be his best—it's truly a great picture.

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