Sunday, September 2, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.1: Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 99 (A)

Francois Truffaut is one of the greatest cinephiles who ever lived. Born to aloof parents, Truffaut was a troubled youth who found solace in cinema, often cutting school and sneaking into theatres because he didn’t have enough money to pay for a ticket. After a stint in the army, Truffaut’s mentor, the influential film critic Andre Bazin, took the young man under his wing and brought him alongside other young film critics and fellow future filmmakers (Jean-Luc Godard, Erich Rohmer, Jacques Rivette) to his film magazine Cahier du Cinema. Here, Truffaut became the fiercest advocate for auteur theory, developed by Bazin but made immortal by the younger critic. Truffaut argued, among other things, that a film should represent the personality and vision of a director. When Truffaut switched from film critic to film director, he got his chance to exemplify his theory.

The 400 Blows is Truffaut’s most personal film, his most important film, and his best. One could lament that the director never topped his spectacular debut, but that would be petty, considering how great the rest of his filmography is. Besides, how could he ever top The 400 Blows? The film not only perfectly represents the Cahiers du Cinema’s interest in a wild variety of film styles, but in the personal film advocated by auteur theory, the bubbling movement of the French New Wave, and the passion and vigor of a young director with something to prove. Plenty of great directors arrive with their guns a-blazing for their first film, but few, if any, are as personal as The 400 Blows was to Truffaut. It’s just part of the reason why I’ll argue to the grave that it’s the greatest directorial debut of all time- yeah, over Citizen Kane (though Truffaut’s reverence for Orson Welles tells me that he’d likely slap me in the mouth for such heresy). 

EDIT: rewatched Citizen Kane for the Orson Welles spotlight. This is wrong, Kane is better, but The 400 Blows is still my best non-cliched answer for greatest directorial debut of all time.

12-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a troubled kid. He doesn’t do very well in school. He’s constantly getting into trouble with his teacher. His aloof parents don’t understand or seem to want him, and he frequently runs away from home. Antoine’s greatest solace comes from the movies, but his involvement in the theft of a typewriter serves as the last straw for his parents, who allow the police to keep him in jail before sending him to an observation center for troubled youths.

The 400 Blows benefits from Jean-Pierre Leaud in what’s one of the most naturalistic and unmannered child performances of all time. Truffaut encouraged Leaud to deviate from the script and say things his own way, starting off one of the great actor-director collaborations in the history of cinema. Leaud has an unruly energy to him and a rebellious streak that reflects that of the talented director (although Truffaut claimed that he was less outwardly defiant). This is important, considering that The 400 Blows is essentially the Francois Truffaut story.

Like Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s greatest joy in life was the movies. Cinema is an escape in the film for Antoine, who often cuts class in order to sneak in, something Truffaut did as a young man. Cinema isn’t the only art form Doinel respects- his admiration for the work of Balzac ends up getting him into trouble when he plagiarizes part of the writer’s work for a school assignment. But Cinema is the greatest of all- when Antoine and his friend go to the movies, Antoine steals a picture of a still from an Ingmar Begman film. Doinel shows passion and intelligence when it comes to film, and when he goes to the movies with his family, it’s a moment of bliss in a childhood fraught with disappointment.

Truffaut’s own love for film carried him from childhood to his work as a critic, where he took Andre Bazin’s theory of a more sincere and personal cinema as his own. Truffaut’s debut feature takes the same idea and puts it into practice- where previous film directors showed off their influences, Truffaut and the rest of the French New Wave directors openly flaunted them as a tribute to past masters. The 400 Blows is a stunning mix of realism and formalism- scenes of Antoine living on the streets and the sense of real time recall the Italian Neorealism of Vittorio de Sica or Roberto Rossellini, but many of the formalistic techniques (fade-ins, deep focus) and force of personality of his hero Orson Welles as well. The poetic realism and humanistic sense of understanding recalls the best of another one of Truffaut’s heroes, Jean Renoir, particularly when Antoine is put in an observational camp that recalls the POW camp in Grand Illusion. Antoine’s sense of alienation would fit right into the works of Nicholas Ray. Truffaut even copies one scene in a classroom directly from Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct.

Of course, these combinations of styles wouldn’t mean much without Truffaut’s overwhelming sincerity. Those classroom scenes are, of course, inspired by Truffaut’s own difficulty at school. Antoine isn’t a perfect kid- his rebellion is often petty and poorly thought out, as many childhood rebellions are. But in his defense, it’s hard to blame him considering what he’s rebelling against. Antoine is antagonized by an unsympathetic teacher he refers to as “Sourpuss”; the teacher isn’t some guy trying to do the right thing and coming up short. He’s a complete asshole, one who cruelly ridicules several of the children and Antoine in particular. He has little empathy or understanding for Antoine and only wants him to obey orders. Even when Antoine lies to the teacher and tells him that he missed school because his mother died, the teacher’s sympathy feels forced. Why wouldn’t Antoine want to cut school, where he can go to the movies or, in a breathtaking sequence, a carnival, where Antoine goes on a ride that spins and forces one’s body against a wall. Ever the rebel, Antoine doesn’t just stand still, but rather contorts himself in a scene of pure, playful wonder.

The scolding, bullying attitude of the teachers could serve as an analogy for the pre-auteur theory criticism in France. Much like the teachers, older, stuffier critics took the joy out of learning and art. It was a self-important period stressing literary adaptations of “quality”, completely devoid of passion. How could Truffaut not become an upstart, kick these people in the ass, and instead reinvigorate the worlds of film criticism and filmmaking?

The greatest target of Truffaut’s anger and frustration, however, is neither his school nor the critical community, but his own parents. Like Truffaut’s own mother, Antoine’s mother doesn’t seem to care much about her son and constantly belittles him, demanding obedience and quiet and rarely taking interest in the young boy. When Antoine sees her with another man, it’s a moment of betrayal from the most basic of role models. He overhears her screaming about his behavior, and while his “my mother is dead” comment to his teacher feels like a moment of desperation and frustration towards his teacher, it’s also hard not to think he briefly wishes it were true. When she does take him back in after his first attempt at running away, she acts kinder to him, but it’s a façade. Everything she does is exaggerated, borne less out of kindness and more out of a need to prove something to herself. Antoine doesn’t but it- kids can tell when people are fake. Antoine’s relationship with his father seems more playful at first, but his father doesn’t defend him from his mother, and he has moment of cruelty towards Antoine himself. When he slaps Antoine in front of his class, the pain is overwhelming. When Antoine makes a childish mistake and starts a fire, his father berates him cruelly.

Truffaut does not portray his parents as monsters, but as deeply flawed people who let him down. There’s a clear sense that Antoine, despite his frustrations, doesn’t want to completely sever his relationship with his parents- when he runs away, he leaves a letter saying that one day they will “talk about all that has happened”, ending with “Love, Antoine”. Everything Antoine says about his parents late in the film is taken directly from Truffaut’s life- his father wasn’t his real father, but rather the man who married his mother. His parents had nothing to do with him when he was young, giving him to a wet nurse until they no longer had money. They then pawned him off on to his more doting grandmother until she was too ill and they were forced to take him back (he notes that his mother wanted to abort him and that his grandmother saved him). The knowledge that one is an unwanted child is devastating, and it comes through clearest when they finally decide that they’re not taking him back. The message is clear: dad doesn’t want you. I don’t want you.

Yet The 400 Blows is not a dirge, but rather a playful film filled with equal parts melancholy and escapism, stark realism and swooning romanticism. Part of that romanticism comes from Jean Constantin’s exquisite score, at its best in three key scenes. The first comes from the opening credits, which shows Paris at its most beautiful and romantic as a car passes through the city…and yet there’s a hint of sadness that grows more prominent as the score goes from lush and spectacular to spare and melancholy. In the second scene, it’s an inverse moment- a more downbeat sore is played as Antoine is taken from police headquarters. He has spent a night locked up with thieves and prostitutes, treated like an outcast of society. Where the opening credits said hello to Paris, he’s now saying goodbye as tears stream down his face. He looks out, as if saying “help me…anybody…”

The best moment comes, of course, in the justly famous final scene. Antoine has escaped from the observation camp. Truffaut relies on a long tracking shot as Antoine runs- it’s a gorgeous mix of formalism (complicated, showy shot) and realism (apparent real time as Antoine runs away). Antoine finally reaches the ocean, which he has never seen before. It’s a wonderful escape as Constantin’s lush score plays. But then the score becomes melancholy and spare- where shall Antoine go? What should he do? How long can he stay out here, and what happens when he’s caught? The film then ends with a justly famous (and then shocking and new) freeze frame as Antoine stares into the camera. We, society (France in particular), have made him an outcast, have not understood him, and have not tried to reach out. What now?

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