Thursday, June 6, 2013

THE 400 BLOWS (1959)

Approaching the French New Wave 50-plus years after it began, it might be helpful to categorize the movement's noted directors for newcomers to their work. Alain Resnais and Jacques Rivette made arguably the most challenging films of the movement, where Jean-Luc Godard's feel as experimental and innovative as they did then, providing different challenges to their viewers. Claude Chabrol's feel the most accessible for today's viewers, but Francois Truffaut's just might be the most pleasurable to watch of all his contemporaries. More than the others, he wears his love of all things cinema boldly on his sleeve, making his work endlessly fascinating and enjoyable upon repeat viewings. His cinematic opening act, The 400 Blows (1959), takes a simple autobiographical story and infuses it with unexpected depth and intelligence, and it would just get better from here.

Antoine Doinel is a troublemaker, passing bikini-clad centerfolds in class, skipping school to run through the streets of Paris, and generally being a poor student and son, at least in the eyes of his elders. Inspired by Truffaut's troubled childhood and dedicated to late film criticism legend Andre Bazin (credited with saving Truffaut from a life wasted through crime and poor decisions), 400 Blows stacks the cards completely in favor of Antoine. His parents are ill-equipped to handle a son they can barely conceal they don't want, his teachers berate him and discourage him from improving himself, and his sole moments of solace are spent with best friend Rene (based on a real-life life-long friend of Truffaut). Antoine's most joyous experiences take place in wide, free spaces, otherwise he is confined to a claustrophobic apartment as his home, a dull classroom, or a literal cage, seen in the film's final act. This containment of youthful exuberance, rejected completely in the finale, is the real enemy of the piece, as Truffaut's camera follows Antoine's long, excited run through the country, setting his hero free and creating a New Wave masterpiece in the process.

Compare 400 Blows with Godard's Breathless from the same year. Godard demonstrates his love of film by breaking it into pieces to see how it works and not really caring to put it back together again, creating a different kind of film language. Truffaut's love of film flows throughout the narrative, which is also more focused and detailed than Godard's work. There are moments in 400 Blows where Truffaut's camera gazes longingly at the joy of looking: the audience POV juxtaposed with Antoine's POV in the whirling gravity-defying ride, the multiple reactions and emotions on the faces of young children watching a puppet show. It is during these scenes when we might remember that Truffaut's background in film criticism, and the pleasure he received from viewing films from his favorite American directors as well as other European visionaries like de Sica and Rossellini is reflected beautifully in the faces of his characters.

The last third of the film, dealing with Antoine's punishment for his actions, feels anti-climactic, but perhaps precisely because we have identified with his youthful devil-may-care behavior and are reminded vividly of that moment when one stops being a child and has to be an adult. Such coming-of-age lessons, in film as in real life, are rarely happy ones. The practically non-ending feels appropriate, and Truffaut would follow Antoine Doinel in three subsequent films and one short film, his alter ego always played by maturing child actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. The kid became a star for a reason. He is simply superb, a natural talent. Special note must also be made of the wonderful score, part of which recently appeared to great effect in Noam Baumbach's Frances Ha.

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