Monday, August 19, 2013

Stubs - The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows (aka Les quatre cents coups) (1959)  Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Albert Remy, Claire Maurier.  Directed by Francois Truffaut. Produced by Francois Truffaut, Georges Charlot. Screenplay by Francois Truffaut, Marcel Moussy. Run time: 99 min France  Drama, French

As with the 300th review milestone, we looked for an appropriately named title to review. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows seemed like a natural choice for the blog's 400th review. The film also gives us a chance to expand our reviews to include non-English speaking cinema as well as the opportunity to look at one of the defining films of the French New Wave movement in cinema.

The French New Wave is a term applied to certain films made in France during the 1950’s and 60’s. Many of the major filmmakers in the movement, Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette began as film critics writing for the publication, Cahiers du Cinéma. They are responsible for putting forth what has been called the auteur theory, in that a film reflects the creative vision of the auteur (author) of the film, or who we commonly call the director. This means that, as an example, despite the studio system in Hollywood in which films were often times assigned, the director made the project his own and his vision still prevails above all others (writers, actors, producers). Cahiers du Cinéma praised such Hollywood directors as Orson Welles, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock amongst others. As an application of their theories, the writers themselves became film directors.

Many of the filmmakers of the French New Wave got
their start writing for this publication,
Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) is credited as being the first of the French New Wave, but it was the international successes of The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) that drew attention to the movement and enabled it to flourish until the mid-60’s, though many of the filmmakers continued on for much longer than that.

Usually shot on small budgets, French New Wave films share certain characteristics, including: long tracking shots, improvised dialogue, making references to other films, rapid scene changes, jump cuts and shots that go beyond the 180 degree axis. The films themselves deal with existential themes and are filled with irony and sarcasm (so what’s not to love?).

A literal translation of the French title, The 400 Blows doesn’t really refer to anything in the film. There are no brutal scenes of corporal punishment for example. The original title, Les quartre cents coups refers to a French expression, faire les quatre cents coups, which means to raise hell. Originally subtitled, Wild Oats, the American distributor didn’t like that title and preferred the literal translation.

The 400 Blows tells the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who we’re supposed to see as a misunderstood adolescent (are there any other kind?). One day at school, a pinup gets passed around in class and Antoine is the one caught by his teacher (Guy Decomble). While the teacher doesn’t let Doinel explain, the punishment is to stand in the corner and the loss of recess. Left alone in the classroom, Antoine writes something on the wall, referring to his teacher as Sourpuss. It is no surprise that Doinel is told to clean it up and when it doesn’t come out, told his parents would have to pay for the repairs.

Sourpuss (Guy Deconble) does not appreciate Antoine's (Jean-Pierre Leaud)
defacing of the classroom wall. 
Antoine lives in Paris with his mother, Gilberte, (Claire Maurier) and step-father, Julien, (Albert Remy). Antoine has chores, like preparing the charcoal stove and setting the table, but he never seems to have time for his homework, as he is sent to bed almost immediately after dinner. His parents argue, there is obvious tension between them, but nothing really gets out of hand.

At home with mother, Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and step-father Julien (Albert Remy)

The next morning is rushed, as the parents oversleep and so does Antoine. On his way to school, Doinel runs into René (Patrick Auffay), a more affluent classmate. René convinces Antoine to skip school that day and the two go to the movies and the amusement park. On the street, Antoine sees his mother making out with a man other than his father.

A day at the cinema with Rene presents an opportunity to steal a lobby card.

At the end of the day, the boys retrieve their suitcases which they’ve hidden behind a door, but are being watched by Betrand Mauricet (Daniel Couturier), another classmate. René and Antoine discuss what to do and René gives him an old note from his parents to copy. But as usual, Antoine doesn’t have time to make the copy, as his father comes home to make dinner. Mom has to work late at the office doing inventory. Step-father and son seem to have a good relationship. When the father asks Antoine about his Michelin guide, the boy responds that he doesn’t know anything about it.

Eventually, the mother comes home. The parents argue some more. Antoine hears his stepfather ask his mom about the Michelin guide, but she points the finger at the boy and when Julien says Doinel denies having seen it, she exclaims, “He’s always lying.” Julien counters with “like you.”

The next morning, after Antoine has left for school, Betrand comes by asking if Antoine feels better today, telling the parents that Antoine had not been to school the day before. (Can you say snitch?) That morning at school, Sourpuss asks Antoine for the note from his parents, but he doesn’t have one. Antoine then tells a whopper of a lie, that his mother has died. No note needed, but the lie is easily disproved. His parents are called to the school. Julien slaps Antoine in front of his classmates and tells him they’ll talk more about this tonight at home.

Antoine's biggest lie is about to unravel.
But instead, Antoine decides to run away from home. René helps him, finding him a place to sleep for the night, his uncle’s dilapidated print shop. But Antoine gets scared off and spends the night wandering the streets of Paris, stealing a bottle of milk for breakfast. Still, he goes to school, where, during English class, he is called into the Principal’s office and reunited with his mother.

Having run away from home, Antoine steals a bottle of milk for breakfast.
She takes Antoine home and bathes him. She shares her own secrets with Antoine, though she doesn’t draw him out. Trying to win him over, she promises him a thousand francs reward if his next paper in school is one of the top five in his class.

Mother trying one last time to reach out to her son.
At home one afternoon, Antoine reads a novel by the great French novelist Honore de Balzac. So impressed is Antoine by what he reads that he sets up a makeshift shrine to the author. When he gets his next assignment in school, he is definitely influenced by what he’d read to the point of copying Balzac’s story and making it his composition.

Antonie likes Balzac's writing to the point that he tries to pass it off as his own.
Back at home, Antoine lights a candle in his shrine, which, while the family is having dinner, catches fire.  Julien is naturally mad at Antoine, but Gilberte tries to ease tensions by suggesting they go to the movies. The family night out seems to bring them closer.

Nothing like a night at the movies to bring everyone together.
At school, Antoine is called out by Sourpuss for plagiarizing Balzac and given an F on his paper. He sends Antoine to the principal’s office to be suspended for the rest of the term. Instead, Antoine runs away. René, his table mate, also gets on Sourpuss’ bad side and is likewise kicked out of the classroom.

Antoine tells René that he can’t go home. Julien has threatened to send him to military school. René lets him move in with him. René’s mother drinks and his father spends his days at the race track, so no one pays close attention to him. During dinner, René sneaks food to Antoine and manipulates the clock so that his father will hurry off to his club.

Rene and Antoine shoot spitballs at unsuspecting pedestrians for fun.
 By the way, those spitballs are made from pages of the missing Michelin
guide Antoine told his step-father he didn't know anything about.
René and Antoine try to think of ways of raising money, before deciding to steal a typewriter from Julien’s office to finance their travels. But when they can’t fence the typewriter and get tired of carrying it around Paris, Antoine takes it back. That’s when he’s caught by a night watchman and turned in to the police by Julien.

Watchman catches Antoine returning the typewriter he'd stolen but couldn't sell.
The police lock the boy up with hardened criminals and Antoine is forced to spend the night in jail. A judge orders Antoine to be placed in a home for troubled youth where a psychiatrist examines Antoine’s unhappiness, which are revealed in monologues edited together with jump cuts.

Antoine spends the night in lock up,but is segregated from the other thieves and the hookers.

Antoine manages to escape one day, while playing soccer by climbing under a fence. His goal is to reach the ocean, a place he’s wanted to visit his entire life. Once he reaches the shore, he runs into the ocean. The film ends with a freeze frame of Antoine looking back at the camera as he is running into the waves.

Antoine reaches the ocean at the end of The 400 Blows. Now what?
The ending is less than satisfying, since the story doesn’t conclude so much as it just ends. There seems to be so much more story to tell. None of the issues raised about Antoine or his parents have been resolved.

The film is supposedly autobiographical for Truffaut. Like Antoine, he came from a broken family, had trouble at school and escaped into the cinema. However, Antoine is not as sympathetic a character as perhaps Truffaut would have wanted. Yes, things are tough at school and his teacher is mean, but many of the problems Antoine has are his own doing. Perhaps he gets unfairly punished for the pin up calendar, but Antoine chooses to deface the wall, chooses to skip school, chooses to lie to the teacher about his mother’s death and it is Antoine who chooses to plagiarize Balzac on his big paper. Antoine is not so much a victim of circumstance as he is a juvenile delinquent who gets caught and punished by a just society.

Filmmaker and historian, Francois Truffaut.
The movie also seems to drag throughout, showing us action that has nothing to do with the main story, like the scene with the gym teacher (Luc Andrieux) leading his class out onto the streets of Paris with no destination in mind. Unbeknownst to the teacher, one by one and two by two, the students in his class peel off to play hooky. Mildly interesting and comedic, the sequence doesn’t really add to the story. And then there is the extra-long sequence of Antoine running to the beach.

Whatever the shortcomings of the story, the film was nevertheless influential, even outside the French New Wave movement. Watching the film, I was reminded, naturally, of one of my favorite films, A Hard Day’s Night. I’m not the first one to see the influence of the movement on Richard Lester’s best known movie. Like French New Wave films before it, A Hard Day’s Night replicates the low budget, grainy film feel. While A Hard Day’s Night also contains elements of Hollywood slapstick films as well, it is clear that Dick Lester was influenced by The 400 Blows and other films of the movement.

Perhaps some of the power of the film has been diminished over the years since of the techniques that made this film revolutionary at the time are now old hat and have been become accepted tools of filmmaking.

But techniques alone do not make a film memorable. Citizen Kane, as an example, introduced a lot of modern filmmaking, but told a compelling story and the making of the film was itself a memorable yarn. Sadly this is where The 400 Blows falls down. As a writer you’re told to write what you know, so it is natural that Truffaut would write about his own childhood. And while it is interesting to see another culture in action, Antoine is not a sympathetic character. Oh, he’s a victim of inattentive parents and a strict teacher, but is as responsible as they are for what happens to him in the film. Some of the story telling may be cultural and the resultant film might not be the exact vision Truffaut had in mind, but this didn’t involve me.

For film historians who wrote extensively about American cinema, when they turned to filmmaking the resulting works did not emulate Hollywood. Whether it was out of necessity or experimentation, the films made during the French New Wave pushed the envelope adding terms to the language of cinema. While they were popular in their day, and are still in some circles, they don’t all stand the test of time. Watch The 400 Blows if you’re interested in the development of cinema, but don’t watch it if you’re looking to be entertained and drawn into the narrative.

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