Saturday, May 21, 2016

The French New Wave pt. 3 "The 400 Blows"

 





(French poster for The 400 Blows)
In the late 1950's  a group of young French directors (Francois Truffaut, Jean- Luc Godard, and Louis Malle) ushered in an audacious new film movement free of constraints and stale literary traditions. Rebellious in tone and brimming with artistic integrity,  these movies seemed to have no rules or structure. They were films about ideas and people, about places and busy crowds. They challenged religion and morals, inventing a new moral code to be measured against only one judge - the cinema. This artistic explosion become known as The French New Wave and would bring about universal change in both the way audiences perceived films and how filmmakers approached them. Truffaut is believed by many critics and film enthusiasts to be the true founder of the French New Wave movement, kicking everything off to a roaring start with his debut film The 400 Blows ( a vernacular of common phrases meaning, "to raise hell").

(Actor Jean-Pierre Leaud)

The 400 Blows was released in 1958. Truffaut was 27 and already in full form as a powerhouse filmmaker. What's astonishing about this film is it's simplicity and how engaging that simplicity is. The star is Jean-Pierre Leaud (playing 12 year-old Antoine Doinel), and the locations are his hovel of an apartment, the school he attends, and the chilly streets of Paris. Nothing in this film is done out of manipulation, no pandering or catering to baser instincts. What I found as a viewer, was not a depressing or morose portrait of a disparaged youth, but an exciting and heartbreaking adventure. I was spellbound.


The film opens with a series of moving shots around Paris accompanied by charming and whimsical classical music, as if we were in a car watching the city float by and perhaps anticipating meeting the characters that inhabit it. After these shots of magnificent buildings, homes, streets, and busy commerce the film takes us directly into a boring classroom where we meet Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud). Shot in black and white, the film draws us in to the world of young Antoine and never do we leave his viewpoint. Our first glance of him is an over the shoulder shot, at three quarter view and we don't really get a close up until 15 minutes into the film, where he stands dejected and looks to the side of the camera. The filming of Antoine is important because the camera simply seems to observe him and everyone else he engages with. As an audience we have "dropped in" to observe without judgement.  From school, Antoine journeys to a small apartment with his parents who are busy being unaware and disconnected. His mother is trying to look young and is having an affair. His stepfather tries to be "one of the guys" with Antoine, talking casually and not knowing exactly how to be a father.  The next day Antoine and a fellow classmate meet while both skipping school and together they wander the streets eventually passing the day at a movie theater. Truffaut takes care in holding on the shot of young Antoine being hypnotized by the movie screen. The director said that this film was taken from his own life and that cinema saved him from a life of crime.

(Director Francois Truffaut and his lead actor)
Antoine searches for a place to belong, someone to look up to. He has no mentors to speak of so he attaches himself to the famous French writer Balzac. Antoine lights a candle in front of a picture of Balzac and the candle sets fire to the picture. The fire spreads, sending his mother and stepfather into a panic trying to put out the blaze; a poignant scene that could be played for drama but winds up as comedy. The family resumes the scene by laughing and going to see a movie. Once again we see Antoine in a movie theater where his true connection resides. This is just one example of Truffaut's original approach in handling familiar material already immortalized by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist and Charlie Chaplin in The Kid..
(Antoine with his mother and stepfather)
Truffaut is indeed influenced by the iconic works of  Dickens, Chaplin, and even Alfred Hitchcock. He makes his love for Hollywood cinema known with interludes of romantic music and scenes of comedy like the one just mentioned. Even his camera work occasionally diverts from the freestyle  onlooker's viewpoint, moving into traditional perfectly framed Two Shots, Tracking Shots,  and Close Ups. Truffaut reminds us with these shots that we are watching a movie and the first rule of cinema is entertainment.
Near the end of the film Antoine has dipped his toes into the life of petty crime.  His parents have thrown up their hands and decide that only the police can handle him; his fate is left in the hands of a detention center. Antoine is then hauled away in a police wagon with hardened criminals. His destitute young face looks around with searching tearful eyes from behind the bars of the wagon's window (one of the first shots where Antonie looks toward the camera). Even in this shot, it isn't as though he is looking at us the viewer but to the world he is leaving behind.  This leads us to an exciting and uplifting climax with one of the most famous final shots in film. Antoine is running on the beach and does look directly into the camera and at us this time. He stops in a Freeze Frame Medium Close Up with a questioning look of rebellion and wonder. We have no idea what is in store for him and neither does he. Truffaut, with this single final shot, encapsulates the film's entire theme of what it means to not belong but to also not give up the search for meaning and hope.
The 400 Blows was a huge success at the 1959 Cannes film festival, where the  unknown actor Jean-Pierre was paraded on the shoulders of the prestigious French audience. The 400 Blows also began a brilliant career for Francois Truffaut who's following films continued to be brave and unrepentant in their honesty, yet playful and entertaining in their celebration of humanity. Truffaut's complicated love triangle Jules and Jim (1962) is also noted among the most influential films of the French New Wave.  Both Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows are streaming now on Hulu!
(Jean-Pierre being praised at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival)