Tuesday, February 22, 2005

#5: The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows, 1959, directed François Truffaut, screenplay by Marcel Moussy & François Truffaut, story by François Truffaut.

François Truffaut is a polarizing figure—at least if you're William Goldman. Goldman blames him for auteur theory and for ruining Alfred Hitchcock's career by convincing Hitch that he was an auteur. He's right about auteur theory: Truffaut's writings for "Cahiers du Cinéma" set that whole mess up. Hitchcock, I'm not so sure about, but he does make a good case. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in 1967. Before that, he made North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. Once he knew he was an auteur, thanks to François, he treated the world to Topaz, Torn Curtain, Frenzy, and Family Plot. That said, Marnie (1964) isn't so hot, either.

The 400 Blows precedes all that, and it's an exctiting and interesting film. It's easy to see, watching it, why filmmakers fell in love with this guy; it's subjective and idiosyncratic, but not self-indulgent. Truffaut's choices serve the story, not the other way around. (Wes Anderson, I'm looking at you here!) The 400 Blows comes from a French expression meaning, roughly, to sow one's wild oats. It's often described as a movie about a kid who's going wild, but this, I think, misses the point. For me, the movie was more about the ways children forge their own experiences, separate from the adults who surround them. The main character, Antoine Doinel, lives in a world where adults orbit in the distant background, inscrutible and best left undisturbed. In that sense, the movie captures early adolescence perfectly. Of course, Antoine is also a cipher to his parents, his teachers, and the other adults in his life. Jim Shepard has written beautifully about the ways the adults in The 400 Blows fail to understand Antoine; I won't retread that ground. Suffice it to say that Truffaut gets the wary relations between adolescence and adulthood perfectly right.

This movie's a good one to talk about point of view. Truffaut almost always limits his movie to the things that Antoine directly experiences and sees. In individual scenes, this is used to great effect; there's a scene, for example, where Antoine's parents come to school (they know he's been missing classes), drag him out of his seat, slap him in front of his classmates, and send him back to sit down. His parents have a conversation in the hall with his teacher, but you don't see it. The camera stays in the classroom as the teacher sees adults outside, steps out into the hall; we see Antoine's mother, but only through a window in the class door. It's an incredibly tense scene (which resonates with anyone who got in trouble in school; man, there's nothing worse than seeing your parents outside your classroom). It woudn't play as well if Truffaut hadn't let the audience stew in the classroom with Antoine. In a similar fashion, there's an amazing scene where Antoine overhears his parents fighting; the camera stays on his face, in close up, as we hear his (step-)father yell things like "I gave the boy my name! I put food on the table!" It's heartbreaking. I counted three times we see things Antoine doesn't; not bad. It's also pretty clear the camera identifies with Antoine; when his mother visits him at reform school, the camera focuses on the hat she is wearing as Antoine spaces out while she lectures him. This reminded me of Raging Bull; that scene in the locker room where Jake zones out staring at his spit bucket (if I'm remembering that correctly). Anyway, good use of first-person point of view. For a much better explanation of filmic point-of-view in general, I refer you to Terry Rossio.

The story is very good, but Trufaut's directorial style also commands attention. He could only afford black and white film stock, but he also went ahead and shot in Cinemascope. Ultra-widescreen black and white is not something you see very often. He loves long shots; the penultimate shot is nearly a minute and a half long (and it's not a Touch of Evil-style choreographed marvel, just a simple tracking shot). But check out the sequence in the Rotor (one of those spinning carnival rides where the floor drops out): he's cutting every five seconds or so. It's interesting; usually I think directors and editors that draw a lot of attention to themselves like that are hurting the stories they tell, but I feel like Truffaut really gets that to work for him; you're aware he's doing it, but his directorial choices are perfect for whatever scene, mood, or story point he's trying to get across. (I say "story point" like this is a tightly plotted movie—it isn't. It's still great). He's also an actor's director; he got an incredible performance out of Jean-Pierre Léaud. I also loved Albert Rémy as the boy's cuckolded father. All in all, well worth checking this one out.

Randoms:

  • The DVD has another film by Truffaut, Antoine and Colette, which was Truffaut's portion of a 1962 omnibus called Love at Twenty. Something like Four Rooms. It's Antoine several years later, falling in love with a woman he meets at a concert. I can't tell you how great it is; like The 400 Blows, it has a feeling of veracity to it. As someone who is well familiar with the sinking sensation you get when you realize that a woman's parents like you better than she does, I found it painfully amusing to watch. The best part; he writes her a love letter and gets a letter in reply that begins "Your love letter was well-written..." Ouch.

  • There are also a few interviews with Truffaut on the DVD; he's excellent. He was 27 when this film came out, and he's young and kind of goofy and charming. I hate him less than Orson Welles because he waited a few years longer to succeed magnificently. Still, I'm officially behind both of those guys as far as success goes. And as Truffaut says in one of the interviews, "Success is everything in America." (To be fair, he was criticizing Americans for neglecting financially unsuccessful, but great, films. But hey, I'm American, so what can you do?)

  • As a young man, Truffaut tried to read a set of classics (something like the Harvard Classics, can't remember the name), in alphabetical order. He made it to Balzac and quit. I can relate to that kind of obsessiveness, as you can see from this website.

  • There's a documentary about Cannes in 1959 on the disk that ends with the narrator saying of Truffaut, "Let's enjoy his films before he starts lecturing about them!" So I'm going to shut up now.

10 comments:

Rog said...

Nice writeup, I'll have to watch this one again. When I got into French New Wave, I didn't think this was as good as some of the other films like Breathless, Last Year at Marienbad etc. Of course, I knew a lot less about film back then.

Matthew Dessem said...

Yeah, see, I haven't seen Breathless or Last Year at Marienbad, so...

I did see "Shoot the Piano Player" in college but don't remember liking it much.

Anonymous said...

Madness. "Frenzy" is unforgettable.

Matthew Dessem said...

Anonymous,

"Unforgettable" is a value-neutral quality. Pearl Harbor and Armageddon are also unforgettable...

John B. said...

I don't have a film studies background (physician here). Thought I'd learn something by watching these and have some fun along the way. Your essays are becoming an essential part of my routine as I work my way through the catalogue. They're instructive as well as being a springboard for clarifying my thoughts.

I realize I'm lagging behind you by over two years, but I had a completely diffferent take on the role of adults in this film. You say that the adults "orbit in the distant background." But to me adults seem an overbearing presence in Antoine's world, and many (most?) of Antoine's actions are reactions to their rules and their misunderstandings of him. I should look up the Jim Shepard piece you mention.

Amazing that a first time director got such a nuanced performance from a first time actor, and a child actor at that. Great film, and great job, Matthew.

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

I haven't seen this since I wrote about it two and a half years ago -- you could well be right about the way adults work in the film. Your take sounds right -- I guess what I had in mind (if I remember it correctly) was that Antoine seemed to be best off the less adults had to do with him. In any event, that's how I remember adolescence myself, so I may be projecting. Anyway, I'm glad to hear these essays are helpful to you as you watch these movies -- they're basically first reactions, so I think they work best as a springboard to further thoughts. The Jim Shepard piece is in a book of excellent essays about movies, so I highly recommend it. By all means, let me know your own thoughts about these films in the comments; I'd love to discuss these films with someone who, like me, is seeing many of them for the first time--I don't have a background in film studies either (English major, working as a computer technician, writing screenplays in my spare time).

Kristin T. said...

Another thing I found interesting from the extras on the Criterion version is the short interview with Jean Pierre Leaud, who talks about the scene where his character is being interviewed by the psychiatrist. I was surprised to hear that that scene wasn't scripted - Truffaut just gave him ideas on how to answer the questions. Watching that scene, you can't help but be engrossed and disarmed by Leaud's naturalness; I loved the way he mindlessly drew on the table with his fingers as he talked. It reminded me of Masina's small, honest gestures in Nights of Cabiria -- the kind of things that make you fall in love with a performance.

Matthew Dessem said...

Kristin,

Shepard writes about that, I think; something about the expression Leaud gives the camera when he's asked if he's been with a woman, if I remember correctly. A great scene by any measure.

Spanish Technophobe said...

Was the set of classics the Pléiade series? Gallimard started publishing that in 1931. In intent, it resembles the Library of America more than the Harvard Classics. It puts classic work on Bible paper.

nano said...

Nice analysis on 400 Blows, Matthew. However I feel like correcting some things you said at the beginning...

Actually, Truffaut started interviewing Hitchcock in 1962. And the book came out in 1966. So I think the "Truffaut ruining Hitchcock" case really holds no ground.

Plus, Hitchcock was America's most famous director since the beginning of his TV show in the mid-Fifties. He was already thinking of himself as an auteur then... And that's probably why he accepted to be interviewed by this French guy who adored him.

Also, you should re-watch Marnie... After reading so much about this film, it was a complete surprise to me to find it stays together so well. Not to say it has one of the most audacious beginnings of all classic American cinema.

Greetings from Argentina