Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: The 400 Blows (1959)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #39 (tied with La Dolce Vita)

Francois Truffaut, despite being one of the leading figures of the French New Wave in the 1960s, doesn't quite fit in with his contemporaries. Whereas Jean-Luc Godard sought to skew Hollywood conventions, Alain Resnais looked toward left-leaning political cinema, and Robert Bresson attempted to create a new "pure cinematography," Truffaut operated in a form that was not superficially different from the mainstream cinema at the time. His style is more conventional, less abstract, and his characters have more in common with the impoverished heroes of Vittorio De Sica than the too-cool countercultural figures of Godard. It's no surprise, then, that Truffaut would go on to experiment in Hollywood filmmaking during the 1970s.


Yet one look at his debut, The 400 Blows, reveals that he's far from a conventional filmmaker. The film concerns Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young, misunderstood Parisian boy. After being caught plagiarizing Balzac by his hard-nosed teacher (Guy Decomble), Antoine decides to run away from home, taking his stepfather's (Albert Remy) typewriter with him. He's caught when he tries to return it, landing him in jail overnight and eventually sent to an institution to be observed and "rehabilitated."

The 400 Blows is episodic in structure, avoiding the three-act narrative that dominated Hollywood at the time, which certainly helped set it apart. But whereas his contemporaries were telling stories about twenty-somethings who were disillusioned by life in post-war Europe, Truffaut here explored the disillusionment of adolescence, crafting the story of a mischievous child without scolding his actions.

More after the jump.


One of the key tenets of the Italian neorealist movement was a focus on child protagonists, which seems like a natural outgrowth of the "use only amateur actors" dictum. As a result, those films delved deeper into the psychology of childhood than most other productions had; compare this to Hollywood films from the same era (late 1940s/early 1950s), where children were mostly adorable moppets meant to provide cuteness and/or comic relief. Neorealist directors, on the other hand, were treating child characters as people whose lives, however brief into them they were, had storytelling potential.

This isn't to say that the Hollywood system wasn't capable of making a film that focused on adolescent heroes, however. The most notable example from the 1950s is perhaps Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which James Dean became a countercultural icon for playing a bad boy who was really just misunderstood. Dean's Jim Stark - and Ray's film in general - has been cited as a key influence on the French New Wave (as have other films by Ray), and it's easy to see the protagonists of Godard's films, especially Jean-Paul Belmondo's Michel in Breathless (1960), as extensions of Jim and Dean's effortless cool.

Antoine Doinel, then, feels like the missing link between the child heroes of Italian neorealism and the detached young people of the French New Wave. Like Jim Stark, he's misunderstood, but he doesn't have the same maturity, and still behaves and reacts to situations like a child. When he runs away from home, he tries to hide out in a factory, and discovers that trying to take a typewriter with him isn't exactly practical. His actions are driven by innocence and naïveté, rather than anything like existential frustration or hormonal rage.

And yet, Truffaut takes the time to explore Antoine's psychology. During his stay at the institution, Antoine is required to visit with a psychologist, and through a series of monologues reveals the reasons behind his unhappiness. However, Truffaut frames these monologues as though they were a natural conversation, preventing them from seeming too expository or too unrealistic. Antoine, despite the disillusionment that he's already faced in his life thanks to family issues, hasn't exactly built the walls of deflection and irony that most people develop by the time they reach adulthood. Instead, he approaches his feelings with sincerity, making these scenes especially rich.


The film's final image - a freeze-frame close-up of Antoine as he fulfills his longstanding desire to visit a beach - is iconic not just for its technique, but for its bold declaration of Antoine's humanity. Truffaut forces the audience, one final time, to see Antoine as a human being, not just a child. It's the film's thesis statement, an assertion that a character like Antoine matters and needs to be paid attention to. This especially works in the context of Truffaut's intentions; basing the film on his own childhood experiences, the filmmaker also hoped to highlight the unjust treatment of youths by the French legal system at the time.

What ultimately sets The 400 Blows apart from its contemporaries, and Truffaut apart from his fellow filmmakers, is the empathy for Antoine that courses throughout the film. There is no detachment or blasé attitude toward him or within him; instead, Truffaut's camera takes a genuine interest in his humanity and delves deeper to discover who he really is. Instead of being a document of cool or a clever subversion of cinematic conventions, The 400 Blows functions as a character study, taking an interest in a character that mainstream cinema generally disregarded. Truffaut's style may not have been revolutionary, but his content made him a crucial figure in the burgeoning French New Wave.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Historie(s) du Cinema (1988-1998)

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