Saturday, April 9, 2011

The 400 Blows (1959) - #5

Here poor Antoine Doinel was unfairly punished by Sourpuss for a pinup that fell from the sky. It will be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Though Francois Truffaut probably didn't have such grandiose intentions at the time, his decision to use footage from a discarded scene in his debut film, multiple shots of the Eiffel Tower looming over the Parisian neighborhoods where its action takes place, as its opening title sequence turned out to be a fitting bit of symbolism, since The 400 Blows turned out to be quite a landmark itself in the popular cinema of its time and so much that's followed since. It's commonly regarded as the film that initiated the Nouvelle Vague, that is, the French (and original) New Wave, a term that was subsequently pasted onto similar revivals of youthful creativity and emotional authenticity in the film culture of other nations. That history has been covered elsewhere to the point that I see no need for me to recap it here. However. the lofty reputation that The 400 Blows now holds can work against how well it's received by first time viewers (as my friend Ryan at experienced) who might acknowledge and enjoy it as a well-made movie but still wonder what all the fuss was about. As a novice myself to this film, and Truffaut in general (I still think of him as the guy that Steven Spielberg recruited to play the French scientist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I know that my impression is in for a lot of changes as this blog progresses!), this is one of those occasions where my plan of watching these Criterion films in chronological order pays dividends. In that context, it's easy for me to see more clearly the freshness and vitality that The 400 Blows presented to its original audience, even against a backdrop of mostly great movies that I watch for this project. (Yes, I'm obviously referring here to classics like First Man Into Space and Corridors of Blood...)

Truffaut's gambit here, as he made the famous transition from outspoken film critic to first-time film director, was to speak from his own experience, crafting a story both modern and timeless about the rough disillusionment of a boy on the brink of manhood. Anecdotes and episodes from his Parisian adolescence in the mid-to-late 1940s were woven together to make up this snapshot, a week or so in the life of a troubled teenager in those same neighborhoods, now set in the present day. That ultra-contemporary setting, and the naturalistic manner in which it was filmed, owed a lot to the Italian neorealists, which Truffaut acknowledges on one of the 1960s interview supplements featured on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray. But there's a distinctly French sensibility at work, a romantic swing and sly humor that lightens the tone compared to the Neorealists' earnest and somewhat pious political statements. (And of course, the miseries of World War II were that much further in the past, no longer casting such a prominent shadow over its survivors.)

Thus the story of that wayward boy Antoine Doinel, which could have easily been handled in such a way as to induce profound pity and even tears, along the lines of Bicycle Thieves, Forbidden Games or a more contemporaneous film like Ashes and Diamonds, is instead used to win our smirking admiration for a resilient little rogue who, as fate would have it, was destined to have a long career in film over the next two decades. That unexpected outcome (I can hardly believe that Truffaut had a series of five films in mind when he first conceived of The 400 Blows) probably owes more to the amazing serendipity of casting Jean-Pierre Leaud in this role, because the quality he brings to the performance is probably beyond any director to impart if the kid didn't already have it in him in the first place. Always cool, calculating, on guard and resourceful, Antoine's encounters with adult hypocrisy drive him to make impulsive decisions that wind up backfiring on him due to the small residual pockets of naivete that riddle every teenager's judgment, despite their growing confidence of finally having figured out how the world works. What makes Doinel/Leaud so charming is how swiftly he assimilates the lesson learned from each setback and bounces back with a new plan of attack, determined to demonstrate in actions, not words, that his will has not been broken, nor has his ambition for freedom and self-reliance been thwarted.

His situation is to be stuck with a mother who wishes he'd never been born, a step-father who sees him mainly as a nuisance that comes with his wife's otherwise highly attractive (but untrustworthy) package, and tyrannical inept schoolmasters who keep Antoine locked in close scrutiny as they try to prevail in a slow-burning power struggle aimed at keeping this mischief-maker in check, or at least serving as the proverbial warning to the other boys who admire the rebel. After the Eiffel Tower tracking shot, the film opens in a boys-only classroom where students passes a sexy pin-up girl picture from one desk to another. Though they're not particularly careful about concealing it, the pic travels freely until it lands on Antoine's desk. He takes a moment to decorate her face a bit, then is brusquely caught, called up front, sent to stand in the corner and eventually inscribes on the wall the memorial statement quoted to begin this article. It's the first of several "moments of truth" we see, as Doinel responds to adversity with characteristic determination to not just settle the score, but to ultimately prevail, regardless of the odds stacked against him or even the lack of a clear sense of what that victory would consist of or look like. He'll just know it when he feels it.

Antoine's frustrations at school and at home feed into an escalating cycle of conflict that ultimately leads to him skipping class, getting in trouble, running away from home, getting arrested for a small burglary and ultimately winding up in a reform school out in the Normandy countryside. Each behavioral flare-up on Antoine's part provokes an increasingly restrictive and oppressive response from the adult authorities. The film ends, quite poignantly, with Antoine at least temporarily slipping the bonds placed upon him as he slides under a hole in the fence, eludes capture by the pursuing staff, and makes a mad dash to the beach to catch his first-ever glimpse of the ocean, and by extension, the big wild world waiting to be discovered beyond the fascinating but comfortably familiar intrigues of Paris.

Antoine is a character that a lot of us can relate to, either because our experiences overlap his in some ways, or because we were like those other students in The 400 Blows who enjoy the vicarious amusement of watching him get in trouble and wondering to ourselves what it would be like to just not give a damn and let ourselves go that far in acting out. On an even deeper level though, I think Antoine's story draws us in and sticks with us because of his admittedly flawed and bungled quest for justice. I mean, it is difficult for me to make the case that Antoine Doinel is an innocent victim whose actions are justified because of the wrongs perpetrated upon him by mother, step-father and teachers. Yes, they lie, they exploit, they condescend and even slap his face, repeatedly, but none of that excuses his theft, his truancy, his vandalism or the danger he puts himself in or causes for others. The truth is, as much as we may find ourselves chuckling or cheering on Antoine's exploits, and they are often quite funny, having a youngster in our lives who does things similar to what we see him do here would induce a lot of stress and exasperation.  One could make the case that if the adults in Antoine's world were better role models themselves, more honest, ethical, patient, caring, etc. then he wouldn't have had to resort to such risky extremes to get his point across, wouldn't be driven to the point of crazy desperation to assert his readiness to become a man on his own terms.

I have my doubts about the validity of that thesis. Antoine is certainly a product of his environment and the dysfunctions built into his parents' relationship and the French school system, and perhaps a measure of justice would have calmed his rowdiness down a bit. But The 400 Blows rings true far beyond its circumstances of time and place in its ability to capture and evoke that mysterious motivating force that pushes teenagers in all cultures into a stance of resistance to conformity when its imposed by authorities whom we question. Antoine's just not as willing to put up with it, or as easily intimidated, as the rest of us. And even when we ourselves become representatives of that authority (as I am, quite consciously, due to my twenty years of employment in a residential treatment center for at-risk youth!), the nobility that rests at the heart of his delinquency is a very powerful reminder to at least avoid the abuse of power that comes with that privilege and responsibility and to do our best to avoid becoming one of the stinking hypocrites so well deserving of Antoine's eye rolls or deadpan, quietly contemptuous stare.


Tait said...

I'm a bit surprised you didn't mention the psychologist interview later in the movie. I remember it being quite novel to me when first seeing it (especially because of the head-on camera placement). Very documentary style, though I don't know how established such conventions were at the time...

Dave said...

Antoine's interview toward the end is undoubtedly the pivotal scene in the film from an acting standpoint, Jean-Pierre Leaud's crowning touch in a marvelous performance. His candid, unaffected answers to the adult questioning his motivations constitutes the sequence that cements his credibility as a believable and compelling personality. Truffaut told Leaud about his plans for this scene a full month before it was filmed, so that the actor could convincingly inhabit Antoine's earlier life without actually scripting out what he would say. Truffaut knew that it had to be the best scene in the film, and its to his good fortune that he found a young actor who rose to the occasion. His answers to those questions are basically improvised, with just a bit of coaching. It's a very innovative scene for its time, and I'm really glad you thought to mention it in this comment!

The main reason I didn't get to it in my main article is that I checked my word count and was already past 1500 so I thought it was time to wrap it up. A busy weekend and other blogging deadlines compelled me to write this one quickly! :)