I still retain from my childhood a great anxiety, and the movies are bound up with an anxiety, with an idea of something clandestine, said François Truffaut.
It’s the Cannes Film Festival, 1956. Young French film critic, aspiring filmmaker and all around rebel François Truffaut raucously complains about the rows of flowers obstructing the view at the auditorium. As a result, the world’s premier film festival bans the haughty, novice film buff.
Three years later, Truffaut would return to Cannes with a major buzz surrounding his full-length film debut. Truffaut would eventually win the best director prize and his film would kick off the most revolutionary film movement in history. The film is “Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows); and cinema would never be the same again.
François Truffaut was born on Feb. 6, 1932 to an unknown father.
Following his birth, Truffaut was placed in the hands of a nanny before his maternal grandmother decided to take care of him. The strictness of his disciplinary grandfather disappeared in the world of music and literature his grandmother introduced him to.
At the age of 10, following his grandmother’s death, he would return back to his mother’s house for the first time, along with her new husband who granted him his surname.
His first experience with cinema occurred at the age of eight with Abel Gance’s war romance “Paradis Perdu (1940). Truffaut skipped school and sneaked to the movies discreetly without paying. At 14, Truffaut would abandon school education altogether and decided to be self-taught. A chance encounter at the age of 16 with great critic, and founder of modern film theory, André Bazin, 30 at the time, would change his life for good.
Bazin took Truffaut under his wing and hired him as his personal secretary.
Bazin also got him out of a Parisian juvenile center that he was sent to after several arguments with his stepfather.
In 1951, Bazin, founded Cahiers du cinema, a film journal that, years later, would be widely considered as the world’s most important movie publication and the launch-pad for the French ‘new wave.’
Prior to his first proper short film “Les Mistons in 1957, Truffaut rocked the entire French film scene with his historical 1954 article “A Certain Tendancy of the French Cinema whereby he sternly criticized the classical, literary-driven, studio-backed French cinema; a harsh denouncement he encapsulated through his infamous term “tradition of quality.
Later, his monumental “Politique des Auteurs (Theory of Authorship) would, arguably, eclipse the work of his mentor and change the face of film criticism.
Truffaut’s writings were polemic, passionate, frequently harsh, and, like most Cahiers critics, exceedingly radical and unconventional.
The best way for any critic to criticize a movie, Truffaut’s Cahiers colleague Jean-Luc Godard stated, is to make a movie. In 1958, another Cahiers critic, Claude Chabrol, shot the first official Nouvelle Vague film “Le Beau Serge, released the following year shortly before “400 Blows premiered.
Eric Rohmer’s “Signe du Lion, Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour and Godard’s “À bout de soufflé would follow the same year.
Godard’s cool, hip debut, with its unforeseen inventive cinematic language, jazzy experimentations and jump-cuts, led the new wave that bridged classical and modern cinema, rapidly becoming the most popular and influential effort of the bunch. Nevertheless, Truffaut’s work would, arguably, prove to be the most enduring.
“The 400 Blows is essentially Truffaut’s childhood memoir, largely based on real episodes of his troubled boyhood. The film doesn’t follow a concrete, three-act classical plot. It looks, and feels – with its lucid, simple structure and visual clarity – like a documentary charting the ordinary joys and extraordinary predicaments of Truffaut’s 12-year-old alter ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud, the face of the new wave).
Antoine is an ordinary, misunderstood kid whose parents are away from home most of the time. Like Truffaut, Antoine was born out of wedlock. His mother initially considered abortion, hence her emotional detachment and slight indifference towards her son. Antoine’s dad is friendly and easygoing, but never provides his stepson with necessary attention or care.
Antoine spends his days ditching school for trips to the movies and local parks. His teachers are domineering, constantly picking on him and throwing him into detention. Like his parents, they fail to understand him; continue to chastise him for actions he perpetrates impulsively.
His conception of right and wrong is quite fallible and despite his transgressions, adults don’t acknowledge that young Antoine, after all, is just a kid with little knowledge of rules of the real world.
Antoine lies, invents digressing stories to justify his truancy (he claims his mother has died at one point) and, ultimately, descends into a life of rebellion, petty crime, and juvenile internment.
“400 Blows is told primarily through Antoine’s eyes in a manner inspired particularly by French master of naturalism Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct (1933). We experience the simple pleasures of basking in the lights of 1950s’ Paris, of pure joy of play, of the ecstasy induced by literature and sheer fervor for the movies landscapes.
We also experience the horrors; deprivation of human warmth, failure to meet expectations, bewilderment over the elusive adult world, running away from home and brutality of confinement.
Truffaut weaves these colliding emotions and astonishing anecdotes into a series of lyrical images that are both emotional and eloquent, fostered by Henri Decaë’s cinematography and Jean Constantin’s heartbreaking score.
Truffaut was the most unapologetically sentimental and of all the new wave’s filmmakers. Despite the neutrality of his lens, the film retains a palpable emotional power that cumulates with the famed last scene. After Antoine succeeds in escaping reforming school, Truffaut’s camera follows his run to the sea via a long tracking shot until he reaches the beach, turns back towards the camera that freezes on his numb face, in possibly the most famous close-up since Chaplin’s smile at the end of “City Lights.
Time and time again, I contemplated the meaning behind that last scene.
There’s an overwhelming sense of release stimulated by Antoine’s new-found, temporary freedom, mixed with melancholy and uncertainty. The final close-up would mark the end of Antoine’s childhood and the start of an early adulthood neither Truffaut nor his alter ego were equipped to face and accept.
After watching “400 Blows for the first time years ago, I reached for my PC and, for an inexplicable reason, began to jot down my childhood memories. I began to have this compulsive obsession to objectively tell this story without any polishing, to try to understand what this phase was all about.
I always felt Truffaut suffered from the same obsession, of memories that continued to loom over his entire body of work – like Bergman, Chaplin, Spielberg and Fellini who all failed to cast away the imposing shadows of their childhood.
Truffaut would reassess his abandoned childhood in two future films: “L’Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970) and “L’Argent de Poche (Small Change, 1976). He would revisit the Antoine Doinel character in four more films, combining chapters of his adult life with Leaud’s.
Characters of his versatile stories never succeeded in escaping their childhood; jumping from one relationship to another, failing to assume responsibility and continue to regard the world from childlike perspective, with boundless bafflement.
In his Cahiers review of “The 400 Blows, Rivette writes “in speaking of himself, he [Truffaut] seems to be speaking of us. I’m not sure what prompted Truffaut to tell his story. Perhaps he needed to confront his demons, to recapture the few unadulterated moments of innocent glee, to experience some catharsis.
Most of all though, I think he wanted to justify the anguish inflicted upon him by transformi
ng all the pain he was forced to experience into a work of art.
And doing so, Truffaut created the ultimate postcard to a phase that, reality is never as simple or blissful as it always appears.
The Truffaut film mini-series kicks off today, 8:30 pm, at the French Culture Center in Mounira with “The 400 Blows. Other films in the series include “Jules and Jim, “Le Dernier Metro, and “La femme d’à côté. For more information, please call (02)2795 3725