Thursday, March 3, 2011

Film #51: Les Quatre cents coups (1959)

Title for Us English-Speaking Types: The 400 Blows

Director: Francois Truffaut

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

French adolescent eases down a slippery slope from bad student to petty thief.

Uncut Summary (Full plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning)

In 1950s Paris, fourteen-year-old Antoine Doinel is the proverbial bee in his teachers' bonnet. He shirks his studies and mocks the instructors whenever he gets the chance. One day, after mouthing off and defacing a classroom wall, Antoine is given an extra writing assignment for French class. None too pleased, he heads home.

Just one of several times Antoine gets into hot water at school.

At home, we see that Antoine lives in an apartment tiny enough that its narrow rear entry hall doubles as Antoine's “bedroom”. His parents, though not abusive, seem to treat Antoine as much a nuisance as their only child. His young, beautiful mother harps on his poor grades and behavior at school, and his father, while a pleasant office clerk, is as interested in his auto racing club as anything else in his life. Antoine's life seems to consist of little more than the criticisms of his teachers and the mundane bickering of his parents.

Having not done his punishment homework the night before, Antoine is afraid to return to school the next morning. His equally irascible buddy, Rene, convinces him to ditch class, swipe some cash from his parents, and roam the city. The two partake of the usual hooky activities of the 1950s – a movie, pinball, and junk food. While traipsing about, Antoine runs across his own mother, who happens to be with a man not her husband. After the brief glimpse of each other, Antoine and his mother swiftly head in opposite directions. That night, Antoine's mother tells her husband that she's working late, leaving Antoine and his father to have a semi-pleasant evening together.

The next morning, it's time to pay the fiddler. Antoine knows that he has to show up at school, despite not having a note from his parents. When firmly questioned by his teacher, Antoine claims that he was absent because his mother has died. While this shocks the teacher into penitence and sympathy for Antoine, the ruse only lasts for a few hours. Antoine's parents show up before long and go ballistic, along with his teachers.

Unable to deal with the constant hassling, Antoine decides to run away from home. He sleeps in a factory that Rene knows of for a night and ditches school the next day. After a day of panic, he is found and his mother finally shows some form of repentance. In a quiet moment, she offers Antoine a bit of a bribe if he will return to school and bring up his grades. Antoine makes the attempt, but is foiled when he attempts of plagiarize a short story from famed French author, Honore Balzac. The teacher easily detects the cheat and calls out Antoine once again.

On the lam with his cohort, Rene, Antoine indulges a bit.

This is, indeed the last straw for Antoine. Punished yet again, he takes the first opportunity to run away once more. This time, he and Rene raid Rene's wealthy and separated parents' petty cash and live it up for a time. When the money and food run out, Antoine steals a typewriter from his father's office. When they can't fence it, Antoine tries to return it to the office. He gets caught, though, and is dragged by his parents to a government office.

At the government office, Antoine's mother concedes that she is unwilling to deal with her son anymore. She turns him over to the state to be placed in a sort of correctional facility for troubled boys. At the camp, Antoine gives an interview to a psychologist in which we learn that he had already spent several of his younger years with his grandmother since his mother did not want the trouble of raising him. We also learn that, even when he tells the truth, no one believes him; therefore, he sees no reason to bother with it.

After a short time in the camp, during which Antoine undergoes the same cycle of scrutiny/slip-up/punishment that he has always known, he dashes out of the camp during a recreational soccer match. Antoine eludes his pursuers for a time and eventually makes it to the shore, where he stops and turns back. Thus ends the story of the boyhood of Antoine Doinel.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research on the film):

I enjoyed this movie more than the first time I watched it, but that may not be saying much.

When I first saw The 400 Blows, I was about 25 years old and didn't have much knowledge of either more artistic or international films. I suspect that this was why, back then, I found this movie to be slow and lacking any clear punch. After a succeeding decade, during which I've learned to be more patient and enjoy slower stories with something deeper to impart, I can now appreciate such movies much more.

Still, I have to say that I was not blinded by the supposed brilliance of this movie.

Like many other films of its standing, I cannot deny the artistic merits of the movie. Director Francois Truffaut attained exactly what he sought with outstanding skill. On top of that, it's a different sort of crime story. Rather than follow the hackneyed path of sensationalism, Truffaut is far more subtle. Most tales that attempt to tell the “creation of a criminal” story will make the external forces clearly manipulative and overtly despicable. Whether it's Scorsese's Goodfellas or the great Brazilian film City of God, the environments that create the criminals are so obviously poisoned by poverty, gangsters or a host of other deleterious influences, that the viewer has no trouble following how a character becomes a hardened felon.

With The 400 Blows, however, Antoine is not pulled, but rather ever-so-gently nudged into his larcenous life as a reluctant rebel. The negative components are disturbingly commonplace: a teacher who is not tyrannical, but just short-tempered enough to prevent Antoine's academic growth; a mother who is not abusive, but just negligent enough to deprive Antoine of the unconditional love he seeks; a father who is not uncaring, but who is just self-involved enough to deprive Antoine of the fatherly guidance that he needs; and a society that is not toxic, but just apathetic enough to allow Antoine to slide, ever-so-gradually, through the cracks. It's the blending of these very authentic aspects and their affects on a troubled child that set this film apart from others, and is clearly it's greatest strength.

Here's a clip of highly dubious quality, but it shows one of the most engaging scenes in the movie - Antoine is in the government's compound for socially maladjusted youth. He's being interviewed by the center's psychiatrist:

On top of the plot's elemental alchemy, the filming itself cannot be overlooked. I'm far from well-versed in film technique, but I imagine that a person would have a difficult time in criticizing any of the technical points of The 400 Blows. The story flows very well, the dialogue and acting are pitch-perfect in conveying the necessary realism, and the directing and camerawork are outstanding. Many of the settings are stunning and quite memorable.

Still, I shall most likely never watch this film again. While all of the above points are wonderful merits that will assure this film's place in cinema history for many decades to come, in the end, I feel that this film is a piece of art more to be studied by film academics and students than to be enjoyed by the common viewer (clearly, I count myself in the latter group). It's tragedy of the slow-burn variety, and while it's not without some humor, it ends up being a rather depressing affair. In short, while it wasn't exactly a chore to watch, I feel that there's nothing else that subsequent viewings can offer me.

There it is. For my part, I don't know if I can recommend this movie to too many people. Perhaps if you are looking for a very well-crafted tale of a young, semi-likable French rascal's slow descent into delinquency, this will clearly be for you. Or, for those who are looking to delve deeper into film history and technique, The 400 Blows will surely offer a treasure trove of lessons. For the rest of you who like your movies a bit quicker, flashier, and perhaps more imaginative, you may want to steer clear.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research):

There's one curious thing in digging through some essays on this movie. Every one of them makes key the fact that the movie is highly autobiographical. Apparently, Truffaut himself went through many of the things that Antoine Doinel did in his movie. I suppose that this goes no small way in producing the authenticity of the tale and the emotions portrayed.

And yet, this brings up a much larger issue in terms of art. Why should it matter to me, or any viewer, just how fictional or factual a story is? I could very well go on an extended rant on this, but I shall rein myself in. Suffice it to say that I was highly surprised to find that so many professional film analysts and critics seemed to focus on the mere fact that Truffaut was telling a story that was his own in many ways. To me, the focus should be the film itself, independent of any connection it may or may not have to any sources.

The end result is that, in my relatively limited searching, I found less critical analysis of the film and more lauding of Truffaut and his life as a young man. This did me little good. The analysis I did find did confirm my own feeling about the movie, though: that it was very well-acted and offered a tale very different from what had been shown to larger audiences before its arrival. It is, in fact, considered one of if not the first great “French New Wave” movies, a genre that would define much of 60's cinema.

The 400 Blows was an immediate success, wowing critics the world over and garnering several major awards. This is no mean feat, as it was Francois Truffaut's first feature film. He would go on to make a few more movies on Antoine Doinel, chronicling his later life. I have to say that, while I certainly have no overt problems with Doinel's story, I am unlikely to seek out the subsequent films in the series.

While it loses its emotional impact when watched on its own, here's the oft-discussed, iconic final few minutes of the film. If you want to see the most famous image, just watch the last 20 seconds:

That's a wrap. 51 shows down, 54 to go.

Coming Soon: Psycho (1960)

Oh, yes! The suspense movie that changed the genre forever! I've only seen it once, though I don't remember being exactly blown away. Maybe I'll be more impressed on this second go-round.

What's that? Yes, Mother, I'm coming...

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.