Friday, April 24, 2009

Raising Hell with the French New Wave

The 400 Blows: Criterion Collection
Criterion // 1959 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“Angel faces hell-bent for violence.” From the Promotional Poster.

Opening Shot
The tagline above belies the sensitive quality of this first film by a director whose name is now synonymous with haunting, cinematic art. The 400 Blows also marks the birth of the French New Wave, as director François Truffaut (Jules and Jim) broke many of cinema’s rules and established a few new ones with this landmark, semi-autobiographical picture. The title, Les Quatre Cents Coups, comes from a French idiom meaning something along the lines of “to raise hell,” which is an apt description both of Truffaut’s childhood and the young protagonists of this film.

Criterion’s presentation and supplements are impeccable. This boutique film company specializing in arthouse cinema is the best in the business.

A Bit of Plot…
Young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), sleeps in the kitchen of a small apartment in Paris with his uncaring mother and stepfather. His mom is having an affair; his stepfather pays little attention to the boy. Antoine’s teacher is a verbally abusive bully who courts favorites and punishes on a whim.

Seething with resentment, Antoine cuts classes to spend his days at the cinema. He steals food and drink, and commits other petty crimes, when he’s not tormenting pedestrians with a pea shooter. But mostly, he seems to crave acceptance in a world that has rejected him. Confronted with his truancy, the boy runs away from home. He begins living on the streets of Paris and eventually steals a typewriter to hawk for pocket money, but is caught and arrested. His parents relinquish their rights to the juvenile justice system, which sentences Antoine to incarceration on a work farm. There is a shot of Antoine being driven away at night as he gazes through the bars of the police wagon, a solitary tear streaking along his cheek. The moment could crack the hardest of hearts.

A lyrical climax consisting of one long, continuous tracking shot leads to a justly famous conclusion — powerful and appropriately ambiguous, like life itself, which is the film’s principle concern.

Historical Context and Significance

The 400 Blows captures the world of a troubled adolescent in a manner that was vibrant, fresh, and thrilling for audiences viewing this seminal film in 1959. For the contemporary viewer with a receptive mind, the picture still delivers these sensations. Many of the techniques employed in this picture — freeze frames, fluid tracking shots, unusual editing rhythms — have long since been co-opted and overused in everything from exploitation pictures to television commercials. So it’s worth realizing that these stylistic devices were a sensation in 1959, before every aspiring filmmaker began using them to achieve similar effects. Today these innovations are an ingrained part of our film vocabulary.

Truffaut’s cinematic surrogate, actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, was not yet 14 when he starred in the director’s premiere feature. Léaud would go on to appear as Antoine Doinel in four more films: as an adolescent in Truffaut’s Antoine et Colette (the director’s contribution to the anthology film L’Amour à Vingt Ans, aka Love at 20), later finding a girlfriend in Baisers Voles (Stolen Kisses) and subsequently marrying her in Domicile Conjugal (Bed & Board), with a sad denouement in L’Amour en Fuite (Love on the Run).

Look fast in The 400 Blows for a cameo by Truffaut, who lights a cigarette and walks off screen right to left as Antoine and his friend exit an arcade (at the 24:12 mark). He appears a few minutes earlier, as one of the people enjoying the amusement ride, but his face is not clearly visible until a moment later as he walks away from the arcade. Call it a little homage to Hitchcock, of whom Truffaut (at left) was a devoted student.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Quite a lot, I’m tellin’ ya. Commentary tracks (including one by Truffaut’s lifelong friend Robert Lachenay) and supplemental material on the disc provide many details of the director’s early life that give context to this deeply personal film. Many of the situations in The 400 Blows spring directly from Truffaut’s troubled childhood. He never knew his father. His mother married another man when Truffaut was an infant and, as he grew older, the couple barely acknowledged his existence. As a baby he lived for some time with a wet nurse; later, his grandmother would care for him. Truffaut would recall as an adult how he witnessed his mother kissing another man on the street one day — a trauma replicated in the film. The young Truffaut also skipped school to watch movies and commit crimes, mostly petty larcenies. The cinema eventually became his home. It may be no understatement to note that his spiritual father André Bazin, co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma, saved Truffaut’s life and set him on a course leading to film — first as a critic and soon as a director. The 400 Blows is dedicated to Bazin.

The restored high-definition image is stunning. The mono audio has been cleaned up dramatically, compared to the crackling print I remember from a film festival more than a decade ago. Criterion also delivers a mouth-watering selection of supplements. Two separate audio commentaries feature Lachenay and cinema professor Brian Stonehill (who offers a useful crash course in the French New Wave). There’s also rare audition footage of Léaud and other young actors in the film, plus newsreel footage of Léaud at Cannes, two television interviews with Truffaut, and a restored theatrical trailer. The keepcase contains a tri-fold with images from the film and an essay by Truffaut biographer Annette Insdorf. A nice package, this.

Jules and Jim remains the director’s masterpiece (there is some competition here). Truffaut in this first picture begins to play with the stylistic devices that he would deploy to perfection, in the service of an even more powerful story, in Jules and Jim, of which the Criterion two-disc edition comes with my highest recommendation. Comparing the two films reveals the rapid evolution of an artist whose gentle humanity finds perfect expression on film.

Half a century later, The 400 Blows remains a brilliant slice of life that will linger in the mind’s eye and spark conversation long after the fade on that indelible freeze frame. Essential viewing.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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