“A child’s eyes register fast. Later he develops the film.”
– Jean Cocteau (1)
“….. a triumph of simplicity.”
– Jacques Rivette (2)
“I still ask myself the question that has tormented me since I was thirty years old: Is cinema more important than life?”
– François Truffaut (3)
” I still retain from my childhood a great anxiety, and the movies are bound up with an anxiety, with an idea of something clandestine.”
– François Truffaut (4)
From the moment Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959) is previewed out of competition along with Rossellini’s India (1958) and Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) on May 4th 1959 at Cannes, Truffaut is triumphant as one of the leading archetypal luminaries of the French New Wave Cinema. The June cover of Cahiers du Cinéma features the film, and some 450,000 spectators see the film in France after it is released on June 3rd 1959. This succession of events has to be contextualised in terms of Truffaut’s polemical role as film critic (“The grave digger of French cinema”) whose ferocious cinephilic critiques of the studio-based “Quality Tradition” in postwar French cinema (Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy and René Clément, among others) culminated in the banning of him attending Cannes the year before his extraordinary feature debut. (The photograph of Cocteau seated with Truffaut and the equally triumphant young Jean-Pierre Léaud says it all: a sublime cross-generational moment of Truffaut’s “cinema of auteurs” with Cocteau shepherding Truffaut and his alter ego Léaud through the crowds and press of Cannes. As Godard puts it: “Cocteau, Truffaut, Léaud. The elderly angel, Heurtebise, would whisper the passwords: look to your left, look to your right. Smile at the newspapers, smile at the newscasters! Bow to the minister! Slow down! Walk faster!” (5) )
Truffaut, whose early film-going experiences are equated with pronounced fugitive sexuality, juvenile displacement and rebellion, are unforgettably etched in our minds via Truffaut’s own breezy literate film reviews (collected in his invaluable book with its Milleresque/Renoirian title The Films in My Life ), the gloriously entertaining and informative prefaces he wrote (during his busy filmmaking career ) to various books of Bazin’s posthumously collected essays on Welles, Renoir, Chaplin, the French Occupation, etc. (Truffaut’s way of paying back to André and Janine Bazin’s kindness in “adopting” Truffaut when he was virtually abandoned by his parents as a teenager) and the compulsively readable huge tome of letters that Truffaut wrote throughout his career.
Truffaut’s epistolary talents do not only reflect his life-long love of literature (particularly the novel) but they echo in so many graphic ways throughout his oeuvre of enchanting unclassifiable films. An oeuvre that successfully cut across two distinct areas of film production: the art film and commercial cinema. Truffaut, amongst his peers including Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Rozier, Demy and Rohmer, regarded the screenplay as the essential stage of filmmaking. Hence Truffaut’s love for Hitchcock and Lubitsch, who the filmmaker considered to be masters of the screenplay. Yet, as Jean Douchet correctly suggests in his recent study of the French New Wave, the screenplay for Truffaut was only designed for the ultimate purpose of rendering its words for the film image. (6)
Truffaut, the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, was its most loved representative whose auterist vision as a filmmaker espoused, contra French academic cinema, a cinema of tomorrow that took place in the streets and apartments of one’s life and that jettisoned the predictability of a verbally dominated cinema recognisable for its polished literary dialogue, elaborate movie sets, ornate photography and movie stars. A cinema that clearly attests to Alexander Astruc’s “camero stylo ” view of cinema: “The filmmaker/author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen.” A cinema that speaks of ordinary experiences and situations, fragile individuals, daily recognisable language and emotions where the director displays a non-superior relationship to his characters.
Cinema auteurs who create new possibilities for the film medium as they write, direct and invent what they film. For Truffaut, the politique des auteurs meant a cinema of directors as authors who valued the experimental and personal awareness of cinema as a visual medium that was not tied up with the deadening limits of psychological realism, plot and dialogue. But instead, not overlooking the excesses of the politique des auteurs with the real possibility (as Bazin himself cautioned his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues) of creating an “esthetic cult of personality”, Truffaut forged a highly personal cinema that owed a lot also to Bazin’s spatial realism and is crucially sympathetic to the fluid and ambiguous reality of the portrayed characters, their beauty, sadness, desire, timidity and loss. Consequently, French New Wave films (including Truffaut’s films) value a cinema that does not follow in the steps of an “old cinema”, but instead features the human sensibility of the director-writer creating an art that is noted for its spontaneity, improvisation and obsessions.
In Truffaut’s case, the auteur filmmakers who paved a critical path to tomorrow’s personal film included Bergman, Bresson, Cocteau, Dreyer, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lubitsch, Ophüls, Renoir, Welles and Rossellini. Of these important filmmakers for the French New Wave, Bergman, Cocteau, Renoir and Rossellini (Truffaut was his assistant in 1956) stand out in particular because they represented to the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers a new way of articulating an independent personal cinema.
Renoir’s early experiment with direct film sound recording using non-professionals, outside locales, local dialect, music and customs, etc ., as in Toni (1934) – that is often regarded as a vital precursive link to Italian Neo-Realism which influenced the Cahiers French New Wave group – is also uncanningly reminiscent of Astruc’s definition of a “camero stylo ” cinema (and not overlooking today’s digital video developments) as Renoir’s following words attest: “My aim was to give the impression that I was carrying a camera and microphone in my pocket and recording whatever came my way, regardless of its comparative importance. ” (7)
The charm and poignancy of Truffaut’s films belie their complex cinephilic formation in the ’50s when Truffaut was a rebellious school truant film buff stealing away to the darkened anonymity of a movie theatre with its strong clandestine seductive appeal. Truffaut as a neglected teen cinephile, with his dear childhood friend Robert Lachenay (who features as Rene in The 400 Blows and was an assistant to the film itself), would use the movie theatre as a substitute home. There Truffaut entered his “cinema age” (Breton) seeing at the age of seven his first movie, Abel Gance’s Le Paradis perdu (1938).
Like a thief in the night, Truffaut watched “his first two hundred films on the sly” by slipping into the theatre without paying through the washroom window or the emergency exit. (8) Truffaut avoided the war, period and Western films as they were too difficult to identify with, and became instead attracted to love and detective/crime movies. He would systematically take note of the director’s name and list the movie titles , thereby starting a lifelong passion between cinephilia, filmmaking and writing. Like Langlois, who later played a seminal role in Truffaut’s film career through the Paris Cinémathèque, Truffaut memorised the soundtracks of his favourite movies. Truffaut’s early formative experiences as a cinephile were guided by an overwhelming progressive desire to immerse himself into the diegetic world of the movie itself. Truffaut sat closer and closer to the movie screen, blotting out the theatre.
When in 1953 Truffaut enlists in the army and then deserts when he is about to leave for Indochina, it is thanks to Bazin who helps him to be released from military prison, after six months, for “instability of character”. And it is Bazin, once again, who helps Truffaut on his film criticism career by writing for the recently founded Cahiers. Little wonder, that the existential kindness that exists between Antoine and Rene in The 400 Blows, most touchingly represented in the scene showing Rene’s unsuccessful attempt to visit Antoine in the reform school (we witness the event from Antoine’s point-of-view from behind a window glass plane), is succinctly presaged in the film’s dedication to André Bazin. Bazin, regrettably, did not live to see the premiere of The 400 Blows.
Truffaut’s film, with the remaining films of the Antoine Doinel cycle (Antoine and Colette , Stolen Kisses , and Bed and Board ), constitutes one of the grand high points of modern autobiographical cinema. Truffaut is one of the seminal autobiographical filmmakers of our times, along with Akerman, Allen, Brakhage, Cocteau, Fellini, Frank, Moretti and Welles, to name a few relevant exemplars, for he has given us a complex Renoirian cycle of personal filmmaking that draws upon for its inspiration from Truffaut’s own complex life rooted in postwar French film culture.
Truffaut’s life and cinema sum up the intricate complexities of a seminal European auteur whose films form a trajectory from a rebellious boy to a mature literary-inflected filmmaker whose existential vision of creativity, human emotions and social reality encapsulates a highly sympathetic and passionate belief in the utopian possibilities of love and understanding. “Utopian” in coming to terms with what is knowable and attainable within human culture (Said) . In no fundamental sense should Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle be seen as a basic exercise in contemporary “feel-good” cinema. Far from it, because Truffaut also intimately knows that love can also suggest related complex dark emotions like cruelty, jealousy and indifference.
The 400 Blows, along with Les Mistons (1957), The Wild Child (1969) and Small Change (1969), represent one of the most tender and loving depictions of childhood in cinema. Truffaut’s characteristic sensitive and non-sentimental view of his children characters denotes a respect for children living in a difficult world made by adults. It is a lyrical poetic realism that is central to two influential films for The 400 Blows – Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933) and Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1947) – and significantly informs Truffaut’s hypnotically moving debut feature. The 400 Blows (which could have been tellingly titled The Awkward Age) is one of the rare few films that represents childhood and its turbulent knife-edge ambiguous emotions and situations in a searching, intimate and tender way communicating to us collective emotional truths. (9) Truffaut focusing on his own childhood experiences – forging a “cinema in the first person singular” – is also speaking to us about our own childhood. This double emotional quality of the individual and the collective in the film is one of its more appealing simple qualities. As Rivette informs us in his Cahiers review of the film: “in speaking of himself, he seems to be speaking of us.” (10)
Crucially then, the haunting lyricism of The 400 Blows is based on Truffaut’s Renoirian focus on the extraordinary features of his own “ordinary” childhood situations and individuals, and, characteristic of Truffaut’s oeuvre, he never sacrificed the abstract for the individual. Truffaut (á la Renoir) discovered the superlatively gifted and unpredictable Léaud (whose presence in French New Wave Cinema is one of its numerous mesmerising qualities) for his debut fictional biography – and he became Truffaut’s double in the Antoine Doinel films (the Doinel character being a rich synthesis of Truffaut himself and Léaud’s own personality). Keeping in Renoir’s spirit, Truffaut learned the lesson of valuing the actor over the character in a given film, and consequently, as the Antoine Doinel films progressed, Léaud’s own personal characteristics and dialogue took over rather than strictly adhering to the script. Stolen Kisses in this context was the crucial film.
For me, the arresting concluding scenes of The 400 Blows are some of the most hauntingly personal scenes in all of French cinema. From the moment Antoine escapes from the reform school at a soccer game where he throws in the ball to play and then turns around and takes flight from the soccer ground, to one of the most famous freeze-frames in cinema’s history where Antoine is located in the sea and turns around towards us, we are witnessing cinema as if for the first time.
Antoine’s exhilarating run towards the sea to the accompaniment of Jean Constantin’s achingly unforgettable, lush and finely modulated percussive film score (that we first encounter during the film’s opening credit tracking shots of Paris’ cityscapes) is one of ecstatic delight, in that it expresses Antoine’s newly found freedom from the constraints of a non-caring adult world. Antoine is followed by Truffaut’s lyrical camera (Henri Decaë) as he runs along a country road, ducking under a road sign, running towards the sea, towards an unknown future. Truffaut’s camera, at a particularly moving moment, stands still and pans from right to left, taking in the desolate beach and the waves of the sea. Then, suddenly, we are behind Antoine as he faces the sea in the distant. This darkened full shot of the teenage protagonist suggests the underlying co-existing sadness and beauty in his life.
As Antoine flees, we hear his feet running along the country road: the sound has a hypnotic rhythm which expresses Antoine’s sensuous delight in being free, a freedom rooted in the everydayness of his life and its simple pleasures. As Antoine descends a set of steps onto the beach we are already on the beach savouring the enchantment Antoine experiences as he rushes towards the sea. In the sea, Antoine’s footsteps are erased suggesting a new beginning of self-affirmation. And when Antoine turns towards us, Truffaut’s camera zooms in and freezes his face, forcing us to contemplate the lyrical dialectic and its paradoxical tension between the still of his face and the kinetic nature of the film medium itself, and forcing us, as Douchet suggests, to react morally concerning Antoine and his own world. (11) This impulse of Truffaut’s to capture and animate as his camera consummately freezes or tracks his characters recalls, as Annette Insdorf points out, the unmistakable texture of the romantic poet John Keats. (12)
All in all, the fragile originality of The 400 Blows resides in Truffaut’s passionate belief that cinema “is an indirect art…. it conceals as much as it reveals” and his Renoirian compassion for Antoine. (13) As a unique bold masterpiece of the French New Wave, The 400 Blows is innovative in its excellent directorial touch and the awesome supple creativity that stamps each scene of the film with its casual and poetic use of reality as the main ingredient of the film. It tells us in simple compassionate terms a collective moral truth that we know in our bones but is often swept under the carpet of adult conformity – that a child entering adulthood amounts to a second painful birth. (14) We care for Antoine, for most of us in some way have experienced the light and darkness of his childhood.
- Cited in Annette Insdorf, François Truffaut, Cambridge/New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994 (1978), p.18.
- Jean Douchet, French New Wave, New York, D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 1999, (trns.Robert Bonnono), p.132.
- Douchet, ibid., p.16.
- T.Jefferson Kline, Screening the Text, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, p.7.
- For the photograph of Cocteau, Truffaut and Léaud at Cannes in 1959 see Insdorf, op. cit., p.14. For Godard’s remarks concerning the three at the Cannes premiere of The 400 Blows see his important foreword to François Truffaut, Letters, London, Faber and Faber, 1988, p.ix. (trns. Gilbert Adair).
- See Douchet, op.cit., p.241.
- See Insdorf, op. cit., p.70.
- Cf . François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978 (1975), p.3. (trns. Leonard Mayhew).
- On alternative titles considered by Truffaut for The 400 Blows refer to Truffaut, op. cit., p.124.
- Rivette is quoted in Insdorf, op.cit., p.145.
- Douchet, op.cit., p.154.
- Insdorf, op.cit., p.176.
- Truffaut is cited in Kline, op. cit., p.8.
- Refer to Fereydoun Hovedya’s review of The 400 Blows in Douchet, op.cit., pp.131-132, for the idea of Antoine’s entry into adulthood as a second birth.