by Allan Fish
(France 1959 99m) DVD1/2
Aka. The Four Hundred Blows
I want to live my own life
p Georges Charlot d/w François Truffaut ph Henri Decaë ed Marie-Joseph Yoyotte m Jean Constantin art Bernard Evein
Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Claire Maurier (Mme.Doinel), Albert Rémy (Mons.Doinel), Guy Decombie (teacher), Patrick Auffay (René Bigey), Georges Flament (Mons.Bigey), Yvonne Claudie (Mme.Bigey), Robert Beauvais (director), Claude Mansard (magistrate), Jacques Monod (commissioner), Jeanne Moreau (woman chasing dog),
Though one gives nods to Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo, if one had to name one iconic face of the nouvelle vague it would be Jean-Pierre Léaud. His career spanned the movement’s beginning, with this Truffaut masterpiece, and was still around for its death pangs with Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain. In the interim, his character from Coups, Antoine Doinel, made four other appearances for Truffaut, taking him through to his mid thirties, but though all full of interest, they pale beside Truffaut’s astonishing debut.
Antoine Doinel is a twelve year old boy who is continually punished for misdeeds at school, often when not his fault. He has only one real friend, the fellow rebel René, and his parents regard him very much as an irritant. Briefly his mother takes an interest in him on the proviso that his grades improve, but when his inspiration by Balzac for an essay is taken as plagiarism and he is sent to the director, he runs away. Finally, he is caught with a stolen typewriter from his father’s place of work and is sent to a correctional institution from which he can only dream of one day escaping.
The film is dedicated to the late André Bazin, who literally died within 24 hours of the film’s commencing shooting. Certainly the co-founder and revered editor of Cahiers du Cinema would have welcomed Truffaut’s film, for it represented the movement’s ethics in a way that even Godard rarely matched. At first the Dyaliscope wide ratio seems a strange choice, but the widescreen was shown to be a liberating optical process. And liberation was what both Truffaut’s camera and Léaud’s protagonist are chasing, and which the latter finally finds as he reaches the sea with its infinite horizon. In many ways one has to credit his D.P. nearly as much as Truffaut and his young star, for Henri Decaë’s visual stamp is equally evident. The ratio may be different, but there’s the same sharpness as his work on Melville’s Bob le Flambeur. It’s more realistic and less stylised than Melville, but it’s still the same Paris. Yet the visuals are merely the window dressing, the real beauty lying in the realism; the cruelty of his mother, a hard-faced, selfish woman who would as soon send Antoine to an orphanage and had wanted him aborted, and his father who cares for nothing but his motor club, the teachers who would not listen to reason, the whistles to enter school, the bunking off to the cinema and the fairground. And yet, amongst the realism, nods to other cinematic icons, such as Léaud’s eternal chequered jacket, like a mini Brando in On the Waterfront, and the stealing of a picture of Harriet Andersson in Summer With Monika from a cinema.
It’s often overlooked that it was released at the beginning of a revolutionary period on European cinema; the angry young men plays and kitchen sink films were revolutionising British film and theatre, Antonioni and Fellini were taking radical departures from their previous styles, and fellow French masters such as Rohmer, Rivette, Godard and Resnais waited in the wings. It’s a time capsule like no other; Léaud’s face caught in time in that final freeze-frame that surely influenced Marker’s La Jétée. It’s the face of greatness, and Léaud is astounding as Antoine (especially in a Talking Heads style monologue to the psychologist), not forgetting Auffay as his friend René (who returned in Love at Twenty). The title may refer to the French equivalent of the last straw to the dromedary, but one could view this with pleasure as often as you like and it would still remain fresh. It would also make a fascinating double bill with Pialat’s later female equivalent, A Nos Amours, but even that modern classic must bow to Truffaut.