Archive for October 14th, 2015

400 blows 1

by Sam Juliano

French film titles generally persevere over their English counterparts more than those in any other language, but Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the clear preference over Les Quatre Cents Coup everywhere except in France.  The French to their credit have always been fiercely loyal to their national heritage, especially their language, and translations -English or otherwise- are looked on disdainfully.  To be sure there are instances where the English language is forceful and direct, and The 400 Blows, spare, direct and thematically relevant, is exceedingly effective.  But I won’t hold it over the purists who favor Les Quatre Cents Coup either, especially since nothing is really lost in the translation.  No matter what you opt for the landmark 1959 film is the maiden effort by the French cinematic icon Francois Truffaut, and arguably the film that remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films.  Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians.  Yet the film’s pre-eminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some, as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood, with 1970’s L’Enfant Sauvage and 1976’s L’Argent de Poche as the other two.  Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing.

My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 70’s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas.  The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director.  I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discover critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time.  In the beginning -as should be expected for one so green behind the ears- it was Jean Pierre Laude’s familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased.  It sent shivers down my spine and still, does today though for some more snooty film buffs it has diminished in the vein of familiarity breeds contempt.  It still was a novelty in those days to watch a film with English subtitles, and one with a potent strain of lyricism had a special allure for me.

The plot of The 400 Blows documents the various delinquent exploits of twelve-year-old schoolboy Antoine Doniel (Jean Pierre Leaud), who represents Truffaut’s pre-teen alter ego.  This autobiographical work is also the director’s most personal film.  It should be mentioned here that Truffaut tempered the film’s real-life events with the influence of two previous film classics.  As an active, often controversial film critic, Truffaut was also a passionate advocate of films and directors that affected him emotionally and impressed him artistically.  One of these, Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, also deals with adolescents who rebel against school authority.  A number of elements from that early classic are evident in The 400 Blows.  Then there is Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, a 1947 work, which like Vigo’s evinces a grey, documentary, neo-realist look.  Rossellini employs a number of the moving and panning camera workings adapted by Truffaut, though in the far darker Italian film, the boy commits suicide.  Structurally,  The 400 Blows is straightforward, all pointing to the outcome of this teenager’s crisis.  Truffaut’s main concern is with character, mood and theme, all of which are examined with a magnifying glass as the plots unfolds without complication.  It has been argued that the film is “seriocomic,” and that contention is hard to argue.   While the film straddles the intoxicating line between the lyrical and the documentary, there is a consistent strain of humor, even with the underlying cognizance of the boy’s emotional pain.  Later on after the police are involved, the tone is much more somber.  In any case it seems accurate enough to frame the film as narratively episodic, complete with contrasting scenes.  Word has it that the film was originally intended as a short feature, but that Truffaut kept adding from his childhood remembrances, finally realizing a full feature was wholly warranted. (more…)

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 © 2015 by James Clark

      You have to be careful, in general, when endeavouring to track a filmmaker’s understanding of life as brought to us in his or her work. When, in particular, you come to a figure as complicated as Jean-Pierre Melville, you really have to look out for supposing that, given the violent rigors of his narratives, the male protagonists are the big news. Bob (le Flambeur), Gu (the crime idol) and Jef (le samourai) tend to eclipse mere men, not to mention mere women. But some attention to the phenomena making up the entertainments has introduced us to unexpected strengths peeking out in the form of: Bob’s friend, Yvonne (reminding us of good-hearted Claire, in Demy’s Lola); Gu’s old chum, Alban; and Jef’s sometime pet, Valeria (reminding us of Antonioni’s Giuliana, in the film, Red Desert). And if we were to come to another Melville concoction—a church saga, no less, putting some of us, by definition, into a state of malaise not so unlike what happens to others when confronted by an invention like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—with the name of the male lead, Leon Morin (a priest), occupying the title, we would, quite possibly, once again be ushered into that shell game which Melville seems to have concluded to be the best way of communicating his lugubrious and joyously promising gift.

Leon Morin, Priest (1961), having enlisted two of that era’s coolest stars, namely, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva, positions them (in the midst of a plethora of productions from others accentuating cryptic choreography) in what at first glance appears to be a less than startlingly new vehicle concerning a battle of wits and hearts (that being enough for many critics to assume that Melville had succumbed to exigencies of mainstream market profits). But, rather than a disappointing indiscretion by a dynamite crime zealot, we might come to find this bemusing endeavor to be his true masterpiece. This putative “women’s film” under the auspices of a gold-plated iconoclast has in fact all but the obvious makings of exploding (in its own peculiar way) all the touchstones of lady-like domesticity; but making headway within its murky mineshaft is not for the faint of heart and short of breath.

A most important way, in my view, of tempering, right from the first moment, the harshness of this vehicle inheres in the film’s being conjured up as a haunting experience which occurred years ago. A woman’s steady voice, heard as a voice-over, chooses to show the onset of a most remarkable eventuation in her encountering, at sunset, on a solo bicycle ride in the foothills of the French Alps during World War II, a number of Italian soldiers (in fact the so-called Bersagliers, an infantry/marksmen unit most distinctive in the feather decoration of their headgear). Here is the protagonist’s light-hearted introduction to a trek through nearly unprecedented darkness. “I was returning from the next town when I saw a group of strange young men staring at passers-by. They wore funny little felt caps topped with long feathers. I thought they were travelling players until I saw their guns.” From out of a jump-cut she can’t help quietly laughing at the same personnel racing along a street in her town while belting out a military march. “The Occupation weighed lightly on me,” she avers, perhaps marvelling at her having ever been so nonchalant. Would the new bride in Fellini’s The White Sheik (1951), also beholding a jog-past of a Bersagliers band as she and her new husband rush to the Vatican and a blessing by the Pope, also remember bemusedly her own youthful frivolity in the form of a marriage weighing so lightly upon her that she would have to have a little fling with a Roman celebrity before that august moment at the Pope’s Palace? Or would our guide to something she can’t get over be of much sterner mettle than that earlier cream-puff? (more…)

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