Les 400 Coups

Song of the Day: L’amour (Loungematic Mix) by Cafe Americaine

‘I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.’ ~ François Truffaut.

img_13426If François Truffaut had never made another film, Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), would have earned him an enduring place in film history. Its semi-autobiographical story of a lad who is unwanted by his parents, bored by school, and attracted to petty crime is told with an energetic blend of anarchy and rigour, the kind of unsentimental lyricism that was part of Truffaut’s trademark.

As a portrait of adolescence, it is still unmatched in cinema; as a portrait of Paris through a young boy’s eyes, it is a thoroughly unromanticised picture of cramped apartments, cold schoolrooms, and the narrowing confines of the streets. Even snowballs have stones in them.

Jean-Pierre Léaud, in his first appearance, as Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel, reflects the strange sobriety watchful youth. It’s amazing how this little boy can portray so much without much verbal back-up. Antoine Doinel has a kind of solemn detachment, as if his heart had suffered obscure wounds long before the film began. This was the first in a long collaboration between actor and director; they returned to the character in the short film Antoine and Collette (1962) and three more features: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

Because of the stunningly literal and factual camera style of Truffaut, as well as his clear and sympathetic understanding of the matter he explores, one feels close enough to the parents to cry out to them their cruel mistakes or to shake an obtuse and dull schoolteacher into an awareness of the wrong he does bright boys.

Eagerness makes me want to tell you of countless charming things in this film, little bits of unpushed communication that spin a fine web of sympathy—little things that tell you volumes about the tough, courageous nature of the boy, his rugged, sometimes ruthless, self-possession and his poignant naïveté. They are subtle, often droll. I might want to stress on the pathos of the parents and the social incompetence of the kind of school that is here represented and is obviously hated and condemned by Truffaut.

But space prohibits expansion, other than to say that the compound is not only moving but also tremendously meaningful. When the lad finally says of his parents, ‘They didn’t always tell the truth’, there is spoken the most profound summation of the problem of the wayward child today.

Words cannot state simply how fine is Jean-Pierre Leaud in the role of the boy—how implacably deadpanned yet expressive, how apparently relaxed yet tense, how beautifully positive in his movement, like a pint-sized Jean Gabin. Out of this brand new youngster, Truffaut has elicited a performance that will live as a delightful, provoking and heartbreaking monument to a boy.

Playing beside him, Patrick Auffay is equally solid as a pal, companion in juvenile deceptions and truant escapades.

Not to be sneezed at, either, is the excellent performance that Claire Maurier gives as the shallow, deceitful mother, or the fine acting of Albert Remy, as the soft, confused and futile father, or the performance of Guy Decomble, as a stupid and uninspired schoolteacher.

As mentioned above, it is said that this film (written, directed and produced by Truffaut) is autobiographical. That may well explain the feeling of intimate occurrence that is packed into all its candid scenes. Truffault’s real-life ordeal went far beyond that of Antoine, who escapes incarceration to a moment of truth by the sea. Truffaut escaped into art.

Till Next Post!

PS: Favourite quote from movie:
Psychiatrist: Your parents say you’re always lying.
Antoine Doinel: Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.
PPS: The English title is a direct translation of the French, but misses its meaning, as the French title refers to the expression “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means ‘to raise hell’.

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