Saturday, 24 February 2007

Francois Truffaut - The Films 1: The 400 Blows (1959)

Francois Truffaut, from an interview included as one of the extra's on 'The 400 Blows' DVD

This week sees the release of the second batch of six films from French director Francois Truffaut, the first batch of six having been released in September last year. Bizarrely, I have only ever seen Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) so now seems as good a time as any to review the films in chronological sequence, with this blog mini-review posting being the first of twelve that will appear over the coming weeks.

Truffaut is widely acknowledged as the 'father' of the French 'new wave' that shook up the film world in the late 50's. A film obsessive (he regularly skived off school to see afternoon matinee performances) who tried to commit suicide after foolishly enlisting in the Military and being disciplined for desertion, he eventually found work and popularity as a film critic for the influential French cinema review magazine Cahiers du Cinéma before making his first film, which received almost instantaneous recognition and critical acclaim. Not bad for someone who thought critics could never make good films!

The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)

The 400 Blows is a French idiom for 'raising hell', and was Truffaut's second film after a short called Les Mistons (The Brats), which is also generously included as an extra on this DVD release.

I first saw The 400 Blows in my late teens on late night TV. It had a powerful effect on me then, just as it does now, many years later and remains one of my favourite films of all time. It was one of the first films I purchased as an import DVD (Criterion having published a 'definitive' edition on Region 1 some years ago), but is now presented as a British Region 2 release in a superior, digitally restored form, as are the rest of the eleven films in the DVD series. Each of the titles is presented in a cardboard slip-case with an accompanying 'postcard' insert that represents the film poster of the original release, with the first September batch of six currently being available at bargain prices on Each title includes extra's that include audio commentary tracks from experts or friends of Truffaut's, together with rare and informative TV footage of interviews with Truffaut, or documentaries, recorded around the time of each film's original release.

Paris is the backdrop for Truffaut's largely auto-biographical story

The 400 Blows is essentially the story of a fourteen year-old boy let down by his family and society as a whole. Ensconced in a tiny flat his mother has little time, and even less love, for him. Although his step-father encourages the lad, circumstances conspire to distance the pair. Unfairly picked on in school by his teacher, Doinel falls into bad habits and truancy until an incident following his discovery that his mother is having an affair causes him to re-evaluate things and determine to try and do better, if only to win over the love of his mother. Tragically his first concerted efforts to do well at school result in accusations from his teacher of outright plagiarism, and he falls back into his old resentful ways of skiving off school with his best friend René. René is a boy from a much wealthier family, but has similar parental problems to Antoine - his mother is an alcoholic, his father a workaholic and neither have any time for their son.

Antoine unfortunately gets caught out in a lie by panicking when asked to explain a day's absence, giving the excuse that his mother has died. Things escalate from bad to worse when his lie is discovered so that he runs away, trying to raise money by stealing a typewriter from his step-father's office. Unable to sell the device it is only when he tries to return it that he is discovered and arrested. His parents have him sentenced and sent to borstal, where his best friend René is refused any visits. When his mother does finally visit it is only to disown him and in the closing minutes of the film he escapes borstal to find freedom of a disconcertingly bleak kind. In one of the most iconic moments of cinema history (only the final frame of Planet of the Apes comes anywhere close in my view), the lad turns and stares directly into the camera in a freeze-frame shot that dares to ask the viewer 'So what is my future? How did I get to this stage in my life?'

Jean-Pierre Leaud stars as 14 year-old Antoine Doinel and went on to make other films based on the same character over a period of 20 years

Jean-Pierre Leaud is nothing less than sensational, and is on screen for virtually the whole of the running time. His real personality apparently changed the direction of much of the story (although based on Truffaut's own story, he was actually much shyer and more easily led than the extremely outgoing Leaud). It is some measure of the influence Truffaut had on him, and he on Truffaut, that the pair went on to make several more films in the Doinel series over a period of twenty years.

The film is a rather bleak one in many ways (Truffaut himself famously commented 'When they are finished, I realise that my films are always sadder than I intended'), thankfully alleviated somewhat by the natural charm and exhuberance of the young actors who play Antoine and René. There are comedic moments to relieve the despair, such as when the P.E. teacher takes his class of boys running and they peel off pair by pair to play truant, with the teacher so engrossed in his own performance that he's ignorant of what's happening. Ultimately the overall feel is one of nostalgia - there are many incidents here that will remind most of us of incidents from our own schooldays.

Antoine and his best friend Rene regularly skive off school

It's not hard to see why this film currently has a 100% rating on the film critics' site The low budget and 'on the hoof' documentary style of film-making enforce an authenticity that's all too lacking in too many of today's films, and was certainly not common-place in 1959 when the film was made. Not that the film doesn't have a striking visual style, from the claustrophobic, bleak opening shots of the Eiffel Tower used for the main title sequence, to stylised aerial shots, and unusually framed school-room scenes that help make the film feel as relevant and appropriate today, as it was when filmed nearly fifty years ago. While Leaud is undoubtedly the star performer here, the natural performances from the other characters, particularly Claire Maurier as his mother, add resonance and depth to the whole story which help it become the masterpiece most critics have rightly acknowledged it to be.

Ultimately, long after the film is over, one is left with that final stark, grainy, frozen image of a haunted youth with nowhere left to run. The freeze-frame ending may be common now, but it was an innovation at the time the film was released, and a very powerful one at that. If you're not moved by the tale that The 400 Blows has to tell then you most surely have a heart of stone.

It'll be fun over the next few weeks to see what happens to the character first depicted here in The 400 Blows, but one suspects it would be impossible for Truffaut to match the masterpiece he created here. Every scene is note perfect, with an important point to make, and the film is one of the few that reveals more on each repeated viewing, and one which I haven't tired off, even after the five or six viewings I've had over the years. It should be in every film buff's collection!

Antoine's mother and step-father are more interested in going away for weekend rally's than looking after their son

The transfer here is not up to Casablanca style, but given the low budget nature of the original shoot that's hardly surprising. There are the odd speckles or floating hairs, but not enough to distract, and given the age of the film the transfer is better than one might have expected. It's particularly gratifying to have the film presented in its original widescreen format, rather than the nasty 4:3 full screen version that has featured on television and previous DVD releases.

A commentary track from the director is impossible - Truffaut died in 1984, at the age of 52, less than a year after the birth of his third daughter. However we get the next best thing, with one of his closest colleagues Robert Lachenay reminiscing about the shoot and his friendship with the director. An informative four minute introduction to the film, from Serge Toubiana, gives some historical perspective, but curiously appears on the menu after the main film, presumably to avoid spoilers for those who haven't yet seen the film.

A twenty-five minute documentary, Portrait of Francois Truffaut, made in 1961 features the director himself talking at length about his first two films, his motivations and his insecurities and lack of confidence when making films. It gives a fascinating insight to the man who would go on to become a world-renowned film-maker, not to mention the author of arguably THE seminal book on Alfred Hitchcock, which is still in print and features lengthy interviews with the British director on each of his films.

The final shot of the movie turns into a sudden freeze-frame as Antoine turns away from the shore with nowhere else to run

The stand-out feature though is the inclusion of Truffaut's first film Les Mistons (The Brats), a twenty-three minute short that tells the story of a young couple, played by real-life husband and wife Gerard Blain and Bernadette Lafaont, tormented by a group of young boys. Truffaut's natural affinity with young children is much in evidence here, and the familiar themes of writing, love, children and death are all present.

For film fans, this disk is a 'must buy', particularly at the bargain basement price it's being offered at. Beautifully packaged, with a fairly generous set of extra's all that's really missing is a more recent retrospective on the film and its director, and some decent sleeve notes or a booklet. It would have been nice if a more expensive digital restoration could have been undertaken to remove the few remaining hairs and speckles in the film, but this is probably unrealistic given the finances and demand for old films like this. In its current form this disk comes very highly recommended.

Bernadette Lafont and Gerard Blain, husband and wife in real life, play a young couple tormented by a group of young boys in Truffaut's first film 'Les Mistons', which is included on the DVD of 'The 400 Blows'

No comments: