Les Quatre cents coups

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #5: François Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups

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This is on­ly the sec­ond time I’ve seen The 400 Blows. It is pret­ty much con­sid­ered the ur-film of the French New Wave which means, un­for­tu­nate­ly, that its fresh­ness of tech­nique and sub­ject mat­ter are a bit lost by the vast ma­jor­i­ty of films made in a sim­i­lar vein since. Despite its now-ubiq­ui­ty as a film class sta­ple, it re­mains strong, main­ly be­cause of the fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter that is Antoine Doinel.

Doinel is of­ten con­sid­ered to be a stand-in for Truffaut, which for me per­fect­ly ex­em­pli­fies the on­ly re­al prob­lem I have with most French New Wave films. It shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing that the director’s pres­ence is so ev­i­dent, com­ing hard on the heels of Truffaut’s own de­vel­op­ment of au­teur the­o­ry; but to me the ob­ses­sion that FNW di­rec­tors have in mak­ing them­selves au­teurs tends to im­pede the oth­er facets of the film­mak­ing, and al­most seems mas­tur­ba­to­ry.

That said, The 400 Blows would not suc­ceed as well as it does with­out Truffaut’s own per­son­al ex­pe­ri­ence to dri­ve and add nu­ance to the sto­ry. There is no doubt that he knew what he was do­ing, so steeped in the ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tion of Bazin [to whom the film is ded­i­cat­ed] as he is. If any­thing would make me like film crit­i­cism more than film-mak­ing, Cahiers du ciné­ma could do it. But I’m still talk­ing about Truffaut, not the film, thus is the dif­fi­cul­ty of deal­ing with a work that has be­come more about the man mak­ing it than the work it­self.

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The 400 Blows is main­ly a film about ado­les­cence, but it wouldn’t be French with­out healthy dos­es of ex­is­ten­tial­ism and anomie as well. That’s what I find most in­ter­est­ing. Antoine is the un­wit­ting ex­is­ten­tial hero, striv­ing for his au­ton­o­my again­st a so­ci­ety that has no place for him. His very na­ture be­lies this quest, be­cause through­out the film he is mere­ly re­ac­tionary. [When he reach­es the sea and runs out of things to re­act again­st he fi­nal­ly catch­es a glimpse of the hor­ror of true free­dom]. It al­most seems as if Truffaut is mak­ing a cor­re­la­tion be­tween ex­is­ten­tial au­ton­o­my and anomie, and here ado­les­cence en­ters back in­to the pic­ture. The teenage years are an ex­tend­ed lim­i­nal pe­ri­od cul­mi­nat­ing [for Antoine] in a choice be­tween ex­er­cis­ing his will to pow­er or al­low­ing him­self to be crushed in­to a sys­tem that of­fers all stick and no car­rot.

There is a third choice, of course, re­main­ing in ado­les­cence for the rest of your life. We’ll see what hap­pens with the rest of Truffaut’s films about Antoine Doinel. I haven’t seen them, but they are part of the Criterion List.

Criterion Essay by Annette Insdorf
Criterion Essay by Kent Jones
The Criterion Contraption’s re­view.

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