Wednesday, February 21, 2018

My Favorite François Truffaut Movie

For a long time, I couldn't understand why François Truffaut was considered one of the greats. His films didn't seem to me to be all that technically accomplished. They had no particularly distinct style aside from being recognizably part of the French New Wave. Thematically, Truffaut was all over the place, making several films about love and romance, crime pictures, dramas, and an uneven adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." I dutifully watched over a dozen of his movies, and I enjoyed some and was cool on others. And recently, I went and rewatched several of the most famous titles, and I finally figured it out.

There's a special emotional realism to François Truffaut characters. This is clear from his very first film, "The 400 Blows," which charts the difficult life of a Parisian boy named Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Antoine is frequently truant at school, or misbehaves and commits petty thefts. The teacher doesn't like him and his self-involved parents misunderstand him, fueling Antoine's delinquency. After multiple misadventures and disciplinary problems, including running away from home, he's arrested and packed off to reform school. Despite Antoine never expressing remorse or changing his ways, our sympathies remain with him throughout.

Truffaut would revisit Antoine again and again over two decades, resulting in a series of four films and a short segment for a compilation feature. Each of these episodes have different conflicts, but at their root, they are about Antoine's struggles to reconcile his own rebellious nature with the uncomfortable restrictions of life and society. Punishment for bad behavior is often the result of bad luck. Earnest efforts to be good often backfire, like when he tries to express his appreciation for Balzac, or returns stolen property. Nearly all the boys at Antoine's school share the same propensity for mischief. Many of the classroom scenes recall Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct," which Truffaut was a professed admirer of. Or there's the classic sequence where the teacher leads his charges on an outing through the city, and the line of boys keeps getting shorter and shorter as they devise ways to run off.

Young Jean-Pierre Léaud delivers a performance that is instrumental to the film's success. He was only thirteen at the time he was cast, yet already had such a strong onscreen presence that it's no wonder that he went on to a long and storied film career. In "The 400 Blows," he has a rough, precocious charm when interacting with his clueless parents or deceiving his schoolmasters, but also displays an aching vulnerability when his life begins to fall apart. The famous final shot of the film, with Antoine at the seaside, zooms in on his enigmatic expression. Are we meant to see him as triumphant or victimized? Some claim that he's breaking the fourth wall, implicating the audience in his misdeeds. One thing is clear - he is not to be sentimentalized, something that Truffaut had railed against when critiquing similar films featuring troubled children.

One of the defining features of the French New Wave is filmmaking as “cinema in the first person singular.” So while "The 400 Blows" doesn't have many of the stylistic features that other New Wave films have, it is considered emblematic of the movement because it is such a deeply personal film. Antoine's circumstances and many of the events depicted were based directly on Truffaut's early life as a disaffected child and youth. It comes across as such an honest portrayal of childhood because it views the world subjectively from a child's point of view without ever imposing the moral judgments of an adult.

You can see a similar attitude in the treatment of the characters in many of Truffaut's other films - the unconventional youth of "Jules and Jim," the feral boy in "The Wild Child," and of course the further adventures of Antoine Doinel trying to navigate romantic relationships in "Stolen Kisses" and "Bed and Board." However, the legacy of "The 400 Blows" is more acutely felt in so many of the screen portrayals of children from that point on, everything from "Kes" to "Harry Potter." The remarkable thing about Antoine Doinel was that he was allowed to act like a real child, and exist on the screen on his own terms.

What I've Seen - François Truffaut

The 400 Blows (1959)
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
Jules and Jim (1962)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
The Bride Wore Black (1968)
Stolen Kisses (1968)
The Wild Child (1970)
Bed and Board (1970)
Two English Girls (1971)
Day for Night (1973)
The Story of Adele H. (1975)
The Green Room (1978)
Love on the Run (1979)
The Last Metro (1980)
The Woman Next Door (1981)


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