Friday, April 3, 2015

François Truffaut | Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows)

the escape artist

by Douglas Messerli

François Truffaut and Marcel Moussay (screenplay), François Truffaut (director) Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) / 1959

Several critics has referred to the central figure of Truffaut’s first great film, Les Quatre cents coups, as an adolescent boy in trouble or, at least, one doomed to delinquency. In fact, the charming Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the figure at the heart of 6 Truffaut’s films, is an innocent in a world of erring adults. His mother, Gilberte (Claire Maurier), who had her son out of wedlock—and, so Doinel reports, would have aborted him as a fetus were it not for his grandmother—lives with the child’s stepfather, the jovial but inattentive Julien (Albert Rémy) in a cramped, ramshackle apartment, wherein little is carefully kept up (his mother has no time or money to attend to the family’s clothing, or even their bedding). Both of Doinel’s “parents” work, but cannot, even together, afford a better lifestyle, and spend most of their time attempting to stay out of each other’s way.

     At school Antoine, already typecast by his teachers—particularly “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble)—as a troublemaker, but is actually little different from the other boys. Yet he seems to be always the one who is holding the passed notes and photographs when the teacher momentarily turns from the chalkboard to glance at his students. Time and again, Antoine is punished for simply participating in the general classroom chaos that results from rote learning and antiquated methods of education. Unlike the rowdy boys of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduit, Antoine does not torture his school masters—although his film specifically makes reference to that movie. Even when assigned homework as punishment, he is willing to attempt the assignment, but, given the demands of his home chores and his parent’s disregard of his educational necessities (at one point, his mother sympathizes with her son’s having to learn science and mathematics, which she is sure he will never need in real life), he has no time to finish the homework. Afraid we will be late for class the next morning, and threatened to be banned from the classroom, by the teacher, if he is once again late, Antoine is easily convinced by his friend, René, to play hooky and join him at the movies. 
     Film, in fact, seems to offer the only alternative to such restrictive educational forms and inattentive parental guidance. At least in the cinema, Antoine can imagine a world outside the nasty slaps and verbal abuse he must daily face. Yet even during the idyll of a day away from his reality, he accidently encounters his mother kissing a stranger in the street. Again, Antoine serves, unintentionally, as a dangerously moral force to the adult figures who surround him.
     Asked to explain his previous absence from school the following day, he fabricates a lie, declaring the death of his mother—perhaps in psychological revenge for her family betrayal—but when his parents show up, he is faced with more severe punishment and more “blows.” Terrified of the consequences, he attempts to run away from home, spending the night in a collapsed printing plant (a foreshadowing of his place of employment later in the Doinel series), but even there finds no safety, and is forced to return to the streets. Hungry, he steals a bottle of milk, his first on-screen theft.

      Discovered and returned home, Antoine joyfully partakes in a true moment of leaning, as he is moved by a scene he reads from a novel by Balzac. Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent, the boy idealizes the great writer, and has created a makeshift shrine for the novelist, certainly something that, under any normal circumstances, might be rewarded by family and educators. But his placement of a lit candle in front of the cardboard shrine results in a fire, suggesting that any significant value the boy might cling to helps in his own destruction. Yet here, Truffaut temporarily offers a kind of hiatus, as his parents suddenly offer to take him to a film, after which, for the only time in this work, we observe a truly joyful family dynamics, all laughing together, unified by the fiction of cinema. But, soon after, we realize the punishment has simply been delayed; for, when in the classroom assignment Antoine attempts to write in homage to Balzac, his offering is dismissed only as plagiarism, and he is, once again, sent off for reprimand.
    This time he determines to run away from home for good, secretly sleeping over with his friend René, whose only family life is even more bizarre than Antoine’s: his mother is an alcoholic absentee, while his father spends their considerable fortune at the horse-races. Together the boys try to raise money through the theft of a typewriter from the shop where Antoine’s father works. Even the underground adult to whom they entrust the typewriter so that he might sell it for them, attempts to cheat the boys; in protest they win back the typewriter but, having no place to sell it, and exhausted by having to lug through the streets, they determine to return it.

     Ironically, while Antoine is attempting to rectify his mistake, he is caught by a night guard and led away to jail with real adult criminals. Roger Ebert rightfully characterizes the boy being carted away in the night wagon as being almost Dickensian Antoine’s night in prison is a terrifyingly isolating one for a gentle 14-year-old, a horror brilliantly represented by the image of his attempt to bury his face within the stretch of his sweater.

      When contacted by the police, Antoine’s parents admit their inability (and obvious lack of desire) to care for him, and he his signed over to an observation center for delinquent youths as if was somehow unredeemable. 
     In the final last sequence of the film, the boy escapes from the center, outracing this shrill-whistling pursuers as if his very life depended upon it—and which, perhaps, his mental survival does depend. The last few moments of the film bring him to the ocean—of which earlier in the film he admits he has never seen but would love to visit, imaging his escape from his urban world as a sailor. But we recognize him now only as the unfortunately misunderstood child that he is, trapped between the shore and the sea, between past and future, between the solidly  uncomprehending world he which he has existed and the fluid possibilities and dangers of his life ahead.

       Once again, Antoine has escaped, just as he, time and again, has from the false lens of family life and the unforgiving punishments of authorities; but suddenly, we realize, he has reached a kind of cul-de-sac from he has nowhere left to go but back. Trapped in space, he can only return to a world that seemingly has little to offer a young man who is no longer a child but has no wish to embrace the falsities of adult life he has witnessed. It is, in fact, the situation which Antoine will encounter, in different ways, throughout the rest of Truffaut’s explorations of his semi-autobiographical self. And we recognize, even in the first of these memorable movies, that Antoine is a kind of Peter Pan who can never successfully “grow up.”

Los Angeles, April 3, 2015

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