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FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT’S THE 400 BLOWS

June 4, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows
The 400 Blows. Directed by Francois Truffaut

The 400 Blows. 1959. France. Directed by Francois Truffaut

These notes accompany screenings of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows on June 5, 6, and 7 in Theater 3.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me make it clear at the outset that of all the directors who came along at least since Orson Welles made Citizen Kane in 1941, I feel a stronger spiritual kinship with Francois Truffaut (1932–1984) than with any other. A body of work that includes The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Fahrenheit 451, Stolen Kisses, The Wild Child, Two English Girls, Day For Night, The Story of Adele H., and The Last Metro seems to me unrivaled. That Truffaut chose as his mentors two of the half-dozen or so greatest filmmakers, Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock, reinforces his importance. Steven Spielberg was on to something when, in 1977, he cast Truffaut as humanity’s representative in its “close encounter” with the Renoir-lookalike aliens. If, indeed, there was a positive side to humanity in the 20th century, and to the extent it is captured in the century’s most technologically advanced and dominant art form, Francois Truffaut seems to be a near-perfect representative. As another sometime Spielberg actor, Harrison Ford, said recently at a White House event, “the language of film is emotion,” and Truffaut was one of our greatest linguists.

Truffaut’s humanism was not always front and center. His career as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, under the tutelage of editor and surrogate father Andre Bazin (to whom The 400 Blows is dedicated), was often marked by the “incendiary” writing, as Truffaut himself later described it, of an angry young man. Coming from a troubled childhood, incarceration in debtor’s prison, and an army desertion—all autobiographical grist for the mill of this first feature, which won the Best Director award at Cannes—Truffaut was rescued by Bazin from a bleak future in a manner similar to that of Jean Genet, who was saved and steered toward greatness by Jean Cocteau.

Jean-Pierre Leaud The 400 Blows. 1959. Directed by Francois Truffaut

Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. 1959. France. Directed by Francois Truffaut

The 400 Blows grew out of Truffaut’s frustration with the brief running time of Les Mistons (also on today’s program), and although it is undeniably autobiographical, it clearly owes debts to the director’s movie-going addiction. A serious analysis would produce a near endless list of allusions, but some of the more obvious are Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, and Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon—all masterpieces. Like most New Wave works of the period, The 400 Blows contains in-jokes, as when Antoine Doinel and his parents attend and then analyze Jacque Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us. (Rivette was a close associate of Truffaut at Cahiers, and we will be showing his film next week.) Truffaut provides us with lots of what he called “privileged moments,” and his lingering over kids at a puppet show is an early foreshadowing of his love for children, which would dominate Small Change nearly two decades later. The film is clearly subversive, but in a much less rude and nihilistic way than the works of Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut’s early friend and later rival. Truffaut sends a clear message that when life becomes especially tough, it’s a good idea to go to the movies.

One of Truffaut’s singular achievements was his book-length interview with Hitchcock, a tribute I believe to be unique for one major director to pay to another (although Peter Bogdanovich came close with Orson Welles). One of the well-known stories Hitchcock told was of his father taking him to the police and arranging an incarceration, which provided something of a lifelong trauma. This happens in The 400 Blows, although one is uncertain how much this was truly autobiographical for young Francois. For the record, Truffaut maintained an ongoing relationship with his other father figure, Jean Renoir, even though Renoir had long since established permanent residence in California.

Although I saw Truffaut from a distance a few times, I never had occasion to actually talk to him. (I did attempt a conversation once in the plaza at Lincoln Center with Jean-Pierre Leaud, who played Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows and several subsequent films, but my French was even more limited than his English.) My only direct contact was visiting his grave in Paris several years after his tragically early death.

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