14 July 2009

The 400 Blows

Truffaut's The 400 Blows is a cinematic experience. The story revolves around the tale of Antoine Doinel and his life as an adolescent in the city of Paris during the 1950's. The story owes a lot to Salinger as Antoine faces difficulty with discipline at home and at school.

Truffaut is said to be one of the originators of French "New Wave" Cinema, along with Jean Luc-Godard. These two are also credited with ownership of the "auteur" theory of film criticism. With these things in mind, The 400 Blows is obviously a film that focuses more on the telling of the story, than the story itself.

By this comment, I mean to say that the story, while brilliantly rendered, functions primarily as a vehicle for the filmmaker to demonstrate his ability to render beautiful shot compositions that are also technically sound, organically place allusions, and also to stretch the limits of cinema style from the period.

The film is shot beautifully. The film's credits roll along with a rolling shot of the city of Paris. Throughout the film, Truffaut attempts to display beautiful subjects, from Antoine's mother, to the brilliant architecture of Paris, in their natural poses. As a native of these things would be used to viewing them. To do so, instead of simply profiling these subjects, he portrays them at work, in the natural hustle and bustle of everyday life. Usually these shots are long tracking shots from a crane, following an individual or small group as they progress through the streets toward a destination, stopping to interact or accomplish tasks along the way.

The film is also full of allusions. Truffaut, in interviews from the period mentions his love affair with all types of cinema, and watching this film is also an object lesson. The most striking allusion that I picked up was the nearly constant framing of the city's neon lights, framing most, but not all of the letters in the picture, and then panning back slightly to include most,,, but still not all of the neon sign. The same practice is done in Citizen Kane, most notably on the sign above the lounge where Susan Alexander is interviewed. The scenes within the apartment all bear a strong resemblance to Hollywood versions of stage plays. A Streetcar Named Desire is obviously a strong influence here. On top of these "classic" film references, Truffaut pushes his allusions even further, into areas not usually referenced in serious film. Many of the scenes, especially those in the classroom, refer as far back as the silent film era with the slapstick jokes and pranks of children. These jokes, the less than covert passing of notes and grabbing of another's objects, do not require words. In fact, these jokes are never told with words within the film. They are just there, as slight gags, allusions to a past that is clearly present. The most notable and best example of this technique is done as the gym teacher leads the children on a run through the streets. As he moves from street to street a few children bleed off to cut class at every turn. By the time he realizes what is happening, only a few children remain.

As much as this film is built upon the tradition of past filmmakers, the film is quite significantly an example of French New Wave cinema. To begin, the last two scenes of the film radically depart from the linear storytelling of most of the film. Antoine's running is filmed from a moving platform that is moving at the same pace. The shot lasts 1:18 and it does an excellent job of depicting the long life of running that Antoine faces. The other ending scene that is a dramatic departure from cinema of the period is the ending. Instead of the "Hollywood" ending, complete with loving embrace and smile, Antoine looks from the surf with a look of complete realization of his past/position/future. The film ends there.

The 400 Blows is a film that was initially considered controversial because of the subject matter. The film openly discusses adultery, abortion, and abusive authority/child reform. Even more, it does not shy away from relating the possible ramifications of these subjects upon children. Today, however, the film has become notable because of the way that this story was told. By fully participating in the past and then pushing the boundaries recently explored Truffaut was able to participate in his vision of film auteur, rendering cinematic beauty along the way.

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