Francois Truffaut’s Masterpiece is a Reflection of Life
Francois Truffaut once said, “I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself,” and it’s not hard to understand why. For Truffaut, who was abandoned by his parents as a teenager, spent six months in a military prison prior to his film career, and died of brain cancer at the age of 52, life was never easy. But the struggles that came to define his life also served to define his career as a filmmaker. As the de-facto leader of the French New Wave, thanks to his role at the publication, Arts, where he served as La Nouvelle Vague’s lead promoter, perhaps no other filmmaker in the history of cinema had more influence over the idea that film can and should be a realistic reflection of life.
Many are quick to point out the polemic tone of “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” the angry Cahiers du Cinéma piece that dogged Truffaut for the rest of his career, including Truffaut himself, who told TheNew Yorker in 1984, the year of his death, “I found it more stimulating to damn rather than praise; I was better at attacking than defending. And I regret that.” Truffaut was lambasted for “A Certain Tendency,” when it was published, but, it’s not hard to understand why a young Truffaut was so angry. An early cinephile, who routinely skipped school as a youngster to sneak into movie theaters, Truffaut used film to escape his troubled adolescence, and fell in love. Favoring love stories and crime dramas over pieces he had trouble identifying with, Truffaut would watch the same films sometimes as many as 15 times, memorizing their soundtracks and developing deep understandings for how the films were made. So when Cahiers du Cinéma founder André Bazin took him in as a youngster after being abandoned by his parents and spending six months behind bars, it’s easy to see where Truffaut’s venomous loyalty to Bazin’s film critics in “A Certain Tendency” comes from.
Having written such a damning condemnation of an industry in which he had yet to participate in, Truffaut experienced high anxiety on the set of The 400 Blows, his first feature. It would be beyond humiliating to call out the entirety of French cinema before dropping his own steaming pile on the world, but that terrible fate was never realized. Instead, The 400 Blows revolutionized the filmmaking world, set on its course the path of the New Wave, and cemented Truffaut as one the greatest filmmakers of all time. Martin Scorsese, whose films pay tribute to Truffaut time and again said of the director: “Truffaut’s passion for cinema, the desire that it stirred in him, animates every movie he ever made, every scene, every shot. He spent a very long time in the editing room with each of his pictures, and you can see it up there on the screen: each cut from one image to the next has a sense of surprise, each frame looks like it’s been lovingly scrutinized.”
Just as Scorsese looks to Truffaut for inspiration, so too did Truffaut borrow from his heroes. In his 1984 interview with The New Yorker, Truffaut recites one of Alfred Hitchcock’s theories: “You work hard to create an emotion, and once the emotion is created, you should work even harder to maintain it.” This sentence describes The 400 Blows in both form and function. A film bereft of plot, as was a defining characteristic of New Wave cinema, The 400 Blows is a film about the emotions of its young protagonist, Antoine, played skillfully by the brilliant Jean-Pierre Léaud. Truffaut creates emotion in the audience very early on in the film, when Antoine’s teacher punishes the young man for being handed a pin-up photograph in class. We learn right away that not only is Antoine unlucky, but he is viciously scrutinized from the adults around him, and, as a result, he becomes completely sympathetic in our eyes – the emotion is created. Now it’s Truffaut’s job to work even harder to maintain it, and that’s exactly what he does for the remainder of the film. From scene to scene, we follow the ill-fated youngster as he makes mistakes and is punished repeatedly, the only respite from the cruel world coming within the womb of a movie theater, his only source of happiness. By the end of the film, Antoine is caught in a trap of his own making, but we feel as though he has done nothing wrong. Despite the fact that he steals milk, lodging, a movie poster and a typewriter, to us, he is a hard-luck case, the scrappy, artful Dodger, who is doing his best to make it in a world that hates him. Truffaut, as Hitchcock asks of him, has captured our emotions and causes us to love young Antoine unconditionally. That’s what makes his final journey to the sea so unbelievably freeing and satisfying. When the final freeze frame pushes in, the second such occurrence in the film, and a clear tribute to Hitchcock, whose freeze frame in the 1928 film Champagne was the first in cinematic history, what happens next, i.e. the plot of the film, is entirely inconsequential. We have made the journey alongside Antoine, and, as a result, we have discovered a bit of ourselves in the process. The who, what and where doesn’t matter – the only thing that matters now is how we feel when Antoine looks straight into our eyes, mirroring ourselves.
The brilliance of Antoine, who is a compilation of real-life childhood experiences of Truffaut himself and the filmmakers around him, is that he is all of us. No one reaches adulthood without experiencing the tribulations of childhood, an existence that is often anything but fair. As Truffaut points out The New Yorker, “Childhood is a series of painful memories. Now, when I feel blue, I tell myself, ‘I’m an adult. I do as I please,’ and that cheers me up right away. But then, childhood seemed like such a hard phase of life; you’re not allowed to make any mistakes. Making a mistake is a crime: you break a plate by mistake and it’s a real offense.” In one way or another, everyone can relate to what Truffaut is saying – childhood is the process of pleasing others, and subjugating your own desires until some far-off time in the future that you feel will never come. The irony being, of course, that once the tribulations of adulthood do come, life only gets harder, a notion that Truffaut manages to touch on in The 400 Blows when Antoine’s mother tells him he has gotten his wish, and now they’ll see if he can make it on his own. The young man’s reaction shot to his mother’s words in the scene breeds a new and complex sense of horror within Antoine.
Any discussion of The 400 Blows should invariably touch on the topic of cinematography, as the film is clearly one of the main influences on contemporary American cinema in terms of camera moves. The film was shot by Henri Decae with such skill and care, he makes nearly-impossible shots look like child’s play. Let’s start the discussion with the final two tracking shots as Antoine runs toward the sea. The first tracking shot through the countryside lasts nearly two minutes and the one on the beach is 75 seconds long. In both shots, Antoine is running at a fairly brisk pace over extremely variant terrain. Yet, somehow, the shot never bounces, never bumps, never lets the boy slip from frame, and never loses focus. The fact that Truffaut even attempted such shots speaks to his audacity, that he and Decae pull them off the way they did speaks to their genius. I cannot underscore just how difficult these shots were to create, the fact that they were so gorgeous blows my mind. Scorsese’s shot through the Copacabana in Goodfellas, which is obviously a tribute to Truffaut, is the only other shot in history on par with what Truffaut pulls off in The 400 Blows. Scorsese up the stakes in his film by combining the uncut shot with incredible choreography, something that Truffaut doesn’t have to deal with, nevertheless, the importance of these tracking shots, and how they perfectly set free our emotions alongside Antoine cannot be understated. The tracking shot to the freeze frame on the beach is arguably the single greatest shot ever put on film.
There are a number of brilliant shots in the film, but for the sake of brevity, let’s touch on just a couple more. First of all, the highly enjoyable sequence of the P.E. teacher leading his truant students through the streets of Paris offers us a tribute to Hitchcock. The sequence starts on the street, but quickly moves overhead. The final shot in the sequence is located atop a building in Paris looking down on the teacher and the students. This shot is a tribute to Hitchcock’s 1954 film, Rear Window, in which James Cagney spies on his neighbors from his high-rise apartment. Throughout that film, Hitchcock uses Cagney’s POV from high above to look down on those he is spying on at ground level. Rear Window premiered five years before filming of The 400 Blows commenced and it’s not a surprise that Christopher Seelie lists Rear Window as the second most influential film in Truffaut’s career in his piece, “10 Films that had the Biggest Influence on Francois Truffaut.”
Truffaut loves the long, lingering shot that adds information as it develops. There is a 1-minute, 34-second shot in René’s house midway through the film in which Antoine and René steal money from his parents and hide behind the curtains as René’s mother swoops in to grab money for her day’s shopping. Decae moves the camera around the room slowly, offering us more and more information as the shot develops – the boys are up to something, the flower pot hides a key, there’s money in that jewelry box, the curtains are a perfect hiding spot, René’s mother is oblivious to her children (the opposite of Antoine’s), and, finally, René, a bright little bugger, has gamed the system. We learn all of that in one shot. Incredible.
Other shots I love include Antoine stealing the milk, how Truffaut allows him to exit frame, but stays on him through the use of his shadow. The shot in police headquarters that moves across the room and centers Antoine’s face perfectly in focus between the diamond-shaped space in between the metal grating around his holding cell – the suffocating world has closed in around him. The shots of the children’s puppet show, which highlights Truffaut’s verité style. Here, Truffaut has placed his camera in a real setting, and the childrens’ reactions to the play are real-life. These shots speak to the innocence of youth, but also, the fear. Even though Antoine is never in these shots, his psyche is, and we come to a better understanding of our protagonist despite his physical absence.
Finally, Truffaut’s decision to use cinemascope, rather than a traditional aspect ratio, was genius. It allows Truffaut to place his camera strategically and simply leave it there, letting scenes play out without the use of traditional intercutting. We see this as Antoine’s family eats dinner, when Antoine and his step-father cook eggs, in the classroom, as Truffaut thirds both the teacher and Antoine cleaning his graffiti at left and right thirds respectively, with the heads of almost every student in the classroom taking up the foreground. He uses the wide aspect ratio skillfully outdoors as well, for example, when Antoine reaches the beach, the shot starts with him in CU in the right side of frame, pans left across the beach, and leaves us with Antoine in wide angle in the left side of the frame. Without his use of cinemascope, Truffaut would have had to edit the film differently, and may have lost some of the verité style he was looking for. By using it, he allows his film to accomplish emotionally what it sets out to, and, at the same time, produces perhaps the most visually groundbreaking picture in the history of film.