Riding The Wave
The 400 Blows
The Cahiers du Cinema is one of the most prominent and well-respected film magazines in the history of the medium. It is a hotbed of genius that, at its height in the 1950’s, was the home to various titans of film criticism, many of whom would go on to become some of the most well known and celebrated directors of all time. The magazine gave birth to the auteur theory (which was the subject of a previous feature of mine, Whose Film Is It Anyway? and its meticulous and revolutionary look at some of Golden Era Hollywood’s under sung geniuses (among them Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford) changed the way we think about movies forever.
Yet many of the magazine’s writers were not content to just dramatically alter the conversation about films and filmmakers; they wanted to change the medium itself. And so they got behind the camera and kicked off a movement that would lead to one of the most creatively fertile periods in the history of film (matched in quality and in mythology only by the auteur-driven 1970’s in the United States): the French New Wave. From roughly 1958 through around 1973, the writers at Cahiers du Cinema, a collective from the Left Bank, and a litany of other French directors experimented with the genre in ways that had never been seen before and pushed the medium forward in ways that still feel shocking and unique half a century later.
Riding The Wave will cover this fifteen year period (with room for occasional dalliances backward, to examine some of the filmmakers that influenced the movement, and forward, to analyze the way the New Wave’s influence is still felt today), attempting to examine major works of the French New Wave to place them in a social and cinematic context, to look at their strengths and weaknesses, and to document one of the most important and creative periods in the history of film.
Francois Truffaut escaped a troubled youth by fleeing into movie theaters, and with the help of his friend and mentor Andre Bazin (a figure of titanic importance to both film criticism at large and the French New Wave in particular) became a critic and eventually an editor at Cahiers du Cinema. Once there, he became notorious for his brutal reviews, gaining the nickname “The Gravedigger of French Cinema,” and becoming the only French critic of note not invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. He was one of the foremost writers in the nascent phase of the auteur theory. Yet Truffaut was not satisfied, and so he went behind the camera himself, presumably to show his countrymen how real films get made.
His debut full-length feature, The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, in the original French, which is a French expression roughly translating “to raise hell”), is not necessarily the first film of the French New Wave (we’ll be looking, over the next few installments, at various other films that are often considered the beginning of the movement), but it is one of the formative works of the early movement, a titanic achievement in film that paved the way for the next decade-plus of fertile filmmaking.
Perhaps the central tenet of the French New Wave is a deep, lasting love of movies, and the place they hold in the life of Truffaut is clear throughout The 400 Blows. The film follows 14-year-old Antione Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud, who would return to play the character four more times under Truffaut’s direction, in what amounted to an ongoing semi-autobiographical saga on the life of the character and the director who created him), a trouble maker who is hated by his teacher, disregarded by his family, and misunderstood by everyone around him. The film is told from the tightly focused perspective of its young protagonist, and is based heavily on Truffaut’s own youth. This is a portrait of the artist as a juvenile delinquent, defacing the walls of his classroom, skipping school, lying to and about his parents, and even stealing a typewriter from his father’s office. Antoine is generally despondent, made rough and callous by a world that doesn’t particularly care for or about him, and its clear Truffaut reflects on his misspent youth with a heady mixture of nostalgia and regret.
The only time the film seems to lighten up is when Antoine goes to the movies. The power of film is apparent in perhaps the film’s best scene, where the Doinel family shifts from anger to amiable camaraderie after an evening at the cinema. When Antoine accidentally starts a fire in their apartment (burning a candle for Balzac, whose story he plagiarizes in an attempt to get a good grade and please his mother), he and his parents come close to blows, but after they all go out to a movie, they return laughing and cavorting as we’ve never seen them before. These moments hint at the deep and lasting impact a love of movies can have on a young boy’s life, and its clear Antoine’s considerable potential is being squandered by a system and society that doesn’t know quite how to handle his particular brand of intelligence. His parents’ neglect and his general sense of curiosity and wonder send him deeper and deeper into the life of a social outcast until the film concludes on a hauntingly ambiguous freeze frame, leaving Antoine alone to face an unknown and unknowable future.
The 400 Blows aches with nostalgic resonance, feeling often as if Truffaut managed to perfectly replicate not just the events of his young life, but his own memories of experiencing them; the film has the feel of something that leapt, with nothing lost in translation, directly from the mind of its maker. In this way, its no wonder The 400 Blows has become a seminal text of the French New Wave, as it embodies two of the movement’s most potent ideas: a deeply held love of cinema and a strong belief in the power of film as a way to express an individual’s viewpoint of the world. For Truffaut, a youth misspent in movie houses became not one legendary career, but two, and in his debut feature, he has created a love letter to cinema that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Truffaut had made good on his words as a critic, and proven that movies could be a strong form of personal expression as well as a self-reflexive vehicle to communicate one’s love of the medium. The gauntlet had been laid down, and those who picked it up would change movies forever.
Coming up on Riding The Wave:
10/6: Paris Belongs to Us
10/20: Le Beau Serge
11/3: Six Moral Tales, Part I: The Bakery Girl of Monceau, Suzanne’s Career, La Collectionneuse