When the average American film goer thinks of France in movies it is usually restricted to a few themes: tourist destinations, romance, culture, maybe even food or international intrigues. Those with an affinity for classic Hollywood movies may have the popping Technicolor images of An American in Paris or ever so suave couple of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly being even more beautiful than the Riviera in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. To those who move beyond American cinema and cross the Atlantic to the continent, we are allowed to glimpse France through the eyes of the French. We are let into French life, to see it without the romantic filter. In the French New Wave, a new generation of filmmakers decided with revolutionary zeal to make truer to life films. To shoot films out of the studio and in real world locations, apartments, cafes and city streets. To tell personal and autobiographical stories. And perhaps the most personal films of the New Wave were made by Francois Truffaut.
For his first feature the critic turned auteur Truffaut looked to his childhood for inspiration (the time of life he often looked to for inspiration). It follows the director’s film self Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) through his home and public school life to theft and reform school. In the film’s post credit sequence, Antoine is caught with a pinup picture being passed around an all boys class. From the beginning Antoine is marked as a troublemaker, but it is mostly in an unfair sense. We never see Antoine doing anything the other kids don’t do, Antoine just has the merde luck to always get caught. The most joyful scene in the film is Antoine and his friend Rene (based on Truffaut’s childhood friend Robert Lachenay) ditching school to see movies, also the film’s first scene to feature overt editing a bit of the self consciousness the New Wave also became known for. Antoine is caught in lies about skipping school, including a particularly large lie, eventually runs away from home. Finally steals a typewriter and is sent to reform school. Leading to the finale and one the greatest closing shots in all of cinema.
With The 400 Blows, Truffaut does something rarely seen in American cinema: an adult film about childhood. Just as the romantic veneer is stripped away from Paris when seen through the eyes of a Parisian, Truffaut strips away the nostalgia so often apparent in American films on the topic. There is no perfect family with a perfect child. In most American family films, the strife comes from without. With unflinching honesty, Truffaut shows it comes from within. The parents are characterized as largely absentee and disinterested. His mother stepping out on his step father, the step father more interested in his car rallies than Antoine. Though family members were horrified by Truffaut’s characterizations according to Robert Lachenay “He could have been much harder on the parents.”
And in that I find what makes this film so quintessentially French. In French cinema there has always seemed to be more of a sober eyed view of life than in the cinema of America. From realistic views of childhood in this and the film’s great influence, Jean Vigo’s Zero du conduit to holiday films like Arnaud Deshplechin’s 2008 A Christmas Tale. French filmmakers are more than happy to remove the saccharine ideals of American films as commerce, and give an honest accounting. So much of our cinema is giving the audience the dream, in France there is the artistic and intellectual integrity to give them the reality.
Truffaut’s own childhood was as troubled as his protagonist’s. Born to an unwed mother, abandoned by his father, he was raised by his grandparents for a time, then by his mother and stepfather. When Truffaut was Antoine’s age, it was during the Nazi occupation of France. He was sent to reform school, also for stealing a typewriter , joined the military and final found a home when taken on by legendary French film critic Andre Bazin. Under Bazin, Truffaut became a well known French critic (long time Cinemateque Francais director Henri Langlois called him the greatest critic who ever lived) and finally became a filmmaker. The director of 21 features Francois Truffaut died in 1984.