This is the 400th post on this blog.
And, what with my penchant for honouring precedents, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to watch a film that has that number—400—in its title. Les Quatre Cents Coups (known in English as The Four Hundred Blows, though the actual translation would be closer to ‘the four hundred dirty tricks’) was directed by François Truffaut, one of the most prominent pioneers of French New Wave cinema. It was Truffaut’s first full-length feature film, a work that not only won much critical acclaim, but also led Truffaut to make a series of sequels featuring the same lead character…
…who is, in Les Quatre Cents Coups, the twelve-year old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud).
Much of the first half of the film is set in the school where Antoine studies, and this is where we are introduced to our protagonist. A teacher—dubbed ‘Sourpuss’ by Antoine and his classmates—is conducting an exam. His students are busy finishing off their papers, and some of them have found the time to simultaneously amuse themselves. A picture of a pin-up girl is making its way from one desk to another, from one pair of admiring hands to another.
Sourpuss discovers the picture when Antoine—who’s added a few touches to the lady’s hairdo—is passing it on to his neighbour. Antoine gets called forward, and is relegated to standing behind the blackboard, in the corner.
Antoine was not the one who initiated the escapade. Antoine was not the one to bring the pin-up to class. He was not the only one to look at the picture. But he was the one who got caught, and that is why (figuratively speaking) Antoine must hang. Through the rest of the film, we watch as Antoine, not always completely innocent but also not always the sole guilty party, ends up getting into trouble.
There is (and there’s no ‘perhaps’ about this) his home life to blame for Antoine’s less-than-exemplary conduct in the classroom.
When school finishes, Antoine trails home, accompanied by his loyal friend and partner in crime, René (Patrick Auffay). Antoine is grouchy, naturally, about Sourpuss’s sourness. René tries to comfort him, and by the time they part ways and Antoine heads home, he certainly seems to be a little less annoyed.
Home for the Doinels is a small, pokey little place. It’s so tiny that Antoine’s bed is tucked away in a tiny back passage that leads onto the stairs. The room—if it can be called that—is so cramped that, to go out the back door, Antoine has to step over the corner of his bed: the door can’t open fully.
There is, we see, nobody at home. Antoine fills coal in a heater, wipes his sooty hands on a curtain, and takes some money from a drawer. He then wanders about, sitting down briefly at a dressing table, toying with cosmetics, dabbing himself with perfume. A lonely boy.
He finally goes and lays the table, setting out crockery and cutlery, before sitting down and opening his school satchel. He looks as if he’s about to begin homework, when there’s an interruption—his mother (Claire Maurier) has come home from work. Antoine is suddenly inundated with a flurry of irritated questions and orders. Get me my slippers. I’d given you money to buy things on your way home; did you buy the flour? No? Go and buy it right now, I need it. Mama treats Antoine rather like a glorified slave.
Papa, Julien Doinel (Albert Rémy) is a little better. We are introduced to him on Antoine’s way back from the shop where he goes to buy the flour; Papa is headed back from office when he runs into Antoine, and father and son come home together. Julien Doinel doesn’t scream and snap at Antoine, so is perhaps the lesser of two evils. He’s playful too, dipping his finger in the flour and tweaking Antoine’s nose with it.
Later, on an occasion when Mama is going to be working late [and, what, pray, makes her work such late hours?], Papa makes dinner (fried eggs) for himself and Antoine. He jokes with Antoine, indulges in some horseplay now and then.
But even this camaraderie is superficial. It is as if Julien Doinel does not really think of Antoine as anything more than a child to be occasionally humoured. He can crack jokes to make Antoine laugh, but that’s it.
Will Papa go out of his way to sit with Antoine and talk to him of life? Will he want to know what Antoine wants to be when he grows up? Will he ask how school is, what Antoine is learning?
And that is where Antoine is running into all sorts of trouble. It’s not as if Antoine detests school; he is really just another somewhat rebellious boy, whose liking for knowledge sees ups and downs. [There is, for instance, a scene where Antoine, all alone at home, is reading Balzac. He’s so deeply moved that he tears out the writer’s portrait from the book, goes and pins it up in the little family shrine, and lights a candle before it. That this leads to a small fire breaking out and Antoine getting it in the neck from his parents is just another example of Antoine’s good intentions gone awry].
Antoine, however, can also be singularly unenthusiastic about studies (what do you expect, when your own mother says, “Yes, I know. Even I dropped out after high school. And your father never finished. And, anyway, they teach so much that you’ll never use in real life. Like algebra. Science. What’s the point of it?”)
So, with his mate René, Antoine plays truant from school. They run off, spending an entire day roaming around, going to a fair, watching a film, chatting…
This, therefore, is the story of Antoine’s life. Parents who couldn’t really be bothered about him (which begs the question: why bring a child into the world, then?—a question millions should ask themselves). Parents who are too busy leading their own lives (Mama, with her illicit lover, Papa with his racing club, to which he is devoted) to care about what happens to Antoine.
And what does happen to Antoine?
I have to admit to a deep and abiding love for well-made films (or well-written stories) that look closely at children. Not children in the highly stylized, melodramatic or syrupy way of the Shirley Temples and Daisy Iranis of the early years, but children the way children really are. More perceptive, more sensitive, wiser than a lot of adults tend to think them. Children of films like Les Quatre Cents Coups.
Watch this film not for a story (though there is a good story here, a heartbreaking and poignant but eventually also hopeful tale), but for Antoine Doinel. Antoine, as he laughs with sheer joy when he gets dizzy in a fast-rotating giant drum at the fair. Antoine, as he lies in bed and overhears his parents quarrelling, his mother saying (about Antoine): “He lies through his teeth!” and (just a few seconds later): “Fine! We’ll send him to the Jesuits, or to the Army orphans.”
Antoine, the beleaguered. Antoine, the rebel. Antoine, who sneaks cigarettes and tobacco, who runs away from school and home, who takes to petty theft. Antoine, who is caught somewhere in that uncomfortable space between the innocence of childhood and the worldly-wise cynicism of adulthood. Antoine, who’s growing up, thanks to his parents, before his time.
What I liked about this film:
The characterization (by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy), the direction (Truffaut) and the cinematography (by Henri Decaë).
I know that sounds like a lot to lump into one category, but I found myself appreciating, at many instances during the film, the combination of these three. For example, the scene where Antoine is lying in his cramped little bed and listening to his parents yelling at each other: a powerful scene, made all the more so because the parents aren’t shown. We can hear their voices in the background, but we see only Antoine. The flicker of pain in his face as he hears the harsh words his mother uses for him, the anguish. There are no tears, no howling, just a subtle and understated reinforcement of Antoine’s realization (or re-realization; he is no fool) that he is unwanted.
Then there are the amazing little frames that say so much without saying anything. René, come to visit Antoine at a juvenile detention home, rides away on his bicycle, whistling. Carefree, and free.
Or, also at the detention home, an escaped delinquent who has been recaptured is taken away into solitary confinement. Led by two guards, down a long, lonely path, between regimented rows of trees which suggest prison bars…
Or (and this was a scene that really mesmerized me), children watching a puppet show. Antoine and René, bunking school, are sitting at the back and chatting. They are the older children, the ones who aren’t paying attention to the puppets. The ones in front—the toddlers, the younger children—are the ones on whom Truffaut focusses, and they’re utterly captivating, because this is so very unstaged.
There’s curiosity, laughter, fear, even almost-tears on these little faces as they watch the puppet show (I’m guessing Truffaut used an actual show and managed to sneak a candid camera in somewhere; these children are certainly not acting).
I love, also, the little details that show Antoine’s life as a child. He may be slipping into a life of petty crime and drifting away from the straight and narrow, but Antoine is still a child, taking delight in such small things as getting dizzy in a rotating drum, shooting arrows from a gable, or calling out “Bon jour, madame!” to a priest passing by with his cassock swirling around his ankles.
Jean-Pierre Léaud in his debut role as Antoine Doinel. He is excellent, a very fine actor for someone who was just fourteen when Les Quatre Cents Coups was made. (Here, by the way, is Léaud’s audition for the film: it’s a short clip, and worth a watch).
What I didn’t like:
I’ll pass this up. There are few films about which I can say that I liked everything, and this was one of them. It’s a gripping, very touching film, and superbly made: sad, witty, and poignant, all at the same time.
Les Quatre Cents Coups was a semi-autobiographical film for Truffaut, and the depth of feeling that is imbued in the story and its treatment makes it memorable. Do watch.