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Truffaut's 400 Blows brilliantly evokes troubled youth

The 400 Blows

Written and directed by François Truffaut.

Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, and Albert Rémy.

LSC Friday.

By Stephen Brophy
Staff Reporter

Lately I've been trying to cut down on the frequency of superlatives in my writing about movies. But Cecil Esquivel, director of LSC Classics, has scheduled so many really great films this semester that my attempts to write more restrained prose have led to frustration. This Friday, LSC is screening one of the best of the best, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, so I'm just going to forget my resolution for the moment.

Not only is this one of the first and most important offerings of the French New Wave, and therefore one of the few movies that can be said to have changed all that followed in its genre. It is also the first chapter in a unique collaboration between a director and an actor to create a character jointly based on their separate histories, and to follow that character from adolescence to early middle age in five films spread out over more than twenty years.

Antoine Doinel is 14 years old when we first meet him, living with parents to whom he is mostly just an impediment, and attending a school almost Dickensian in its grimy bleakness. He doesn't fit, and his environment frequently punishes him for not fitting. But he also has the freedom of the streets of Paris, the safe womb of the cinema, the companionship of books, and the spirit to break away from home and school from time to time to take advantage of these benefits.

No matter what he does to placate the adults in his life, he gets into trouble. When he writes an essay inspired by a recent reading of Balzac, his teacher punishes him for plagiarism. When he builds a cardboard shrine to Balzac in his tiny room at home, the candles ignite the shrine and his father slaps him in retaliation. Ironically, he only gets in trouble when he's trying to do the right thing - nothing happens when he steals a typewriter from his father's office, but he gets caught when he tries to return it.

Truffaut had a similar childhood, and was eventually sent to a reformatory. When he wrote the screenplay that would become The 400 Blows he poured that event and much else of his personal sorrow into it. But the story began to change when he chose the teenage Jean-Pierre Léaud to play Antoine. Léaud was also experiencing a troubled adolescence, but he was much more forceful and aggressive about expressing himself than Truffaut had been, or than Antoine was written. Truffaut began to rewrite Antoine, and found an active collaborator in his young actor.

Jean-Pierre Léaud carries this movie - he appears in every scene. It's amazing to watch him move through all the emotions adolescents are so prone to. From despair to elation, from terminal boredom to total absorption, from hope to hopelessness, Léaud recreates each feeling beautifully and naturally. Truffaut surrounds him with many capable actors, and films with such a casual but assured style that it frequently seems more documentary than fiction. Watch for Jeanne Moreau in a delicious little cameo as a woman whose little leashed dog has escaped.

A few years later Truffaut and Léaud updated the character for a short segment of an omnibus film called Love at Twenty. Then in 1968 they brought Antoine to adulthood (chronologically if not yet emotionally) in Stolen Kisses and married him off and made him a father two years later in Bed and Board. Finally, in 1979, they finished the series with Love on the Run, which brings Antoine to the end of his marriage and the publication of his first novel. The retrospective quality of this last movie, and the frequent flashbacks to its predecessors, makes this the least successful of the Antoine Doinel cycle, but it still holds many satisfactions.

If you like The 400 Blows, let Cecil Esquivel (ces@mit.edu) know; maybe we can convince him to schedule Stolen Kisses next year.