Friday, June 24, 2005

Film: 400 Blows

Several years ago, I was sitting with my friend after watching a film in cinema, arguing about some huge artistic subjects. Basically, he was claiming that film should be a product of one person, director, result of his personal vision as much as the novel is a product of one writer, or a musical piece of one composer; Even though there are many people involved in making a film, they should all (and in most cases, they do, willingly or not) adjust to the needs of the director and apply to his vision. I was claiming that the unique nature of film, as the art that includes so many creators in one piece of work, should rely on personal input by all of those participants; That the film should be a mash of personalities and visions and that, why not, in should rely on a chance that all those visions comply. In years that came, I grew to agree with his opinion that good movies are the result of vision, and the responsibility, of one man, the director. Of course, it is actors, cameraman, writer, editor, producer, who add their personal touches to the movie, but it is director who controls those, allows them in the film or banns them from it. In years that came I learned, for instance, how much actor’s performance relies on director’s guidance and that if an actor who is great in one movie, is awful in other, it is usually director’s fault, because he didn’t know how to guide the actor through the role.

(Of course, in Hollywood, it is not the case, as in most of films, it is producer who makes the major decisions, particularly those on casting and those of a nature of ending; They even hire a director instead of coworking with one. This kind of industrialization, where a person who is detached from the moviemaking process – who, actually, doesn’t have any credentials that he has insight in moviemaking process – makes some of the most important decisions, it’s a kind of process that gives us so many worthless movies every year.)

We didn’t know it then, we arrived around 40 years late on that discussion. It’s the same discussion that pioneers of the cinema new wave movement had with their precedents. Main exponents of this movement are today legends: first criticts, later great directors, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol. First one to make “Fahrenheit 451”, second one to influence generations Hollywood thriller directors with “Breathless”, third one... well, to make a lot of movies starring Isabelle Hupert. Later, the movement found new followers in Louise Malle, Roger Vadim and a lot of other directors, and influenced film to the extent where its influence is so common that we fail to realize that it wasn’t there since the film beginnings.

What they argued against were big, impersonal movies such were the one made by Henri-Georges Clouzot or Rene Clair, where director’s job was to tell a story without stuttering, and that was it. These movies were praised not for the film language used, not for the emotion they could bring, but for the topic. Now, is a grandiose and important topic a reason to praise a movie? Is a movie instantly good if it is, for instance, a war story about human suffering? Doesn’t it also need to have a way of making us care for those characters too, for instance? Yet, no matter how widespread new wave influences are today, movies are still often praised for ambitious theme, regardless of what the movie is really like, and movies are often valued by the craftiness of the director.

New wavers actually made strict division between directors who were relying on craft and technique and the others, who they called “authors”. Author is, by them, a kind of director whose film you can recognize solely by it’s film language. Take comic strip artists or illustrators, whose art is always more or less distinctive, whose drawing is, intended or not, influenced by artists personality, from his temper, from his steadiness of his hands, to the pictures that he used to redraw while he was still learning drawing. It is much harder to recognize a director, which is why distinctive filmmaking style is much harder to achieve. That’s why director has to be strict on his author decisions, on choice of elements of film language that he is going to use. New wavers believed that the filmography of a particular director-author can be seen as an integral work, with elements spanning all through his work.

Time proved them mostly right. What they did was logical: Applying to film some of general rules that exist in any other art medium.

I could have used “auteur theory” and New wave as an intro to a text about “Day for night”, but that film enforces the theme of more practical sides of filmmaking. I could’ve used it an intro to “Fahrenheit 451”, but I’d rather not detract attention from it once I decide to write about it. So I’ll use it as an intro to writing about “400 blows”, Truffaut’s first film (apart from two shorts), nice little film that, by the way, got “bet director” award in Cannes.

First time “400 blows” arrived to cinemas around here, some thought, based on it’s name, that it’s a new Bruce Lee film – or so I’ve heard. Knowing that it’s a film about growing up, my first thought is that it’s referring to a beating the main character Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is deemed to receive from various angry teachers. But actually, in French slang, 400 blows means... hm, I think something related to rebellion, protest.

“400 blows” show a slow process of a boy growing up into a juvenile delinquent. It shows all phases of that process: from running from school, across first, clumsy stealing, to the juvenile delinquents home, and escape from it. It also shows some of the causes for it: first and foremost, lack of attention from his parents, his restrained relationship with them, dysfunctional marriage, their indecisive upbringing of him and finally their giving up on them when he is caught and sent to juvenile home. It’s a deeply personal film, as Truffaut himself was saved from juvenile delinquency by his mentor Andre Bazin, by encouraging his interest in films. It’s also a film with no real good or bad characters, but with people who have both their good and bad sides, decisions and actions.

High points of the film include finely orchestrated scenes in the classroom where havoc breaks instantly every time a teacher turns his back to the class; Father’s logic: “You ask for 1000 fr. That means you expect 500; That means you need 200; You’ll get 100”; And finally, escape sequence at the end, with a shot of an open seaside landscape that finishes the film.

Antoin was a sort of Truffaut’s alter ego; He followed Antoin through his life, making three more films with him. The long pauses between making those films allowed him to use the same actor for all movies, acting Antoin in his various life stages.


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