Saturday, September 7, 2013

The 400 Blows

The first post that follows criteria, with a  focus on lit. elements and visual style. This means that there will be spoilers. ;)

In class, we viewed Francois Truffaut's 1959 French New Wave/'La Nouvelle Vague' film, The 400 Blows, originally titled in its native language as Les quatre cents coups. As we learned from this week's presenters, it was film critic Truffaut's first feature film, taking on a semi-autobiographical theme (he was a big advocate for realism/the 'camera as pen' doctrine and mise-en-scène) and portraying a young Jean-Pierre Léaud as lead character Antoine Doinel. It has been called one of the defining films of the movement because of its characteristic traits, such as the camera's extended long shots and deep focus paralleled with the overall dramatic storytelling, for which it received numerous awards. Following the life of so-called troublemaker Doinel, the film focuses on such heady topics as the injustices suffered by juvenile delinquents in historical France, poor parenting alongside self-absorption, and the norm of a one-size-fits-all educational standard. Before I begin dissecting the movie for specific techniques, I will mention that, apparently, while the English title is a direct translation, it misses the overall meaning. "Faire les quatre cents coups," is an expression meaning "to raise hell," or "to live a wild life." I myself was perplexed about the title, so hopefully this has enlightened you, as well.


Not Rated

Thematically, this film supplies a lot. In our groups we discussed certain literary elements and tied those to issues like childhood, education, the middle class, et cetera. My group was assigned the motifs of symbolism and family, and the theme statement I came up with went as follows: "In a society that blurs or simply misunderstands the line between infancy and adulthood, it is often difficult to comprehend the relationship held between family members and how they each view one another." We were able to tie this thesis to children becoming adults and vice versa. For example, Doinel wanted to earn a living for himself, defaced a pin-up poster, was seen smoking a cigar with a friend, committed theft, attempted to illegally flog merchandise, and rolled a cigarette—all actions a mere child is never expected to commit. On the other side of the coin we have the mother's vanity and inability to problem-solve, Julien's refusal to take on responsibility, confused decision-making (would you take your child out for a movie and ice cream after he set a fire in your apartment?), employed individuals having fun on a carnival ride during the weekday, and other nonsensical things at which an adult in today's world would probably tsk.

I connected the symbol of pregnancy to this analysis, as well. It is mentioned once quite casually in a conversation between mother and father, and later Gilberte mentions that it is disgusting for people to breed like rabbits. Then, when Doinel goes to purchase flour, he overhears two women talking about a cesarean and nearly vomits (this might tie in with the later-revealed fact that his mother nearly aborted him). Later, when the young boy descends the flat's stairs to dispose of the trash, there is the diegetic sound of a wailing baby. This pattern is repeated during the carnival ride when the women scream in excitement, and again when we hear the sickly cats mewling in René's house. Another image that stuck out in my mind was when Doinel runs away from home for the first time and steals a jug of milk. He drinks from it thirstily, like a baby suckling from its mother. *involuntary shudder* Finally, there was the scene with the lost puppy. The fact that the woman's pet was still a young pup and not a fully grown dog seems both important and ironic. Doinel is a puppy himself, wandering the streets, just as wayward.

Doinel wondering if his teacher is for serious with this 'useless science and algebra' guff.

But enough of what my group already covered in class. The element of setting, as touched on by other students, plays an important role in The 400 Blows. Paris, France was not the best place for a child in the '50s, as exemplified by how many children were residents in the observation center. On a physical level, confined spaces were present from the very beginning when Doinel was punished for his 'insolence' by having to stand behind an easel in a corner of the classroom. His living space is another prime example, as are, of course, the iconic holding cell and paddy wagon.

The characters themselves had intricate relationships with one another, but none more complex than the one between Doinel and his parents. Those two could really have used some lessons in proper upbringing. Parental and authoritative figures like teachers, René's odd mother, and his distant father all blatantly acted as antagonists throughout the story. Speaking of...it was interesting to see the overall plot unfold. As I think Mimi mentioned, the cycle of accident and punishment grew continually worse for poor Doinel. Plot coincides with what I identified earlier as children and adults switching roles, which was, in my opinion, Truffaut's strongest commentary throughout the film.


The best-quality subtitled trailer I could find.


Finally, onto technique. I took Mimi's Fiction into Film course a couple semesters ago, and it is nice to once again utilize what I learned about the industry's technical jargon. Truffaut helped to solidify French New Wave with his use of tracking and ability to film the entire movie in deep focus. He also used close-up shots to emphasize specific scenes, like when Doinel starts to zone out and we see his POV as the camera slides up past his mother's eyes and instead centers upon her hat. There was also the high angle shot during the comedic scene in which the physical education teacher takes the students out for a jaunt, not to mention the numerous long shots of the city itself which gave the audience a sense of fast-paced urban life. The most famous scene, though, takes place at the very end. Doinel escapes from the observation center and begins to run: a long take in deep focus that had me mesmerized with the diegetic running footsteps (though they were, professedly, added in during editing). By the time Doinel reaches the beach—a dream of his, as he had never seen the ocean before—the audience can understand the futility of his escape. When finally his feet reach the tide and everyone is wondering what will happen next, Truffaut freeze frames on the young boy's indecisive expression, "trapping Antoine between the reformatory and the ocean, between the past and the present" (Bernard F. Dick, Anatomy of Film p. 63). The word FIN appears across Doinel's face before fading to black...and thus was captured 'the most famous freeze frame in film'.

How they made the tracking shot on the beach.

Because of the precedent The 400 Blows set for French New Wave film, I would highly recommend to anyone that they see it at least once in their lifetime. Truffaut was truly a master of his craft.

For further information:
I look forward to reading your comments!

21 comments:

  1. Rachel - I'm glad you brought up the title of the film because I have been grappling with that myself! When I think of the phrase "The 400 Blows" and "to raise hell" or "to live a wild life," I get completely different images, but I think this was done purposefully. "The 400 Blows," to me, refers to how many times he got knocked down in the film, every consequence. However, "to raise hell" or "to live a wild life" brings to mind an adventurous troublemaker. In a sense, the title "The 400 Blows" may be how Doniel and other children see their life and "Les Quatre Cents Coupe" could be how the parents and other adults see the children. ~Courtney

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    1. I completely agree with you on the idea that 'The 400 Blows' may mean how many times the poor kid was knocked down by life. What I hadn't thought of, however, was that the different titles may work together (i.e.- the differing viewpoints of the characters). Thanks for opening my eyes to that possibility...it is an interesting take.

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  2. Rachel--you did a nice job of deeply explaining your insights of this film; in a way, I felt like was watching this film again-- through all of your words and comments.

    I agree with what you mentioned about the adults and children switching roles with one another--being one of Truffaut's strongest points--that kept being reiterated throughout the entire film. It could be that, perhaps, Antoine's parents were raised in the same manner that they were raising him, and since they did not have a childhood of their own, they tried to relive it as adults, and ignored the fact that Antoine was their child and a kid--himself--and they expected so much out of him. By seeing this, Antoine might not have, even, known if he should live his childhood, or look out for himself, considering that his parents were not their job of good parenting. Instead, this might have made Antoine feel that the only support he had was himself, since he was not getting it from his parents or any other adult figure. ~Heidy

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    1. That was a very kind thing for you to write, Heidy. :)

      The parents attempting to live their lives like children because of a possibly stolen childhood is a good point, and one I had not thought of previously. Thanks for the insight!

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  3. Rachel, this blog is AWESOME! Reading it was like watching the movie all over again with a new literary point to go along with it. This deep film analysis concept is really new to me but I'm grasping it more and more every day. The cool thing about the movie is definitely the close ranges and tight spaces. For me it was kind of like being back in the uterus. Sounds weird right? We talked about the kids and the parents not being fully grown and the film shows that with the lack of space and growth. We are a product of our parents and if we aren't given the proper room to grow then we are definitely going to be stuck developmentally. The mother mentioned that the father hadn't finished high school which left him in his job with no chance of moving up.It's like babies raising babies!
    -Erionia

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    1. Thanks for saying so, Erionia! I work hard to keep this blog up to a personal par. xD

      Truffaut uses tight spaces *extremely* well in this film. Growth impediment is an interesting perspective...not weird at all, at least where technique is concerned!

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  4. Rachel- As many posters mentioned reading this blog was like watching the film again and seeing new concepts and themes. I didn't pick up on the baby theme until you mentioned it here. Now it makes perfect sense. The adult characters were behaving like selfish babies while Doinel was trying to make sense of boundaries. I also found the translation of the title an interesting factoid. I wonder if the translations are vastly different because different societies view Doinel's actions as varying levels of "mischief.?" - Stacey

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    1. That is an interesting question...time to consult the historical framework! :P

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  5. How dare you bring the historical framework into this. That one is almost as evil as the psychoanalytical one.

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  6. Rachel, excellent analysis of the film. After reading your blog, I feel, as others, like I have viewed the film once more. I found the blog detailed and informative, and I loved how you tied in film elements into your analysis! The most interesting part of the blog was the points that you brought up about the references to infancy and pregnancy within the film. Even after viewing the film, I would have never thought to have connected the scenes you mentioned with those themes, but it makes perfect sense. * Mind=Blown*
    -Amanda Cordova

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    1. Heh, thanks. :) I am glad that I was able to supply you with some more referential symbolism.

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  7. Maggie, the historical framework is EPIC (pun intended). Rachel, your blog continues to impress me. I love the captions you put on your images. The picture of the filming of the final shot is cool; I had not seen it. You present many meaty issues for the class to take in, including the visual style of the movie and its place in movie history. The title perplexes me as well.

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    1. I am glad you like the blog, Mimi. :D I did a lot of searching for that final image - completely worth it. It is such a strange looking vehicle.

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  8. It's been a while since the film and not going to lie I was like oh crap what was the movie about but when i got to reading your blog i remembered how the "small spaces" Doniel always seemed to be in. In the beginning he's behind the easel, his so called room is just enough space for him to sleep, when he leaves home and stays at the factory the area he is secluded to is tight as well, and again when he stays with his friend his sleeping area was tight as well. One way i looked at things were that throughout the film its as if his parents didn't care about him so they just threw him in a small space as if he wasn't even there, this boy is invisible and all the spaces hes in are small and invisible like him. Then there's the random scenes where the camera shows the large world and this small boy in it, which is the reality. Doniel was just a normal lost boy who was trying to figure out who he was and wanted to be not invisible anymore.

    Cassie

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    1. Little fish in a large sea, yeah?

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    2. Rachel,
      you provided so much detail and I love how you displayed the photos. Your blog is very thought provoking and I was very intrigued whith the entire symbolism of pregnancy and the many references that were noted throughout the film. Funny how you mentioned the fact that Antione's mom was going to abort him; this part of the film stuck in my mind as well, isn't it odd how in the end she didn't put too much effort into trying to save him? she still "threw the baby out with the bath water."
      Great blog and very tastefully articulated. I enjoyed reading your blog.

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    3. I am very glad that you liked the blog & photos, Charmaine.

      You make a brilliant point about Antoine's mother in connection to the bath water analogy. I hadn't given it much thought apart from the initial observation of her coldness towards her son in the correctional institution, but maybe his action of zoning out during the scene had to do with the fact that he recognized she did not really care what happened to him anymore (or ever?).

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  9. Rachel,

    by the by, I failed to include my name at he end of my response on your "tastefully articulated" blog.

    Charmiane

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  10. I totally agree about the last scene, there is something that really captures my attention about it. It is almost like we are running along with Antoine, though the ending leaves a lot to consider. I've always thought that things turn out well for the character after the film stopped rolling! -Tara

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    1. I love that Truffaut leaves it open for interpretation. The best stories are always allowed to continue on in our minds.

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