The 400 Blows

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

On May 15, 1957, François Truffaut, a 25-year-old autodidact who was already well-known for his iconoclastic film criticism, published a summation of that year’s Cannes Film Festival in which he minced no words. In his polemic, which ran in the right-wing periodical Arts, Truffaut took aim at the staid “tradition of quality” that, in his eyes, had held pride of place at the yet-young festival, as it had in French culture more generally for far too long. The staunch auteurist concluded his dispatch by proposing an alternative form of cinematic expression, imagining the big screen as an ideal forum for a kind of radically intimate self-disclosure. “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary,” he wrote. “The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.”

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The 400 Blows

Truffaut certainly didn’t wait long to act on that particular “profession of faith,” as he would later call it. A mere two years after writing those words, the man brought his first feature-length film, the closely autobiographical The 400 Blows, to the very festival he had up until that point spent so much energy denouncing. It is perhaps no surprise in retrospect that The 400 Blows was an instant sensation upon its premiere at Cannes more than half a century ago—the tattered paperback of a film is now regarded as a classic of basically impregnable stature, a timeless study of troubled adolescence as well as one of the greatest shoestring achievements of the French New Wave. But at the time, Truffaut was far from sure he could win over the many enemies he’d made as a rabble-rousing critic. By the time the word “fin” filled the final freeze frame, though, even those festival-goers who’d been most turned off by Truffaut’s extremist taste-making had to acknowledge that the “film of tomorrow” had, indeed, finally arrived in the present.

The 400 Blows became, for a time, a de facto mission statement for an entire movement. As it would happen, it also gave the world one of the most beloved recurring characters in the history of the movies. Over the course of five films (four features and one short) and two decades, Truffaut affectionately chronicled the progress of his fictional alter ego, Antoine Doinel, whose teenage truancy eventually gives way to a reluctant adulthood flush with professional follies and romantic obsessions. The actor Jean-Pierre Léaud—who was a troublemaking eighth-grader himself when Truffaut cast him in The 400 Blows—would go on to become an emblem for the New Wave as a whole, embarking on a host of memorable collaborations not only with Truffaut but also with more formally adventurous and expressly political filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Jean Eustache. Yet Doinel remains, without a doubt, Léaud’s most indelible role.

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These days, the common line on Truffaut’s 25-year career as a filmmaker is that once he became established as a reliable commercial property in the world-cinema pantheon, he began to play it safe, capitulating at last to that dully respectable “tradition of quality” he had decried so forcefully as a young man. (It’s probably no coincidence that this was one of the main reasons for his public falling out with onetime friend Godard.) A viewer might expect, then, that such a sellout trajectory would be plainly obvious across the course of the Doinel films, running as they do from the energetic black and white of The 400 Blows and “Antoine And Colette” (1962) through the more closely datable color palettes of Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed And Board (1970), and Love On The Run (1979). But this is far from the case.

While Antoine does eventually come into contact, however glancingly, with most of the trappings of bourgeois domesticity (marriage, child, comfortable-looking flat)—and while the later films do, generally speaking, lack some of the raw poignancy of the earlier ones—the tone of the works doesn’t grow successively stuffier. On the contrary, the proceedings only get lighter and more freewheeling as the series progresses, even as a strong undercurrent of sadness stubbornly refuses to abate. They might end up in a very different place from where they started, but the Antoine Doinel chronicles remain fiercely alive. With each new installment, Truffaut manages to show a young man misruled anew by his passions, displaying a stealth but proud impulse toward self-sabotage that the director no doubt saw in himself as well.

When Truffaut conceived Antoine Doinel—the filmmaker’s biographers, Antoine De Baecque and Serge Toubiana, allow how the name itself constitutes a deep-cut cinephile’s tip of the cap to Jean Renoir, who often worked with a man named Ginette Doynel—he had no particular intention of making the character a recurring one. Indeed, The 400 Blows has the distinct feel of a raw one-off, a world to which it’d be all too painful to return—certainly high up among the reasons the film has spoken to so many viewers over the years. Truffaut, who came of age during the Nazi occupation of Paris, might have transposed the action to the present-day 1950s and condensed it over a tight time frame, but the scenario nevertheless very closely mirrors the events of his own childhood: the inattentive and questionably loving parents, the penchant for cutting class and petty crime, and the woeful stint in juvenile detention. Even Antoine’s most whopping school-yard fib, in which he tries to excuse his absence the previous day by telling his schoolmaster that his mother died, is a scene lifted more or less intact from the filmmaker’s early days.

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But Doinel doesn’t simply equal Truffaut. From the outset, the character became a composite of sorts, also inspired by Truffaut’s childhood best friend, Robert Lachenay, and perhaps most of all by the punkish actor who played him. The 400 Blows also wouldn’t work if the character weren’t such a recognizably defiant adolescent type. Antoine merely acts out in the absence of love. He might not have found parental support from a harsh mother (Claire Maurier) and a too-jokey father (Albert Rémy) whom he rightly suspects is not actually his dad, but he does have something of a partner in crime: his schoolmate René (Patrick Auffay), a boy from a more well-to-do family who helps him hide overnight first in his uncle’s print shop and later in his father’s own disused man cave.

Their high-spirited disobedience comes to an abrupt end, though, after Antoine is discovered to have stolen a typewriter from his father’s office. At wits’ end, his parents promptly send him packing for the Observation Center For Delinquent Youth. Over the course of The 400 Blows, it emerges that Antoine has an affinity for not only underhanded rebellion but also some of the finer things in life. (After reading Balzac, he creates a shrine to the author, which he then inadvertently sets ablaze with a ceremonial candle. As if in further reckless tribute, he goes on to plagiarize a passage by the master himself for a school assignment.) By the time Truffaut picked up with the boy a couple years later with “Antoine And Colette,” a fleet half-hour romantic comedy made on commission for the international omnibus film Love At Twenty, Antoine has a fresh new focus for his all-consuming ardency: a fetching peer named Colette (Marie-France Pisier, who also has a writing credit on the later Love On The Run).

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Our protagonist, who at 17 is now on his own and holding down a job pressing and packaging records, won’t appear so professionally competent again until the final film in the series. But he is, here and forever afterward, a hopeless fool for love. It’s at a youth concert program that Antoine first spies Colette, kindling a romantic obsession that eventually culminates in him moving directly across the street from the apartment where she lives with her parents. Colette likes Antoine well enough not to discourage such behavior outright, but she nonetheless refuses to commit to him in any way, shape, or form, shrugging off every advance he makes in the illicit dark of the movie theater. In this process of courting, his greatest victory is that he manages to win the affection of her parents. For a boy who never got along with his own, this turns out to be no small consolation, but it’s one he must renounce as he realizes that going all in on Colette has gotten him nowhere at all with her. In Truffaut’s finale, she finally introduces him to the boyfriend he didn’t know she had.

Toward the middle of the short film, Colette mentions, in a hilariously lukewarm reply to a love letter of Antoine’s, that her mother (and, pointedly, not she herself) called him “very romantic” on account of the length of his hair. As the terrific Stolen Kisses opens, his hair has grown longer still—as it does, just enough to be instantly noticeable, in each successive chapter in his life story. Kicked out of the army he voluntarily joined (as Truffaut himself was), the older but no wiser Antoine of Stolen Kisses wastes no time in retreating to the home of his most recent beloved. Not unlike Colette, the elegant music scholar Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) appears reluctant to give him anything to latch on to beyond the usual niceties. Since she’s become consumed with student activism—the out-of-touch Antoine might not appreciate the full import of current events, but it is 1968 after all—the young man finds himself spending quality time with yet another set of parents (Daniel Ceccaldi and Claire Duhamel, perhaps the series’ most ingratiating presences).

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Antoine might mount a concerted effort to win Christine, but a significant portion of the light-as-air Stolen Kisses involves his rather staggering inability to gain a foothold in the working world. After getting flushed out from the army, he lands short-lived gigs as a hotel night clerk and a television repairman. But the most delightful passages of the movie concern his rocky apprenticeship as a private eye. He’s desperate to impress the higher-ups at the agency, but on the job he nonetheless has a habit of letting his ardor get the better of him. While on a pay-phone call with Christine, he loses track of his nightclub-magician quarry. Soon after going undercover as a stock boy in a store run by a humorously humorless Michael Lonsdale, he winds up falling for the older man’s wife, played by the legendary Delphine Seyrig, then not far removed from her legendary collaborations with Alain Resnais. Antoine received his dishonorable discharge for “instability of character,” a problem that Stolen Kisses finds him hauling back from the barracks into civilian life, where at least his superiors seem to give him less grief about it.

Even looser, if a bit more scattershot, Bed And Board catches up with Antoine as he continues to flail professionally, bouncing from a gig at a Parisian flower shop to a position at an American hydraulics firm, which involves piloting remote-controlled boats around a scale model of a port. When he mentions, a ways into the movie, that he’s been devoting substantial time to writing about his childhood, you fear that that endeavor might turn out to be just as ill-fated as the others. But as its title suggests (the original French, evocative in English as well, is Domicile Conjugal), the film shows Antoine sinking into the quicksand of married life with none other than his old flame Christine. (At the very end of Stolen Kisses, she once and for all gives in, winding up in bed with Antoine after he arrives one night to repair her TV.)

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The couple eventually welcome a child named Alphonse into the world, but the ever-restless Antoine struggles to stay on task with regard to his evolving battery of domestic responsibilities. Thus the man who has never been particularly skilled at remaining faithful—ever since Stolen Kisses, Antoine has been a consistent, if somewhat skittish, patron of prostitutes—begins a full-blown affair with a glamorous Japanese woman named Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer), whom he meets on the leafy campus of the hydraulics firm. It’s not long, of course, before Antoine wants out of the affair and back into his comfortable relationship with Christine, but the damage he’s already done to his marriage at that point appears irreparable. The comedy ends on an ironic note: In a brief epilogue that picks up a year after the dissolution of the Kyoko affair, a neighbor, observing the back-together Doinels racing haphazardly down the stairs, somehow deduces that “now they’re really in love.” By the time the curtain rises on Love On The Run, they’re filing for divorce.

Truffaut had originally intended Bed And Board to be the final word on Antoine Doinel, but the abject commercial failure of his Henry James adaptation, The Green Room, in 1978 left him scrambling to produce a surefire hit, and so he found himself picking back up the thread of his standby alter ego. With Love On The Run, Truffaut’s diaristic “film of tomorrow” has all of a sudden become something resolutely backward-looking—extended clips from the series’ earlier entries, cued up as character flashbacks, take up a not-insubstantial portion of the runtime. What’s more, Antoine himself—who did indeed manage to publish that book he’d been working on and is now contemplating what’s next while he works as a print-shop proofreader—sometimes seems less front and center here than some of the women in his life, particularly Colette, whom Antoine encounters by chance and soon chases down, drunk on the possibility of what could have been. (Naturally, she parries his every advance all over again.)

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Indeed, for the first time, Truffaut stages whole scenes in which Doinel doesn’t even appear. Colette’s legal work provides an important subplot, and Christine leisurely recounts the time Antoine ended up in bed with a friend of hers he seemed to detest. Here there is a prevailing sense of coming to terms, not least as Antoine winds up spending a day with her mother’s former lover, Lucien (Julien Bertheau), who appeared briefly all the way back in The 400 Blows and who assures Antoine that his mother, now deceased, undoubtedly loved him, even if she had a peculiar way of showing it. The Antoine Doinel of Love On The Run might be as mad for women as ever—a blossoming affair with a young record-store employee named Sabine (Dorothée) also sends him reeling—but now that he’s had the necessary catharsis of producing the thinly fictionalized memoir, he also seems to have found some measure of adult perspective.

At every turn, Léaud’s Doinel willfully undermines his own stability and promptly panics that he can’t get it back. Truffaut himself expressly recognized the persistence of this refusal to be pinned down as a sign of arrested development. “I would be lying if I said Antoine Doinel succeeded in his transformation into an adult,” the director, who died in 1984 at the age of 52, once said in an interview. “He has not become a real adult, he is someone who has remained a child. There is a lot of childhood left in all men, but with him, it’s even more so.” After the relative success of his recourse to the page, though, Antoine does in fact show signs of a dawning maturity. He might not have settled down for good, but by starting to put his life down in letters, Antoine seems to have finally discovered a workable means of disciplining his often contradictory desires, rather than letting them discipline him. Perhaps Truffaut and his collaborator, Léaud, were able to do something not so different by making this playfully sad—and unassumingly remarkable—series of films.

Final ranking:
1. The 400 Blows (1959)
2. Stolen Kisses (1968)
3. “Antoine And Colette” (1962)
4. Bed And Board (1970)
5. Love On The Run (1979)

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