Thursday, July 21, 2011

"The 400 Blows": Truffaut's satire on the authoritarian demands made of kids by our "system"

The 400 Blows” (“Faire les quatre cents coups”), a 1959 satire (of sorts) by Francois Truffault, now in the Criterion Collection (originally Zenith) may be the earliest film in black-and-white Cinemascope. That sets the stage for the seedy vision of Paris in the expansive opening scenes, until the story settles on the life of the troubled boy Antoine (Jean Pierre Leaud).  Everything he does to resist an authoritarian school system and parents (themselves derelict) leads him in to petty crime; when he tries to right his wrongs, he just gets deeper into trouble.

There’s a scene early where he is in a kind of merry-go-round held up by centrifugal force, that reminded me of the concept of being trapped in a steam room (last night’s film).  It might have been inspired by the merry-go-round scene of “Strangers on a Train”.

The teacher makes a charade of his “classroom management”, bringing back my own days as a substitute teacher.  When he catches Antoine in a lie, Antoine feels compelled to live life on the run. That sets up various situations, including a scene involving an accidental house fire, where his father threatens to send him to military school.   In the US these days, parents sometimes do call upon military schools to come and pick up their kids in the middle of the night and carry them away.

There’s also an interesting sequence about plagiarism, when Antoine parrots a story by Balzac, and a sequence involving a stealing a typewriter (as valuable as a computer in the 1950s) and trying to return it. Before he finally winds up in reform school, there’s a great scene with a puppet show. Finally, Antoine escapes, underneath a wire fence, leading to a great final scene on the coast, some great abstract impressionism for its own sake.

It would seen as though this film might have attracted the attention of French classes when I was in high school. 

The film reminds me of a favorite of screenwriting teachers, “Bicycle Thieves” (“Ladri di biciclette”, or “The Bicycle Thief”, 1949), from Vittorio Di Sica, where a father and his young son track down a thief who steals a bike he needs for his job putting up Rita Hayworth posters around town. Satire again?

The DVD has a 20-minute short documentary about Truffaut, "Cineastes de notre temps"; a lot of music from the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique gets played. 

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