The films of Francois Truffaut have somehow managed to evade me over the years.  I can remember catching Jules et Jim on television some years ago, and I was aware he starred in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but despite studying film at university, his work was never a prescribed text, and ever since they seem to have passed me by.  Which is strange given his standing in cinema, globally, as a critic, theorist, founder member of the nouvelle vague, writer, director and actor.  Everyone studying film knows of Truffaut.  His essays from Cahiers du Cinema are among the most well-known by film scholars, and his interview book Hitchcock-Truffaut (1967) is regarded as one of the best film criticism books of all time (Sight & Sound, June 2010).  Yet his films are not necessarily at the top of film courses’ required syllabus or people’s top films of all time.   Perhaps his standing as a film critic foremostly is part of the problem.  The reputation of his actual films seems to have diminished, unlike those of his fellow New Wave auteurs and friends such as Godard, Chabrol and Rohmer.  His premature death after a stroke in 1984 could be another reason, with Godard still pursuing his own unique course and Chabrol continuing to make films well into his seventies until his recent death in 2010.

So, to start rectifying this gap in my film education, what better way to start than with Truffaut’s first feature-length film – Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959).  Along with Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), which Truffaut co-wrote and Jaques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient (which was shot on and off over the year depending on funds), these films are usually regarded as the beginning of the New Wave, as the critics of Cahiers du Cinema began to make their own films. From the beginning Truffaut and Godard were the leaders of this collective which was to revolutionise European and global cinema in the 1960’s.

One of Truffaut’s most famous articles was “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”, his attack in Cahiers on French cinema in the 1950’s, and the so-called tradition of quality cinema, such as period films and literary adaptations.  Truffaut argued that this cinema was not relevent and did not represent modern-day life in France, which cinema, as a cultural art form, should be doing.  Les Quatre Cent Coups certainly functions as a direct response to this.  The film is a semi-autobiographical look at Truffaut’s own childhood.  Originally he intended to make a series of short films based on childhood incidents from his youth (the first of which, Les Mistons, is included on this DVD release).  However, Truffaut then built these various shorts into a cohesive narrative and embarked on making a feature-length film.  Jean-Pierre Léaud plays Antoine Doinel, living with his mother, who doesn’t love him, and his stepfather in their cramped flat in the Pigalle area of Paris.  Antoine struggles at school and after various mishaps with his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay) he ends up in a juvenile detention centre (all of which mirrors Truffaut’s troubled childhood).  In the film, as in real life, trips to the cinema offer escape from the difficulties at home and school.  By centering his film on his own life, Truffaut directly answers his criticism of French cinema from his Cahiers article.  This is a film about contemporary France, not a period drama or a literary adaption.  Stylistically it also shows signs of the theory of the New Wave being put into practise: real locations for filming (around the streets of Paris) rather than studio sets; use of natural lighting over artificial; hand-held camera work; a natural, part-improvised acting style (expertly played by a young cast alongside the adults) and a post-synch soundtrack (dictated by the fast shooting style that didn’t allow for bulky sound equipment, with its prohibitive cost, from being used during filming).

Despite their shared genesis in time and theory Les Quatre Cent Coups and A Bout de Souffle share both many similarities and differences, and perhaps these also explain why Godard’s debut is the better known film today.  A year later, Godard’s masterpiece shared the characteristics of Truffaut’s film, but added revolutionary editing in the form of excessive jump cuts, dispensing in large parts with the standard film language of editing that was still used in Les Quatre Cent Coups.  It also had the cool presence of Jean Seberg and Jean Paul Belmondo, who’s nouvelle vague chic became iconic images of cinema.  Today, Godard’s film still seems fresh and full of energy, where as by comparison Truffaut’s debut seems less radical.

However, this is not to dismiss Truffaut’s film in the slightest.  Léaud delivers a remarkable performance as the troubled youngster, both vulnerable and cheeky at the same time.  There are standout sequences, like children watching a puppet show, genuine delight etched on their faces, or the films finale, as Antoine escapes from the juvenile detention centre and, while running away, discovers the sea, which he as never encountered before in his closeted neighbourhood of Paris.  There is an assured touch to Truffaut’s use of the camera and widescreen too, with some outstanding shots created on a micro budget.  A camera placed in the back of a 2CV car was used for a tracking shot following the sprinting Antoine along a country road.

Still a powerful drama when viewed today, Les Quatre Cent Coups deserves its place in the canon of great cinema and is a definitive text to be viewed by film students and lovers alike.

Film Rating: 5 out of 5.

Footnote: Les Quatre Cent Coups is showing as part of a New Wave season at the Glasgow Film Theatre in April 2011 – http://www.glasgowfilm.org/theatre

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