THE 400 BLOWS (1959)

“Adults are just obsolete children, and the hell with them.” 

                                           – Dr. Seuss

 

If Godard needed just a gun and a girl, then Truffaut, quieter, gentler, needed only an understanding: that only through the eyes of a child, only through an unblemished canvass, can newness be glimpsed. It is there in the face of Jean-Pierre Léaud, who would grow up, and still be Truffaut’s wayward kid. It is there in the understanding that cinema is, was, a regimental system, pierced only now-and-then by Vigo-like geniuses, and that the ocean is waiting out there, somewhere, for those who want it. And it is there in the knowing: that everything in the child who would become the man is here. François grew up with this film inside him. You can imagine the young man, sitting on trains, in dark unlit rooms, surrounded by bodies and heads, with that electric ending spinning about inside him, growing in ferocity, straining for release.

And this is a film about releases, and freedom in great brush strokes. Léaud embodies strivings that are universal. The petit-bourgeois life of post-war France is as empty and ungraspable as any rigid system of thought. It represents the lives we have lived without understanding or connection. And for the young, who emerge into it, it is unbearable. This is a film of the misunderstood, of the neglected, living in grey streets with nothing to cling onto. It is the story of the breakaway, and the rupture that comes with alienation. And it is the story of those who, despite this, are wholly unsympathetic, and even despicable. We see it in Antoine’s responses to a child psychiatrist: he has stolen from his grandmother and cannot recognize his own wrongdoing. He is delinquent from the start, and knows only selfishness, learned from his mother. Truffaut, of course, was first a critic, and selfishness was his game. He knew what he did not want to do, perhaps even more than he knew what was needed. Like Antoine, he rallied against the existing formula, sometimes with sound and fury, altogether forgetting the debt owed to traditions. Yet the anger in the words, and in Antoine’s final escape, were so acutely necessary that they are inextricable from each other. And the ending is the break, the severing of cinematic history: the glance, straight at the camera, knowing and full of understanding. In that glance is Pierrot Le Fou. Umbrellas of Cherbourg. La Belle Noiseuse. Celine and Julie Go Boating. Hiroshima Mon Amour. Cleo From 5 to 7. Last Year at Marienbad. La Jetée. In the glance, everything comes to life.

Film what you know. Film what you are. Film what you see. And if you do it right, if you do it true, regardless of inadequacies, you might just alter film history. These are the lessons of Truffaut. They could only exist for a man, a child, who had nothing but cinema, and nothing to hope for but the irresistible lure of cinema’s boundless reflections. And they are lessons so that have been followed throughout the world: for the New Wave became our wave, the great flow of our consciousness, and there has never been an ebbing.

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