Les 400 Coups is not a masterpiece. So much the better for Francois Truffaut! In the first place the word has been so debased that it finally becomes meaningless. Next, and above all, with a masterpiece in his pocket at twenty-seven Truffaut would really have something to worry about - he would have to spend his life trying to shed the burden. Les 400 Coups is better than a masterpiece. Together with Hiroshima mon amour, it is one of the two most original films made in France since the war.
Unafraid to mix genres, Truffaut begins in the usual narrative vein, then, without warning, moves on to reportage, goes back to what appears to be the story and on to a portrait of manners, with a bit of comedy and tragedy inserted here and there. He tells us a complete story just as it should be told, makes his presence felt as a scrupulous observer of reality, turns investigator, then poet, and completes his film on a very beautiful lmage which is also a first-rate director's idea.
Every time one sees Les 400 Coups one wonders how Truffaut manages so miraculously to avoid confusion and chaos and end up with a work that is moving and coherent. The miracle lies in Truffaut's talent; every shot in the film is crowded with his ideas and imagination. Already in Les Mistons the threads of the narrative were caught up in the whirlwind, and what we tasted was the enchantment that attended the work and which before our eyes gave cohesion to a formless mass, turning it into a unique and engaging whole.
Truffaut's films make me think of the magician who says 'Look! Nothing in my hands, nothing in my pockets!' Dazzling tricks follow one after the other, and out of the hat pops the unexpected. But while he is a conjurer, Truffaut abhors illusionism. He does not create out of thin air. The material he uses is taken from what is richest and most solid - the real. There lies his secret. Resolutely turning his back on that 'certain tendency' that he had virulently denounced because it destroyed realism 'by locking human beings in a closed world, barricaded by formulae, plays on word maxims', Truffaut allows his characters Ito reveal themselves as they are before our eyes'. In this, as in many other things, he remains true to himself.
It is interesting to observe the extent to which his conceptions of the script, the editing and the direction were already present in his critical writing. Everyone knows the little series which aims to introduce great writers 'in their own words'.2 Nothing is easier than to introduce Truffaut lin his own words', by reference to his writing in Cahiers or Arts.
Go back and read his proclamation on the subject of the first Cinema-Scope films in Cahiers no. 25, and you will understand why he has chosen a similar process.
Are you shocked by the dislocated construction of Les 400 Coups? Go back to Cahiers no. 83 and re-read the article that he dedicated to Juvenile Passion where to him each shot seemed rich and interesting because it had the same value as all the others, and none had the function of preparing for the following shot.
You judge his film imperfect? And what if he wished it to be so? You doubt this? Consult Cahiers no. 475 and learn from the words of Robert Lachenay, a loyal friend and follower of Truffaut, that perfection does not exist without an element of baseness, that all the great films in the history of cinema were failures, that from the moment you acknowledge that the cinema is more than just spectacle, notions of failure and success lose their meaning.
Do you think that Truffaut the film-maker has short-changed his ideas as a critic? Take another look at his output in Cahiers or Arts and you will see - not without a few surprises - that Truffaut the critic has shaped the director of the same name.
What is Truffaut's purpose? To describe one of the most difficult periods in our lives, which adults with a short memory frequently endow with an aura of hypocritical beauty. Les 400 Coups is an episode in life's problems, the confusion of the individual thrown into the world without being asked first, and refused any means of adjusting. It is a faithful account of the incomprehension which parents and teachers often experience when faced with the problems of children waking up to adult life. A second birth, but no one will assume responsibility for the birth pangs. The child has no alternative but to forge an acceptable world for himself with the means at his disposal. But how can he escape the tragedy of everyday life, as long as he is torn between his parents - fallen idols - and an indifferent, if not hostile world?
To appreciate the accuracy of the film it is enough to take any manual of psychology or psychoanalysis and consult the chapter on the phenomenological description of 'the adolescent's difficult period of adjustment'. All the characteristic features of adolescence are evidenced in the personality and the situation of little Antoine Doinel.
But Truffaut, with a restraint that is all to his credit, finds it distasteful to go into too much personal detail, to take the case' of his hero to excess.
To secure the tears of his audience all the more easily, he could have made his Antoine an 'extreme case', His film would have gained in violence and facility. But there it is: with a kind of artistic masochism Truffaut refuses anything easy. He and Marcel Moussy have systematically drained the story of any too heavy emphasis. Antoine is neither too spoiled nor too unhappy; just an adolescent like so many others. It is indifference he comes up against, not ill-treatment. An unwanted child, he feels in the way, the intruder on a couple locked in the problems of existence. In a perpetual state of anguish he leaves behind one complicated situation only to fall into another, in a web of lies that is as stupid as it is inevitable. Who is to blame? Everyone, and no one. The film brings out a combination of circumstances as the apparent root of the boy's fate - socio-economic (financial situation of the parents, the cramped flat), family (relationship between the parents and with the child) and individual (Antoine's masochistic attitude in relation to his parents).
And so Truffaut's hero acquires an ambiguity that endows him with truth, for which the writers of the script and the dialogue must be congratulated. Antoine is a victim who at the same time colludes in his oppression. Compare his swaggering demeanour outside with his submissive attitude at home. Les 400 Coups has a note of authenticity and a deep truth that cannot fail to move the viewer. a deep truth that cannot fail to move the viewer.
It has been said that the film was autobiographical. Truffaut disclaims this completely. I am inclined to think that, after the fashion of one of his masters, Hitchcock, he is laying false trails for his audience. He muddles the clues as it takes his fancy. But lacking as yet the practised hand of the celebrated Hollywood Englishman, he doesn't quite manage to conceal what he is up to. Anyway, every film is in some sense autobiographical. For better or worse, the film absorbs and reflects the personality of the auteur. Les 400 Coups is what you might call an imaginary autobiography, a genre just as valid as the autobiography and in any case more artistic, since it allows a freer transposition. One could try, as certain literary critics do, to distinguish between the lived and the invented. A futile exercise, for yet again, what does Truffaut the individual matter here? Let's be content with saying that the subject matter of Les 400 Coups is the experiences of Truffaut and Moussy as children, reflected upon and transposed by Truffaut and Moussy as adults.
What should be emphasized are the qualities of the script and the mise en scene: a phenomenological description of adolescence with the characters and the action clearly situated right from the beginning, the complete freedom of the little hero as we watch. This idea of 'freedom' calls for an important comment: the impression is often that a hidden camera is following Antoine, that he has no idea that he is being filmed. And it is precisely this illusion of the 'direct' and 'untampered with' that gives the film that emotive quality which counterbalances the shock and disorder that might be generated by the film's beginning. The adoption of the television style for the psychology scene by no means constitutes a stylistic hiatus, but ultimately confirms the general impression of the 'direct'.
In this way Truffaut achieves a sense of the real that is rare in the cinema and is underlined by his unfailing concern to refer to authentic details. There is not a single shot where Truffaut does not use some element of the setting to send the profound truth of his subject shattering through the screen. He has an innate sense of inanimate objects and their relationship to human beings. As in the works of the great novelists, these characters also find themselves exposed to objects which oppose them with a form of resistance. From this derives a sense of duration to which we have been unaccustomed in the cinema. Truffaut has a passion for everything that at first sight seems trivial: the papers to be burned, the dustbin to be emptied, the curtains the boy uses to dry his hands, the sideboard from which he takes the cutlery, the banana skin he cuts up, etc. Things thus assume an importance and help to explain the hero's character.
I am also struck by the way the film moves from the particular to the general. The description of adolescence, as I said before, fits those given in specialist manuals. Antoine is simultaneously Truffaut and Moussy, you and me. Sartre said: 'You must know how to say we before you can say I.' To talk to us Truffaut has chosen to begin with the first person plural. In fact his film sometimes seems too general and not particular enough. But what does it matter, since Truffaut progresses consistently: in Les Mistons 'we' was a group of children, here it is one. Not bad going. Perhaps he will be reproached for some carelessness in the film's construction, a touch of rawness in the story. But is there really a story here? Isn't it rather as he has said himself, a chronicle of the thirteenth year?
The ending is very beautiful, stopping the film with the hero's gesture as he turns, leaving the door open to the future. But it still leaves us unsatisfied: what will Antoine be like when he gets through adolescence? No doubt Truffaut will deal with this other subject some day. Here his purpose was only descriptive.
As in Les Mistons, Truffaut's infinite tenderness towards his characters does not fail. He seeks to express it even better by referring to the filmmakers he admires: Vigo, Renoir, Rossellini. Sometimes he likes to pay them direct homage with those 'lavish quotations' he himself talked about in an articles. It is of little importance. For the moment Truffaut is not yet alone. He is going through his 'adolescence' as a director. He is still with the 'we' as a means of expression. By necessity, but most of all because of modesty (which is not the least of his qualities). And since I have taken the liberty of explaining our friend in his own words, I shall quote yet another of his articles: 'It must be acknowledged, clearly, that the greatest film-makers in the world are over fifty; but it is important to practise the cinema of one's own age and,if you are twenty-five and admire Dreyer, to aim to equal Vampyr rather than Ordet. Youth is full of small ideas, young film-makers have to make films that are absurdly fast, with characters in a hurry or shots piled on, vying for the last word; films full of small ideas. Later the small ideas will disappear and give way to a single, big idea.'
It only remains for me to wish that Truffaut may make many films, so that it will take as little time as possible before he addresses us in the first person singular.
Translated by Liz Heron
Cahiers du Cinema, Volume 1/ The 1950: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave/Part One: French Cinema /
Fereydoun Hoveyda: 'The First Person Plural' (article on Francois Truffaut's Les 400 Coups)
Edited by Jim Hillier
Harvard University Press