Les Quatre Cents Coups [The 400 Blows]
d. François Truffaut / 1959 / France / 99 mins
Viewed at: The Box @ FACT (Liverpool, UK)
Where to begin with a classic like this? I suppose I should admit, first of all, that Les Quatre cents coups is the short answer to that horribly fruitless question, ‘what is your favourite film?’. It is neither the peak of entertainment cinema or a film I would necessarily recommend to anyone – mainly for fear that, in all likelihood, they will find it ‘boring’ – but if I’m forced to give an answer, that answer is invariably Francois Truffaut’s 1959 classic that, along with Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) and Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960), helped to kickstart that great revolutionary period of French (and international) cinema, La Nouvelle Vague.
Surprisingly enough, for a film that I covet so much, I think this is maybe only the fifth or sixth time I have seen it. And this was also, perhaps, the longest I have gone without revisiting it since the first encounter at university. I can only assume that I had been afraid of overexposure in the past, not wanting to ruin the magic of a film I hold so dearly in my mind. And why is that? Why do I continue to adore a film which possesses a fairly uneven narrative that unravels at a snails pace, a film which veers between intensive bouts of (occasionally) lacklustre dialogue and periods of wordless mundanity? Why can’t I just say that Casablanca is my favourite film and save all the hassle of explanation?
Well, for starters, Les Quatre cents coups was the first film that I saw in the early days of my film degree that made me truly understand and appreciate the virtues of film theory and gave me the ability to read films on a number of levels. In doing so, it allowed me to abandon my previous, surface readings of films (usually something along the lines of ‘wow, how amazing was that shot’ or ‘hell yeah, that was an awesome line’) and understand the wider context of individual films and individual filmmakers. (This all sounds very elitist, and it probably is, for which I apologise.) Anyway, because I had a fascination with the French New Wave and someone else had nabbed the tutorial presentation slot for À bout de souffle the following week, I put my name down to present a paper on Les Quatre cents coups. Unlike most other ‘art’ films I had seen up until that point, I understood most of this one straight away and wrote my paper on the parallels between the fairground scene and that great technological precursor to cinema, the zoetrope. I argued that it was all an in-joke of sorts on behalf of Truffaut, a cheeky suggestion that the nouvelle vague would herald a new cinematic dawn.
The other major reason that I so often cite this as my favourite film (and Truffaut as one of my favourite directors) is the sheer volume of what I consider to be moments of unparalleled cinematic genius. Most directors struggle to create just one scene that remains in the minds of viewers for years to come, yet others simply have a knack for creating images of brilliant potency. In my opinoin, Truffaut is certainly in the latter group, and Les Quatre cents coups is a veritable gold mine of memorable scenes that, for one reason or another are burned into my mind. Take, for example, the aforementioned fairground scene, the milk stealing sequence, the punch and judy show, Antoine’s ‘interview’ with the psychologist and the sentimental, yet brilliant, finale. Truffaut and co-writer Marcel Moussy also come up with some great lines, my favourite being the toungue-in-cheek in-jokery of “pity you, and France in ten years” (in all its variant translations).
And so all of this cinematic worship was brought to bear on the most recent re-release of Les Quatre cents coups by the British Film Institute, which has been touring around the UK and is visiting Liverpool for a one week run in The Box at FACT. Despite my excitement at seeing the film in an actual cinema for the first time (a VHS dub in a partially darkened university auditorium doesn’t really cut it), I was slightly concerned that we may well be treated to a heavily thrashed 35mm print (such as the one used for the recent re-release of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia) or, far worse, a simple DVD screening in a cinema which is already little more than a glorified lounge room (albiet a comfy one with a rather large screen and decent sound, in which I love watching films). Suffice to say, my fears were allayed when a bright, fresh 35mm print struck up, followed by a wide smile spreading across my face as Jean Constantin’s theme rang out and the opening credits rolled.