The 400 Blows (François Truffaut / France, 1959):
(Les Quatre cents coups)

The truculent critic becomes a heartfelt poet, "et O ces voix d’enfants chantant dans la coupole." A widening adolescent vision for François Truffaut’s feature debut, opening with Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) already in trouble. (Sent to the classroom corner after getting caught with a saucy postcard, the aspiring writer scribbles his first verse on the smeary wall.) The camera pans across the students while an inane rhyme is dictated on the blackboard, then pauses on a funny tyke tearing one notebook page after another with ink-stained fingers. "Poor France, what a future," grouses the teacher (Guy Decomble). Things at home are hardly more inspiring, mom (Claire Maurier) tells the boy to take out the trash while stepdad (Albert Rémy) has his goofy jokes and racing almanacs to worry about. Late for school and off to the fairgrounds, fibbing to instructors and filching from the shop, the shenanigans of a thoroughgoing education. The counselor can only shrug to the parents: "Maybe it’s a question of genetics." A precocious fluidity carries the mixture of hardness and lyricism, childhood’s frustrations for Truffaut are never far from its lilting delights. Antoine’s night on the streets (complete with a cameo from Rebel Without a Cause’s milk bottle) affords a sharp snapshot of Pigalle in winter, the centrifugal carnival ride becomes a giant zoetrope lantern (cf. Bergman’s Fängelse). Vigo is explicitly evoked twice (a dwindling calisthenics excursion viewed from the rooftops, a horde of felines in a friend’s bedroom), the family’s happiest time is a trip to the movie theater for a jolly dose of Rivette. (Allusions are a tricky matter, a taste for Balzac leads mainly to burning curtains and accusations of plagiarism.) Peering through the barred window of a police wagon, the young protagonist’s POV floats through a sad yet enchanted cityscape; placed "under observation" at a juvenile reformatory, he takes his slaps with resignation until he can dash off to the sandy edge of the world. The finale’s famous freeze-frame is a Rimbaud illumination (Enfance), Soderbergh’s King of the Hill picks up the line of thought. Cinematography by Henri Decaë. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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