Now this is the kind of cinema redemption I hoped for. After watching Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, in which the word Fin appears across the young protagonist’s face as he wades in the sea, I went looking for matching images from the two Simpsons episodes in which characters make films that end with a big on-screen Fin. Specifically, Barney Gumble’s Pukahontas in “A Star is Burns” (season 6, episode 18) and Nelson Muntz’s Life Blows Chunks in “Any Given Sundance” (season 19, episode 18). As you might guess from the title, Life Blows Chunks borrows liberally from Truffaut’s film. And now, when Nelson wades into the sea at the end, I get it.
By the way, if you want a capsule description of The 400 Blows, you could do worse than to say it chronicles a few weeks in the life of the Nelson Muntz of Montmartre, circa 1959, right down to the chaotic household and alarmingly callous mother. If Gilberte Doinel (Claire Maurier) isn’t also smoking her way towards enough Laramie Bucks to redeem for a golf umbrella, it’s only because Truffaut’s characters (including the 12-year-old hero) already smoke other brands (or roll their own). Young Antoine Doinel gets in trouble at school, which leads to trouble at home, which leads to more trouble at school. He runs away, crashes at a friends’ house, and ends up lugging a stolen typewriter around Paris, vainly attempting to pawn it, before finally landing in a juvenile detention facility for “observation”.
It’s vivid and immediate, alternately sad and funny; I see why audiences and critics alike embraced it. Still, I never feel like I entirely get classic French cinema. Give me Max von Sydow playing chess on the beach with Death, and I know where I am. Give me a spirit medium channeling a samurai’s ghost, and I’m right at home. I know what I should be paying attention to. But French films often seem to me to be exercises in just watching things happen. The characters go about their lives, for better or for worse, without much indication — as far as I can tell — what the viewer is supposed to make of it. (I’m sorry I can’t explain it any more clearly or eloquently than that.) I remember feeling this way after L’Atalante and Les Enfants du Paradis and Le Souffle au Coeur; it’s the reason there are so many French films on my CinemaShame list. I’ve stayed away from them because I’m afraid I won’t appreciate them.
So did I appreciate The 400 Blows? I…think so. Young Jean-Pierre Leaud is wonderful as the protagonist, Antoine Doinel, and Truffaut accurately captures that youthful sense of always being in trouble, of being punished as much for attempted good deeds as for bad, of minor lies suddenly spiraling out of control. And Truffaut’s seeming refusal to judge his characters fits well with his vision of a world in which the adults aren’t any better — any more honest, or practical, or emotionally consistent — than the children they find themselves responsible for. This alone would set it apart from most coming-of-age tales, which are usually anxious to provide at least one role model. It’s not surprising to hear Truffaut say, in an interview that’s among the Criterion extras, that the film wasn’t released in Spain because Franco’s censors wanted so many cuts “it would’ve been a short.”
On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong about Truffaut’s style. Maybe it all Means Something. After watching the film through, I turned on the commentary track on the Criterion disc and randomly chose a scene. The image of the characters descending a staircase going downwards to the right, the commenter solemnly informed me, can be recognized by “students of visual literacy” as symbolizing the protagonist’s “moral decline”. Am I missing that much subtext in every scene? Hey, at least I got that all the Christmas decorations are ironic.
I intended to start my path to redemption with something lighter, something without subtitles, and then to work my way up to the French films on my list. But apparently there’s a “long wait” on Netflix for Network, so I jumped ahead to something I figured would be daunting enough to ensure easy availability. (It’s the same principle according to which I rearranged my movie queue when some of my discs didn’t make it back to Netflix and I wondered if they’d been stolen. I moved all the silent and/or foreign films to the top. Enjoy the early expressionist cinema of Victor Sjostrom and Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears, movie thief!) The 400 Blows was far more accessible than I feared it might be. I’m still a bit intimidated by Serious French Film, but at least I’m getting more references to it.