The 400 Blows ★★★★½

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 13: French New Wave

It's French New Wave week at the Film School Dropout challenge! Which in many ways makes this the most problematic week we've tackled yet, when it comes to our writeups; because this is the one movement so far that by far has already had an immense amount of critical, academic writing devoted to it, so much so that it can be overwhelming to know where to begin and when to stop when it comes to something as simple as doing a little research about one of these movies before watching it. And indeed, what I've been coming to learn this year is that this movement is far more significant to film history besides just whatever innovations it brought to cinema on its own; for this is really the first time in history that the academic world of professional scholars started embracing film as a legitimate form of the fine arts, when up to then it had been known primarily as an outlet for cheap entertainment, one that could sometimes deliver projects of high quality but that certainly didn't deserve to have dissertations written about it, or entire programs at universities devoted to it, a process for example that happened in the world of novels in the 1920s, the first time you ever saw things like MFA programs at colleges for creative writing (and not by coincidence the years when most of the literary world's major awards were created).

The academic embrace of an artistic medium is always a double-edged sword; for on the one hand, it's essentially an official recognition by the historians of our society that it's a subject that deserves to stick around, and no artistic medium or genre has ever ended up surviving without this embrace by the ivory-tower crowd. (For a contrasting example, note how the academic world never was able to embrace slam poetry, and how as a result it went in 30 years from "the future of literature" to now an eye-rolling embarrassment that barely even exists.) But on the other hand, with the embrace by the academic community comes the transformation of that artistic medium into a fussy, overly analytical, often joyless subject, because that's what academes do -- they take things and like vampires suck out all the fun and spontaneity they used to have, leaving behind a falsely pious sense of reverence and a string of ten-dollar words written expressly in a way so that only their fellow academes can understand what the hell they're even talking about. (But for more, see my epic 14-part series, Ken Burns Has Ruined Everything I Ever Used to Like. Donate a thousand dollars towards it and receive this coffee cup!)

And so it was with the French New Wave, which to remind you started as a series of intellectuals writing for the academic magazine Cahiers du cinéma, who were determined after World War Two to break with the currently popular opinions about cinema held by the hoi polloi in their country, and whose main contention was that film should be considered as important a medium for storytelling as novels are, and directors thought of more as authors than technicians, which is quite literally where we get the academic term "auteur" to describe fine-art directors with singular visions. In many ways this is great, and we wouldn't have the lasting appreciation we now have for people like Charlie Chaplin, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock without these French New Wave intellectuals championing and dissecting them in a series of essays and books (and certainly there'd be no such things as film schools or film festivals, both of which first started existing in big numbers not by coincidence at the same time as the rise of the French New Wave school of thought); but for a bunch of people who know how to embrace wild and maverick artists, academes are notoriously lousy at being able to bring such reckless wildness to their own projects, leading to infamously talky and inscrutable snoozers which has unfortunately become yet another hallmark of the French New Wave, one so indelible that even 60 years later we still have the stereotype of "European cinema" as pretentious, head-scratching, endlessly blathering weirdness.

Like everyone else, I'm carrying all this baggage with me into French New Wave week here, which despite my best intentions is already having an influence on how I'm seeing these movies; take the first one on the list, for example, François Truffaut's 1959 The 400 Blows, not the first-ever French New Wave film but the first to gain international popularity and subsequent validation of the movement. (It won the Best Director award at that year's Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for an Oscar in writing.) Titled after a French slang term that means "to raise hell," and based more than just a little loosely on Truffaut's own childhood, it's the coming-of-age story of a young ne'er-do-well who is not particularly liked or wanted by his family, passed around from relative to relative until finally landing back with his disinterested parents, and who as a result has become a notorious juvenile delinquent down at the harsh public school he attends. The movie itself, then, is simply a languid, free-flowing look at a year in the life of our young antihero Antoine, as he regularly skips school to take in entire days at the movie theater, becomes a fan of controversial writer Balzac and is punished by his teachers for it, commits a series of petty crimes more out of boredom than anything else, then is eventually given up on by pretty much everyone in his life and shipped off to a militaristic reform school, ending on a wistful note as he temporarily escapes one day and finally visits the ocean, an unfulfilled dream he's had his entire childhood.

I admit, I had a hard time at first getting into this movie; it's as slow as freaking molasses, with these sometimes 10- or even 15-minute scenes were seemingly nothing of importance takes place and barely a single line of dialogue is spoken, which at first glance seems to belie everything Truffaut had written about in his role as a critic about the vitality and potential of modern cinema. (For those who don't know, Truffaut was known as the harshest and most unforgiving critic on the Cahiers du cinéma staff, endlessly insulting about most of the other directors currently working in the French film industry, and only started making movies himself as a sort of "put up or shut up" ultimatum demanded by his peers.) But like so many others, once I allowed myself to embrace the deliberate slow pace of The 400 Blows, I found myself starting to get more and more drawn into it as the deep character study Truffaut meant it as; because I'll tell you, I've rarely seen a film that so perfectly gets across the pure joy inherent in skipping a day of school for a day of movies, pinball and candy instead, and this wouldn't come across nearly as powerfully if not for it being conveyed through a mostly wordless 15-minute montage where we simply follow the boys around while they're having fun.

That's essentially what this entire film is like, if you can learn to embrace its unique storytelling technique; storytelling as naturalism, that is, which like Italian Neo-Realism is dedicated to faux-documentary "fly on the wall" style camerawork, but like Expressionism also finds it important to add a sense of visual poetry and formalistic beauty to this camerawork. (If nothing else, certainly this movie features more visually gorgeous black-and-white cinematography than just about any movie I've so far seen this year in the Film School Dropout challenge, and I don't think it's any coincidence that these were the same years that photographer Ansel Adams first publicly published his "Zone System" specifications for capturing especially exquisite gray-scale images.) And that's basically the French New Wave in a nutshell, as far as I'm concerned -- something that's been codified by now to the point of parody, a movement that is easily brushed off if you're only half-paying attention to the films in question, but with the ability to still dig down to the exciting essence as long as you're willing to take your time and keep an open mind.

Of course, it didn't hurt that the French New Wave was primarily a youth movement as well, full of sexy, short-haired twentysomething Parisian artists who were embracing the shiny, silver Mid-Century Modernist era at its fullest; but much more on that when we look at tomorrow's FSDO pick, Jean-Luc Godard's perennially hip 1960 Breathless, released not by coincidence at the same time John Kennedy became President in the US.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews