The 400 Blows
The closest any filmmaker has come to producing a cinematic Remembrance Of Things Past, François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle follows the director's fictional alter ego from adolescent moments of awakening conscience through 20 years of love affairs, odd jobs, artistic aspirations, failures, and moments of unexpected grace. At each stage, Doinel is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who at 14 answered a newspaper casting call for what would become Truffaut's first feature, 1959's The 400 Blows. It was a fruitful meeting, to say the least. More than once on the supplements included in the unimpeachably well-assembled, cycle-spanning box set collectively titled The Adventures Of Antoine Doinel, Truffaut tells the story of being mistaken for Léaud, even though their admitted physical similarities would hardly let them pass as twins. Perhaps those who made the mistakes sensed a deeper connection. Certainly Truffaut did: He saw, in Léaud's undirected youth, a kindred spirit, and the ideal stand-in for what was initially Truffaut's life story. A film whose historical significance is impossible to overstate, The 400 Blows initiated the French New Wave, finding vibrant new methods for telling stories born from a love of the movies, the theoretical principles laid out by Truffaut and his compatriots in Cahiers Du Cinema, and the necessities of filmmaking on a budget. But its focus alone would have been revolutionary. Told almost entirely from the perspective of Léaud's character and based heavily on Truffaut's own youth (as both of the disc's audio commentaries attest), The 400 Blows offers a portrait of the artist as a young delinquent, skipping school for movies, plagiarizing Balzac for a writing assignment, and living furtively in a friend's bedroom. As the film progresses, Léaud's parents' neglect and a budding intellectual curiosity never satisfied in school drive him deeper into the life of an outcast and closer to the film's haunting final image of a boy on the verge of an unknowable future. The ending is perfect in its ambiguity, but had Truffaut left it there, he would have denied viewers the chance to watch Doinel and Léaud grow up together. Antoine And Colette, a short film created for the 1962 anthology Love At 20, resumes the story with Léaud now independent, falling in love to Berlioz at a free concert, and discovering that growing up has its disappointments, as well. Antoine And Colette is a gem on its own, but its semi-comic tone sets the stage for 1968's Stolen Kisses, the series' second masterpiece. By Truffaut's own admission, Doinel belonged a little more to Léaud with each film, and Stolen Kisses finds the actor coming into his own as a deadpan physical comedian and trading blighted youth for oversized romantic impulses. Adrift in Paris after a dishonorable military discharge, Léaud moves from job to job (most memorably finding work as a hapless private detective) and from infatuation to infatuation, trying to reconcile the easy physical transaction of the prostitutes he visits with the impossible ideal of his employer's beautiful wife (Delphine Seyrig). In one extraordinary moment, a nervous Léaud mistakenly calls Seyrig "sir," then flees in embarrassment, the film staying with him through the retreat as a comic moment tilts into one of psychological horror, and then eventually back again. That sequence captures everything that made Truffaut an extraordinary director, but while there's more to be found in the subsequent entries, Doinel's character development remains more or less stuck there. Bed And Board (1970) and Love On The Run (1979) deal with marriage, fatherhood, adultery, jealousy, divorce, and the end of youth. But the perpetually boyish Doinel can't deal with them, and the series' tone curdles as a result. Bed And Board revives Stolen Kisses' comic assurance, but the sadness of the film's decaying domesticity keeps undermining it, giving it the air of a melancholy B-side to what's come before. As much epilogue as proper entry, Love On The Run finds Léaud/Doinel in the midst of France's first no-fault divorce and brings back virtually every character in the series, in flashback if not in the film proper. In one of the box set's many interview segments (which function as a kind of mini-cycle on their own, as Truffaut ages from boyish young prodigy to middle-aged man), the director himself admits that it's an unsatisfying conclusion to the series, though a pretty good film in its own right. Ever the critic, he's right, but his death at 52 a few years later made Love On The Run's final scene feel somehow appropriate. As the camera whip-pans from a happy ending to The 400 Blows' famous whirligig scene, it feels somehow right to leave Doinel afloat and in love forever.