Le Doulos (1962): Belmondo Plays Bogart

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“In this job you either end up poor or riddled with bullets.” – Jean-Paul Belmondo

Director Jean-Pierre Melville has an impeccable gift for taking the most mundane actions and behaviors and making them so compelling. In the opening notes of Le Doulos, we have an ordinary man strolling across a sidewalk, under an overpass, feet clacking on the pavement. The music rages behind him, as he’s enveloped in shadow and the title credits.

Melville readily leans into his penchant for gangsterism and Hollywood pulp introducing this man with a fedora and trenchcoat. They are an extension of each of his players. Just as each frame is equally tinged with the somber detachment readily available in any of his films. Because the characters are always products of their environment, incubated and cultivated by the writer-director, in the same way; their dress is an extension of their identity.

Le Doulos itself derives from a slang term for a type of “hat,” a police informant. The stoolie, of course, is one of the age-old cretins right up there with traitors and child molesters. No one has any pity for such a miserable excuse for a human being. Conventional wisdom dictates they deserve to be kicked out into the gutter or locked away with the rest of the animals.

Except in some sense, Melville’s picture isn’t making this sort of ready-made statement. There is more to his small-time criminal types, facilitated by a complex plot and nuanced characters. It comes down to the old quandary of honor among thieves. What does human nature have to tell us when wealth and women are involved?

In this particular story, Maurice is a recently paroled thief and as is often the case, he’s already got his next crime in the works. It’s a safe-cracking job involving a former accomplice named Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and one other party.

For being the lead, Belmondo takes some time to integrate into the story, eventually paying a house call on Maurice and his lady friend Therese. And yet from his first entrance, he takes to the environment like a fish to water. If Alain Delon helped develop the aesthetic of Melville, Belmondo deserves a prominent place as well. They both make compelling criminals because their charisma is irrefutable.

For me, a defining moment for the Belmondo persona was standing outside the movie house mimicking the tough guy iconography of Humphrey Bogart in Breathless (1960) because for French cinema he was at home in the same world and thus, there was hardly a more suitable partner in crime, as it were, than Melville.

One cannot say he’s carved out of the same block as Bogey. He’s impudent even a bit scrawny, but there’s nevertheless, a rogue charm to him. Handsome in a way that assumes the complete antithesis of a classical matinee idol.

I couldn’t help but think how quaint and simple petty theft was to commit in the old days. That is, until it isn’t. There’s nothing elaborate about the blue-collar crime, in fact, it’s a banal safe cracking job. We know not if there’s even any payoff worth noting. However, even this scenario gets botched when other gangsters come on the scene.

One cannot help but think of Band a Parte – made the following year — as Godard famously counted Melville among his idols, even giving him a small role in Breathless. He subsequently took his advice on how to edit the picture, hence the birth of his famous jump cuts.

At first, I assumed this latest wrinkle was the police being tipped off, but that would make our title too easy. This is not Melville. We must constantly revise our opinions of our central protagonists.  As is, it feels as if the film might be climaxing about an hour too early. How will there ever be a story out of what’s left to talk about? And yet Le Doulos stays true to form by analyzing such a stooge in his natural habitat.

Instead, he lets one criminal bleed out and another one get it in the gut from Maurice’s pistol. All of a sudden, more prison time seems an all-too-likely possibility as he sweats it out. This is where Belmondo shines, playing all sides, as a perceptive wheeler-dealer working both angles on the cops and robbers.

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Silien is openly accommodating to the police, including their hard-bitten chief (Jean Desailly). When they look to question him at the station — a wonderfully blocked sequence with nary a cut — a normally bland and subpar scenario we have to live with, is made far more compelling.

The informant begins his obligatory rounds including a visit to a gambling house. It’s a quintessential Melville moment as he follows the fedora through hatcheck as one of the blatant symbols at the core of his picture, as worn by Belmondo, in particular. It is his marker just as guns and trench coats are also some of Melville’s directorial calling cards.

Then Michel Piccoli walks through the side-door of the night club. Perhaps he’s the key. And yet it’s not him, just as it’s not the three female characters who are all pawns — not only compliant accomplices to the male lovers in their lives — but mechanisms of the director to move the story.

It would sound overtly harsh if most, if not all, of Melville’s characters were not also relayed to us in this fashion. Even this severity somehow fits the world and conveniently functions for the sake of the story.

What becomes evident is just how convoluted Le Doulos is, which is especially surprising for a French film but, of course, this is another fitting hallmark borrowed from American noir. Melville employs several expositional scenes and even some flashbacks, in order to fill in some ambiguities in the story thus far.

By the time we reach the finale and the final steps of this picture, there is a satisfying if fatalistic weight to the dramatic situation. The abysmally rain-drenched ending is also immersive cinema at its finest.

Because what is a gangster picture if not marred by some dark current of tragedy. Belmondo is not what we believed him to be and yet in the natural order, he cannot be allowed to exist. Fate has not allowed for it. Fittingly, his final act is to straighten his fedora in the mirror one last time. Bogart would have been proud. He went out an unequivocal anti-hero.

4/5 Stars

The Wild Child (1970) and Truffaut’s Empathy

Wild_child23.jpgThe Wild Child (L’Enfant Sauvage in French) is based on “authentic events,” as it says because Francois Truffaut became fascinated by a historical case from the 1700s. A feral boy was discovered out in the forests and then taken under the tutelage of a benevolent doctor.

Although he had initially wanted to adapt The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn got to it first and released the rendition of Helen Keller’s story to much acclaim. Instead, Truffaut pored over the medical observations of one Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard relating to the curious case of the aforementioned Victor of Aveyron. Somehow this effort follows in the same vein of The Miracle Worker but feels entirely organic and indigenous to Truffaut’s roots.

There are several immediately striking elements about The Wild Child that become immediately apparent. At first, I wasn’t expecting the black & white cinematography, but somehow it makes so much sense. It’s an intuitive expression of the world and frequent Truffaut collaborator, Néstor Almendros, shoots the world with a stark, no-frills tintype aesthetic proving quite extraordinary.  The pictorial simplicity is impeccable. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is equally spare, all but scoreless, aside from interludes of Vivaldi when appropriate.

The second notable aspect was the opening dedication to Jean-Pierre Leaud. This only makes sense if you consider the lineage of Truffaut and where he has come from. Certainly his first and greatest achievement was The 400 Blows, which starred Leaud as a wayward youth — not far removed from Truffaut’s childhood or Leaud’s own.

Their relationship remained closely intertwined even as it charted the course of the Nouvelle Vague with the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the resurgence of the Antoine Doinel character in Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, and the still forthcoming Bed and Board.

Of course, in following the historical discovery of a feral boy in the woods of 18th century France, the environment and context could not be farther removed. The opening moments are a striking wilderness chase scene with the naked boy living off the land and fleeing from a pack of hunting dogs, looking to smoke him out and earn the good graces of their masters.

It’s the story of civilization impinging on the natural world even if it is under unusual circumstances. The narrative isn’t an altogether novel one if you remember any historical examples of Native Americans who were shamelessly paraded through so-called “enlightened” western society, like sideshow attractions, only to be decimated by their diseases.

Still, Truffaut films are nothing if not personal, and The Wild Child fits into this personal collage. Each one of his films, individually and together, is sculpted by his ideas into vessels of art and creativity — ways in which to see the world and make sense of it.

If nothing else, somehow he seems to empathize with the circumstances. First, from the child’s perspective, to be left for dead, without parents until the age of 1,1 and then thrown into a world you cannot comprehend. But he has also evolved into the adult — in this case Dr. Itard — who, in a show of sympathy, makes the boy his charge, if not a pet project.

Truffaut is so invested in this role he throws off all pretense of merely being behind the camera and takes on a role in front of it. Both cinematically and practically, he is the boy’s mentor and guide without an intermediary of any kind.

You can see how deeply he empathizes with other human beings and somehow the good doctor seems like a fitting stand-in for Truffaut himself, on multiple accounts. In a society that looks down at this boy, seeing him merely as an outcast, an idiot, a pariah, Truffaut/Dr. Itard sees someone worth salvaging. He won’t give up on the creature’s intelligence nor his primal urge toward morality  — some latent iteration of the noble savage.

And yet he can still be an exacting, obsessive taskmaster. All for the creature’s own good mind you, but there you are. Whether it be the acquisition of language, intelligence, or cinema, you can easily see how any of the three could overlap. He has the end goal in mind, and he’s so unswervingly devoted to the success of his pupil, even to the point of feeling callous at times.

Was this the way it would have been with a wayward, youthful Leaud? Was this Truffaut with his mentor and father-figure Andre Bazin? All seem to be hinted at and as an audience, we can only surmise. Because you have this complicated tie between teacher, antagonist, and friend underlying this film, regardless of its period context.

Someone who opens up the world to you in their infinite wisdom, but no doubt causes you to want to rebel at other times. This is integral to our nature, not only as children but when we grow up too. Only when we’re older are we granted the full lucidity to see everything clearly with the benefit of hindsight. To see the motives behind discipline, tough love, and the implementation of rules.

If I’m to search my own heart, it is not always noble. It is not inclined toward good and has a predilection toward selfish and petty ideas. It takes some framework, some discipline to rein in, but not with the dismissiveness of the civilized elite from Paris and the learned academics. The honest to goodness humanity of Dr. Izard/Truffaut and the maternal affections of Madame Guerin are a fine place to start for reference.

Victor isn’t a miraculous case study during his time in their home by any means. He’s a work in progress. But isn’t he a far cry from where they found him — naked, wild, and living in a hole — self-sufficient though he may have been? As children, we are often content making mud pies in the sand when he could have something far better.

As someone who has dabbled often unsuccessfully in the field of education, you realize it’s the little victories that feel like moving mountains. Thus, when Victor begins to retain information, return home of his own accord, and spell at the word “LAIT” when he wants milk, these are miraculous in themselves.

Still, it takes the adult to have the foresight to know what will be in the child’s best interest. Things get more convoluted when the dynamics change. That, folks, is what we call the teenage years. Because it’s true sometimes, what people think is in their best interest differs greatly.

4/5 Stars

 

Claude Jade as Christine Doinel

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As often happens in the life of a classic movie aficionado, I became acquainted Claude Jade quite by accident and it happened at a random point in her filmography. In Hitchcock’s Cold War thriller Topaz (1969) she has a small part to play but the Master of Suspense was pointed to the actress by Francois Truffaut the French critic and director who had undertaken an immense interview with Hitch that has remained a treasure for cinema fanatics.

But still, that in itself has little bearing on Claude Jade. Jade came to the forefront of my mind after watching several entries in Truffaut’s famed Antoine Doinel saga starring Jean-Pierre Leaud, the first of these being Stolen Kisses (1968). And she immediately left an indelible mark on this viewer because she seemed the complete antithesis of our main character. Antoine was always a bit of a troublemaker, a vagrant, a malcontent, and whatever other negative descriptors you want to throw out. In some respect, it’s difficult to like him.

Yet from the first moment we see Christine Darbon, the wide-eyed ingenue, Antoine, and the audience are immediately taken with her for those very reasons. She’s so kind and sweet in ways that Antoine never manages to be. There’s an innocence and a playfulness behind her eyes that’s disarming. If we knew any better, we would say that he had no right in pursuing a relationship with a girl such as this. But to his credit, he does eventually get his life figured out just enough to begin to see her.

It’s these interludes of Stolen Kisses that we might say puppy love is bubbling up. There are furtive glances. Breakfast at the kitchen table. Walks through the neighborhood park together. It feels like a little slice of paradise and even in their utter differences, it seems that Antoine and Christine might make a life together. Perhaps they were even made for each other after all.

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In Bed & Board (1970), the next installment in the series, the couple is now married and rather happily so. They have a baby and he has a flower shop and she teaches violin lessons. But they have each other and they are content. Reading in bed together after the day’s activities are over or eating a dinner of baby food because going to the store like adults is far too difficult.  How could Antoine not be happy with a wife such as this?

However, he is always plagued by inner demons and infidelities. In this case, dismantling his marriage and all that is good with his life with another woman. But part of what makes Christine phenomenal is the immense grace in which she handles Antoine. Again and again, we are reminded of just how much he does not deserve her and yet she sees something in him that is worthwhile and worth staying with. If nothing else, she makes us appreciate Antoine as a protagonist, blessing him with a human side, and suggesting there are still some redeeming qualities left in him.  So by the film’s end despite the turmoil and turbulence, they went through, they still have enough affection to stay together.

In Truffaut’s final installment Love on the Run (1979), the passage of time is not so kind to them as is often the case with life. But what stays the same is Christine (and unfortunately Antoine too). She remains a caring figure lighting up the screen with her charm, youthful exuberance, and quiet dignity even with she is slighted.

I will end by quoting the eminent critic Pauline Kael who noted in one of her reviews that Claude Jade was “a less ethereal, more practical Catherine Deneuve.” If I’d have to wager a guess on what she was getting at, it would probably be something along these lines. Deneuve was always this aloof beauty who exists in almost a different stratosphere and if we might be so bold to make the assumption, she feels almost unattainable. Maybe she doesn’t live in the same world that we do. Hers is a cinematic existence. But Jade in her playful winks and everyday interactions makes us feel like we know her well.

Because her life with Antoine is not unlike our own in some respects. That makes us appreciate her immensely and adore her even moreso because she feels like one of us. Deneuve is revered because she is beautiful in an elegant way. She would never be one to get her hands dirty. But with Jade, there’s that immediate connection. Rather than create a dichotomy however between “ethereal” and “practical” I’d much rather say that I appreciate them both and the impact that they both had on French cinema.  Antoine Doinel, sometimes I think you’re an idiot. In fact, I know so. How could you not remain true to a woman with a face like that?

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This is my entry in the Reel Infatuation Blogathon….

 

Review: The 400 Blows (1959)

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Being a great believer in context,  it was a wonderful thing watching 400 Blows once more because I felt like I knew this man behind the camera so much better and I knew this character Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) even better than he knew himself. After all, he was just coming into his own in this initial film.  I was also aware of some cameos including Francois Truffaut himself, Jean-Pierre Brialy and of course Jeanne Moreau, all important forces in the French New Wave movement.

However, one the most powerful things is the degree of foresight we gain about Antoine Doinel. All the things that make up his life at this juncture in time have repercussions later on that Truffaut continued to examine as he matured. We can see the gears turning as the boy develops as an adolescent. He skips out on class to go to the cinema and the carnival. He purloins a bottle of milk out of thirst, steals little trinkets from the ladies room and finally a typewriter from his father’s work. He receives the ire of his teacher and goes home to the cramped conditions and turbulence of his home life. His mother and step-father are constantly bickering. His mother is having an affair. It’s not a very happy life or a firm foundation for a boy to grow up in. And it shows.

In many of these moments, the autobiographical aspects come to the fore. Before Antoine’s story was simply a depiction of realism but as time goes on it becomes more obvious that Truffaut is being very transparent in showing bits and pieces of his own experiences. What’s striking is that this is hardly a bitter film. Somber and melancholy, yes, but it hardly ever seems to cast blame. It shows the brief moments of reverie along with the pain and that’s why I am a great admirer of Truffaut. He’s a deeply heartfelt and personal filmmaker, no more evident than in The 400 Blows.

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Antoine Doinel is a vagrant and pretty dismal kid, getting in all sorts of trouble and yet Truffaut makes us sympathize with him and to an extent we see the director’s point of view too. He’s the one trying to fall asleep while his parents bicker about what to do with him. He runs away from home and relies on the charity of a friend. He’s being locked up in a jail cell on his way to juvenile detention. He talks to a psychologist candidly about his parents never trusting him. All those moments have the power to move.

And the film is so easy to watch, so simple and wonderful and honest and unassuming, it’s almost hard to remember how influential this film was for not only jump-starting the French New Wave but for rejuvenating cinema in general. Hollywood didn’t make movies like this. That’s all I had ever seen for the longest time. But the likes of Truffaut, Godard and even Renoir, De Sica and Rossellini revealed to me that there are numerous ways to make an impassioned cinematic experience.

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As always, my mind returns to the climatic freeze frame of The 400 Blows. It remains with me and part of its iconic status is undoubtedly due to how it sums up this boy so perfectly. There’s a sadness in the eyes that without saying anything denotes all that we have already seen. It’s the perfect summation of his story thus far and with that look, it’s difficult to forget his hardships–his flaws too. Perhaps it allows us to extend grace to him because we can see firsthand that he’s in dire need of some. He has not been offered much his entire life with true love and affection being traded for punishment and biting remarks. True, his story does not end here but it’s a telling chapter of his life. Arguably the most formative years for the rest of his existence.

Within the storyline, Truffaut includes passing references for his love of the cinema and even suggests his promise with his writing composition though his teacher accuses him of plagiarism. But from these troubled roots came a man who loved movies to an extent that few others could claim. He was passionate both as a critic, champion, and creator.

Thus, it makes perfect sense that this film was dedicated to the memory of Andre Bazin, the noted founder of Cahiers du Cinema. Truffaut undoubtedly owed a tremendous debt to the magazine and its editor but he also elevated it with his own amount of passion. That same passion comes out in The 400 Blows and really all the subsequent films he made before his death. His movies are wonderful because each one shows that he genuinely cares about the material on its own individual merit. That is the kind of director that I want to watch.

5/5 Stars

Love on the Run (1979)

love on the run 2You can’t just do anything at all and then say ‘forgive me!’ You haven’t changed a bit.” ~ Colette

The prospect of watching Love on the Run saddened me and not for the reasons you might expect. Not because it’s noted as the weakest film in Truffaut’s famed Antoine Doinel series, although that it is. Not because it utilizes a clip show rather like a lazy sitcom as some will undoubtedly note (although this does actually give way to some rather entertaining reminisces as Antoine crosses paths with two old acquaintances). And it’s not even because this is the last film in the series and Truffaut never got around to any more installments before his death in 1983. Though that is sad.

The truly heartbreaking thing about this film is not even the fact that Antoine and Christine (Claude Jade) are getting a divorce although that is at the core of it. It’s that Antoine, who has long been the focal point of these films with his certain brand of charming charisma, really has not changed a great deal.

Time and time again, his superficial relationships with women are explored and time and time again his self-destructive habits hardly seem playfully entertaining but if you want the most honest answer, it’s all rather disheartening.

He has a new girl who we meet in the opening credits. Her name is Sabine. She’s young, radiant, very pretty and works in the local record shop. If we didn’t know any better we could easily make comparisons between her and Christine.

We see that little boy from 400 Blows and even that same young man looking to win the affection of a cute brunette named Collete. However, now a few years down the road, none of that panned out. He’s terribly selfish, undeniably a cad and always trying to say he’s sorry to save face. Sabine says it well when she calls him a pickup artist (You sure have a strange idea about relationships. You seem to only care about the first encounter. Once they’re together it’s all downhill).  

However, if we look again we remember that Doinel’s home life was hardly a prize, schoolmasters were unfeeling and his mother passed away — the only real family he had in the world.
Maybe, love on the run 1Antoine Doinel is a character who thinks only in the cinematic and it is true that he often functions in a bit of a faux-reality. He seems normal but never quite is. He seems charismatic but we are never won over by him completely. Still, we watch the unfoldings of his story rather attentively.

Like all the women who he tiptoed around with, as an audience, we have liked him but never truly loved him — an important distinction to make. And coincidentally, we also see right through him. Perhaps because he’s often too much like us or other times not enough like us. It’s hard to put a finger on which one it is exactly.

We leave the film essentially where it began. Antoine has once more been scolded by his girl and made up. It’s difficult to know quite precisely how to feel about that. Love on the Run is worth its nostalgia, woven in between the most recent moments of Doinel’s life. While his character is trying, he is still strangely compelling. But at this point, it’s hard to know what to do with him. Nevertheless, Francois Truffaut was unparalleled in the continuous narrative he was able to craft — flawed, personal and most certainly memorable.

3.5/5 Stars

Weekend (1967)

weekend1One of Jean-Luc Godard’s strengths is his capability of feigning pretentiousness, while still simultaneously articulating humor. His film opens with its first of many inter-titles, “A film adrift in the cosmos,” followed by the equally poignant “A film found in a dump.”

Our protagonists Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corrinne (Mireille Darc) are hardly protagonists at all, but curmudgeon bourgeoisie couple both caught up in affairs and preparing to out into the country in order to acquire Corinne’s rightful inheritance from her dying father. But this is never a character study and the actual arrival at the home of her parents is of little consequence. It’s another occurrence in a long string of events that Godard plays at with acerbic wit.

We are constantly reminded that this is an age of sexual revolution and political unrest–the class struggle against the tyranny of the powers that. In foreshadowing the events of the 68ers or even putting a finger to the social unrest, Godard is not alone. It’s how he does it that should be of note.

Weekend quickly becomes a discordant cacophony of sound and image that immaculately illustrates the dissonance of the decade.  Rather like a Tati film, Godard uses color prolifically, but it’s hardly as innocent as the former. The colors show the pools of blood and piles of wreckage scattered across the land–In one instance inane and another horrifying.

It’s the emblematic film of the modern age of noise pollution where Godard practically tortures us with the sound of car horns. Constantly adding to the general din. Not to mention the universal, ubiquitous road rage that overtakes everyone and leads to heavy carnage. Some seen, some unseen. Meanwhile, actors or real-life historical figures–the distinction is difficult–including St. Just (Jean-Pierre Leaud) wander the wasteland spouting off inconsequential rubbish in anachronistic garb.

weekend2Conflagrations engulf cars and human bodies while above the din comes the piercing screams of a woman bemoaning the loss of her Hermes handbag. We cannot take this anyway but humorous because it once again is yet another moment of utter insanity.

The French countryside becomes the perfect locale for an apocalypse mixed with a modern coup de’tait. There’s a call to arms for guerrilla tactics–a new French Revolution. Still, Roland and Corinne frantically hurtle towards their destination of Oinville. Their actions there are far from unexpected highlighting the baseness running through the entire film.

Once again it feels of little consequence that the pair is captured by a band of cannibalistic, free-loving revolutionaries. Cracking eggs on lifeless bodies and painting on naked ones. It’s pretty strange. Godard slips in a bit of love of the cinema as their call names include Battleship Potemkin, The Searchers, and Johnny Guitar. But there’s little point to it, only another pointless attribute in this narrative of volatile absurdity. But in that respect, Godard has hit his point home, by spurning convention as always and supercharging his film with political chops. It drags a bit in the second half, but he salvages it with the utter insanity of it all.

Furthermore, Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard are absolutely fabulous at utilization tracking shots to the nth degree in several instances, namely with the initial traffic jam extending for what feels like eons and then camera cycling through the town as the music plays in the background and our two travelers wait for their next ride. Let’s not forget the final moments of Weekend either, where Corinne has been transformed into a fellow commune member feasting on a scrumptious piece of meat with a fellow hippie. Her husband was not so lucky. There’s little to no need to say what happened to him.

4/5 Stars

Bed and Board (1970)

bedandboard1Arguably the greatest French comic was Jacques Tati and like Chaplin or Keaton he seemed to have an impeccable handle on physical comedy, combining the human body with the visual landscape to develop truly wonderful bits of humor. Bed and Board is a hardly a comparable film, but it pays some homage to the likes of Mon Oncle and Playtime. There’s a Hulot doppelganger at the train station, while Antoine also ends up getting hired by an American Hydraulics company led by a loud-mouthed American (Billy Kearns) who closely resembles one of Hulot’s pals from Playtime. Furthermore, there are supporting cast members with a plethora of comic quirks. The man who won’t leave his second story apartment until Petain is dead and buried at Verdun. No one seems to have told him that the old warhorse has been dead nearly 20 years. The couple next door that is constantly running late, the husband pacing in the hallway as his wife rushes to make it to his opera in time. There’s the local strangler who is kept at arm’s length until the locals learn something about him. The rest is a smattering of characters who pop up here and there at no particular moment. Their purpose is anyone’s guess, and yet they certainly do entertain.

In other ways, Francois Truffaut is a very different director than Tati when it comes to his filmmaking. His protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a bit autobiographical, but he still seemingly functions outside of normal time and space as he continues to float easily in between jobs and doesn’t seem to worry much about anything. First, it’s a flower shop that doesn’t get much traffic and then the American company where Doniel hardly does anything but pilot remote control boats. But like before in Stolen Kisses (1968), it is Christine (Claude Jade) who still gives him the edge of humanity. Early on we notice that they go to the cellar — the same cellar he made advances on her two years prior — except now things are a little different. They are married now and happily so. He experiments with dying flowers while she takes on a violinist pupil. Soon enough follows a baby boy with his loving parents dueling on what to name him. They even have a dinner of baby food, because who wants to go to the store like a grown-up? At night they cuddle up and read together in bed.

bedandboard2But as Truffaut usually does, he digs into his character’s flaws that suspiciously look like they might be his own. Antoine easily gets swayed by the demure attractiveness of a Japanese beauty (Hiroko Berghauer), and he begins spending more time with her.  Thus the marital turbulence sets in thanks in part to Antoine’s needless infidelity –revealed to Christine through a troubling bouquet of flowers. It’s hard to keep up pretenses when the parent’s come over again and Doinel even ends up calling on a prostitute one more. It’s as if he always reverts back to the same self-destructive habits. He never quite learns.

Christine doesn’t deserve a cad such as him, but then again perhaps many people aren’t deserving of love, but we willingly give it to them anyways. The bottom line is that Antoine and Christine still love each other to the end, but that doesn’t make married life with a small child any less difficult. As is his proclivity, Truffaut gracefully touches on what it means to progress from adolescence to adulthood, singleness to married life. He does it with comedic touches that are forever underlined by searing romantic drama. It’s continually engaging just as Antoine Doinel continues to captivate us. Would I ever want to know him personally? Probably not, but I am intrigued by his character. If nothing else it’s a worthy continuation of Antoine and Christine’s life story. Antoine is not the only one smitten with Christine. She wins over the audience as well.

“I’m not like you. I don’t like things fuzzy and vague and ambiguous. I like things to be clear.” – Christine talking to Antoine

4/5 Stars

 

Stolen Kisses (1968)

stolenkisses7Charles Trenet’s airy melody “I Wish You Love” is our romantic introduction into this comedy-drama. However, amid the constant humorous touches of Truffaut’s film, he makes light of youthful visions of romance, while simultaneously reveling in them. Because there is something about being young that is truly extraordinary. The continued saga of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel is a perfect place to examine this beautiful conundrum.

To begin with, Doinel is still a bit of a trouble-making vagrant, and his time in the military was mostly spent being AWOL. He gets dishonorably discharged and the first thing he does when he gets out seemingly fits what we know of his character. He scampers across incoming traffic and finds the nearest brothel. What begins after that is an increasingly long list of odd jobs. First as a night clerk, before he unwittingly gets mixed up with a private investigator and a jealous husband which ends up getting him fired. Next, comes his most prolific phase as a detective and he’s such a horrendous tail it’s hilarious. But an old vet takes him under his wing and Doinel learns how to be a true detective. Soon he becomes a plant at the local shoe store of a Mr. Tabard after a fine showing wrapping shoe boxes — something he proves to be absurdly awful at.

stolenkisses3In fact, all in all, if we look at Doinel he doesn’t seem like much. He’s out of the army, obsessed with sex, can’t do anything, and really is a jerk sometimes. Still, he manages to maintain an amicable relationship with the parents of the innocent, wide-eyed beauty Christine (Claude Jade in her spectacular debut). Theirs is an interesting relationship full of turbulence. We don’t know the whole story, but they’ve had a past, and it’s ambiguous whether or not they really are a couple. They’re in the “friend zone” most of the film and really never spend any significant scenes together. Doinel is either busy tailing some arbitrary individual or fleeing pell-mell from the bosses wife who he has a crush on.

If we look at Antoine’s track record and take another look at Christine, there’s no way they should ever, ever be together not in a million years. But Truffaut does bless Doinel with bits of depth even amidst the everyday comic absurdities. He is a young man always running his hand nervously through his hair. He practices English by record trying to improve himself and he’s obviously looking for intimacy like we all are. In one particularly enlightening turn of events, he begins repeating names in front of the mirror to the point that it becomes taxing. But what young person hasn’t stared at themselves in the mirror or nervously talked to themselves? He truly is a young man still trying to figure things out. He’s allowed to have crushes and make mistakes. Perhaps he doesn’t deserve love. Most of us probably don’t, but that cannot stop him from being ever enraptured by it.

stolenkisses6By the time he’s given up the shoe trade and taken up tv repair he’s already visited another hooker, but Christine isn’t done with him yet. She sets up the perfect meet-cute and the two young lovers finally have the type of connection that we have been expecting. When we look at them in this light, sitting at breakfast, or on a bench, or walking in the park they really do seem made for each other. Their height perfectly suited. Her face glowing with joy, his innately serious. Their steps in pleasant cadence with each other. The hesitant gazes of puppy love.

Before the romantic interludes of the Before Trilogy or the adolescent expanses of Boyhood by Richard Linklater, Francois Truffaut was the master of such topics adeptly mixing drama, comedy, and touches of biography to tell personal, heartfelt tales. Jean-Pierre Leaud continues to make Doinel into a character that is continually watchable, because of the very flaws that we criticize. The days of The 400 Blows seem so long ago now and back then he seemed like such a solitary figure. Thankfully now he has the sweet effervescent beauty of Claude Jade to stand by his side. The eminent Pauline Kael, noted her to be “a less ethereal, more practical Catherine Deneuve.” That is a compliment if I’ve ever heard one, and she is a welcomed addition to Stolen Kisses, a thoroughly riveting journey of young love from one of France’s most accessible masters.

4/5 Stars

Day for Night (1973)

dayfornightposter10 years prior Jean-Luc Godard made his own film about movie-making entitled Contempt (1963). It too delved into what it looked like to make films, as well as the individuals behind the camera because their relationships undoubtedly affect what is revealed in front of it. His colleague Francois Truffaut came out with his own meta-film about film, but Godard was open with his criticism. In fact, their long friendship suffered because Godard accused his longtime collaborator of selling out and telling a lie.

However, if we look at Day for Night today, that feels a little harsh, because while Truffaut’s film is engrossing and different than his earlier New Wave work, he is, in general, a more accessible director on the whole than Godard. That should certainly not take away from what he gifted to his audience. What he does is color the lines between film and real life. Because, while one mirrors reality, it can never quite replicate it and things get messy when the two begin to get in the way of each other.

Immediately we are thrown into a street scene only to learn minutes later that it’s only a set; these commonplace people only extras filling up a cinematic space. It’s the perfect entry point into the meta nature of the film. Ferrand (Truffaut himself) is the director flooded with all your typical problems, setbacks, and deadlines. He must work around his stars, navigating the drama that comes about with so many personalities all gathered together. Severine is a has-been starlet with troubles remembering her lines. Alexandre is her love interest, a fading star in his own right who is aging gracefully. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the young heartthrob, who secured a script girl position for his girlfriend, but their playful romance is not without bumps. All the while everyone waits with baited breath for the arrival of transcontinental star Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown followed by a marriage to a distinguished doctor.

We are privy to series of takes, rushes, and all the decisions that are going on behind the scenes. It is in many ways far fuller and more in-depth than the picture Godard gives, but Truffaut maintains the same respect for his heroes. He goes so far as name dropping: Hitchcock, Hawks, Bresson, Godard himself, Bergman, Rossellini, Lubitsch, Bunuel, Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, not to mention an initial dedication to the Gish sisters. Even Citizen Kane and The Godfather, two of cinema’s landmark achievements, are both alluded to in passing.

But adding an exclamation point to everything is the drama of death, romantic affairs, and even a pregnancy, suggesting that life is a lot messier than a moving picture. All the strips of celluloid get tied together in a nice bow. They can be explained away by a plot point. They can be completely discarded on the cutting room floor. Or a double can be hired as an easy fix for any discrepancy. In this, there is a falseness that fails to perfectly align with reality. There is no perfect way to convey the truth, because everything, even a documentary, can never be complete subjective reality. A mirror image is only a reflection of what is real. That is part of what Truffaut is getting at and that is part of the irony of his row with Godard.

You only have to look at its title, because Day for Night points to the inherent artificiality of cinema, but Hollywood films especially.  So, far from telling a lie, Truffaut seems to riddle the film industry with all sort of holes, pointing out the difficulties that come with such a business. Life and film may meet and overlap, but they can never truly reconcile their differences because there is bound to be contention along the way that cannot be perfectly remedied by even the greatest director.

But far from condemning the art form, it’s important to realize Truffaut is pronouncing his undying affection for the medium. He was the one who famously asserted, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” This man unquestionably loved movies and it shows.

4.5/5 Stars

The 400 Blows (1959)

This French New Wave film directed by Francois Truffaut, more aptly titled The Wild One or Raising Hell, is about a young boy named Antoine. He comes from a working class family and his parents are struggling and frustrated. In school he gets poor grades and his teacher often punishes him. Annoyed with his life, he runs off for a time committing petty crimes and exploring the streets with a friend. That ends when he is caught stealing his father’s typewriter. Fed up for the last time his parents send him away to an observation center for boys. After he arrives Antoine escapes and runs to the ocean a sight he has never seen. With that the camera zooms in and we clearly see the face of this troubled, young boy. It is easy to appreciated this film because it does not glamorize the situation but tries to deal with it sensitively. Truffaut made a very good one here reflecting on his own experiences.

5/5 Stars