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The 400 Blows

The 400 Blows(1959)

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Talk about an embarrassment of riches! The Criterion Collection's massive and handsomely designed boxed set of The Adventures of Antoine Doinel is comprised of four feature films, one short, one supplementary disc and an exhaustive booklet of liner notes. All of these different elements all point to one question that you may be pondering: Who is "Antoine Doinel"? The fictional character Antoine Doinel is not really fictional at all. He is based on writer/director Francois Truffaut and star Jean-Pierre Leaud, with a sprinkling of all the film's various co-writers. Starting with the feature The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut's first feature film, Doinel started as a character based largely on the director's difficult adolescent life. But with each subsequent film, from the short Antoine and Colette (1962) through the last film in the Doinel "cycle," Love on the Run (1979), the line between Doinel and Truffaut became fuzzier, obscured by Jean-Pierre Leaud physically resembling the director most uncannily.

In The 400 Blows (1959), Antoine deals with the bad cards that are dealt him in the cramped, un-cozy quarters of home, the oppressive classroom, and the chilly streets of Paris in the Fifties. His father is an ineffectual spiritual heir to Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), while his mother has nothing but harsh words for Doinel. When dear old papa isn't smacking his face for a youthful mistake, he's overhearing dear old mama say that she originally wanted to abort him. With this home life, it's easier to understand why Doinel just wants to escape - anywhere. Early in the film, he notes that he has never seen the ocean, an observation that sets up the film's rightfully famous ending.

The 400 Blows doesn't idealize growing up in 1958 Paris, but the pursuit of freedom for the 13-year-old Antoine is at once difficult and wonderful. Paris is a wonderland of discovery for Antoine, even though he's constantly receiving the fuzzy end of the lollipop. This dichotomy between dream and nightmare is made possible by Jean-Pierre Leaud's acting, which puts him in the top five best child actors ever. Look for the tender conflict of sadness and wonder wash over his face as he soaks in the lights of the City of Lights from the back of a paddy wagon, or the range of emotions he displays in the psychological questioning scene late in the film. Joy, sadness, embarrassment, and boredom are present, sometimes all at once.

The 400 Blows (1959) made a tremendous impact on the world cinema stage as a herald of the French New Wave style, but in Truffaut's hands, the film was more than a stylistic statement. It became a bittersweet testament to his own childhood and an elegy to Truffaut's recently deceased mentor, friend, and colleague, French film critic Andre Bazin. Film professor Brian Stonehill notes in his commentary track on the DVD Truffaut's various hints and nods toward his mentor, namely in the editing of The 400 Blows. In addition to Stonehill, Truffaut's lifelong friend, Robert Lachenay, provides a commentary track that isn't as theoretical and academic, but no less useful. The 400 Blows DVD is also packed with practically 400 other pieces of supplementary material, such as audition footage of Leaud and Patrick Auffay (who plays Doinel's friend Rene), newsreel footage of Leaud in Cannes for the showing of the film, and illuminating excerpts from French television programs. All of that is just from The 400 Blows, the first DVD in the boxed set.

Jump ahead three years and Truffaut is still enjoying the worldwide success of The 400 Blows. He's approached by a producer who wants to put together a film project made up of short films from world-renowned international directors, such as Marcel Ophuls, Renzo Rossellini, Andrzej Wajda, and Shintar Ishihara, all tackling the common theme of young love. The film is L'Amour vingt ans (Love at Twenty), and Truffaut has no idea what his chapter will be, but he eventually decides to revisit Antoine Doinel and find out what the aimless chap is up to. Fortunately for us and for Truffaut, actor Jean-Pierre Leaud was still available to take part in Antoine and Colette (1962), a painful and familiar episode detailing the travails of the late adolescent Doinel trying to romantically woo an uninterested girl, Colette (Marie-France Pisier). Antoine may have had a rough childhood and enough emotional scars as anybody, but he is still a romantic by heart, an eager young man who uses his wits and boundless energy to pursue the object of his desire.

Truffaut's third chapter in the Antoine Doinel story is Stolen Kisses (1968), the second disc in the DVD set. Funnier and more episodic than the previous two chapters, Antoine is recently discharged from the army and steps into the Paris streets to continue his struggle with the realities of not knowing his natural place in the world. Truffaut and co-writers Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon give Doinel the job of a private detective, thinking that would be the most unlikely occupation a Frenchman would assume. Doinel is inept and Clouseu-like at first, but he's on the right path, until he becomes smitten with his client's wife.

The plentiful supplementary material on the Stolen Kisses (1968) disc deal mostly with an emotionally charged moment in Truffaut's career and in French film history, the so-called "Langlois Affair." The founder and director of France's famed Cinematheque francaise, Henri Langlois, was unceremoniously fired from his post just as production of Stolen Kisses (1968) began. Several interviews and footage from tumultuous demonstrations over the Langlois Affair make up the bulk of the extras on this disc. Truffaut dedicates Stolen Kisses to Langlois and the Cinematheque francaise, and begins the film with a shot of the closed doors to one of the Cinematheque theaters.

Truffaut expected Bed and Board (1970) to be the last part of the Antoine Doinel cycle. In this film, Doinel is now married to Christine (played by the lovely Claude Jade, who was introduced in Stolen Kisses) and expecting a child. But an affair with a beautiful Japanese woman threatens to end his marriage and further uproot his life. Aside from the terrific television interviews and archival footage on this disc, another highlight is famed French filmmaker Jacques Tati making a funny cameo appearance at a train station as his signature character Mr. Hulot.

Love on the Run (1979) closed out the Antoine Doinel saga as Doinel enters middle age, still looking for love. As Doinel seeks to rekindle a relationship with old flame Colette (again portrayed by Marie-France Pisier, who also co-wrote this final chapter with Truffaut), he also wonders if his established relationship with record store clerk Sanbine, played by French actress Dorothee, will truly make him happy. Truffaut intersperses new scenes in Love on the Run with scenes from the previous films, a rare and unique privilege for the filmmaker to use as powerful flashbacks that comment on the present. The flashbacks are also a treat for the viewer as we are reminded of the life Antoine Doinel "lived." It is a bittersweet ending to a remarkable film experiment.

The supplement disc les salads de l'amour is given the same title and cover as Antoine's first book seen in Love on the Run. This disc features Truffaut's 18-minute film Les Mistons (1957), a project many see as a precursor to The 400 Blows released two years later. Next is Working with Francois Truffaut: Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon, Co-Writers (2003), a 44-minute interview originally conducted in April 1986 for the documentary Arbeiten mit Francois Truffaut, produced by Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne. Only a few minutes of the interview were actually used in that documentary and the remaining footage was kept in very poor conditions. The Criterion Collection gained access to the interview material and prepared a re-edited version exclusive to The Adventures of Antoine Doinel boxed set. An audio commentary on Les Mistons, an excerpt from the rare documentary Francois Truffaut (1961), and promotional art on all the features rounds out the supplemental disc.

However, there is also a supplemental booklet to compliment this embarrassment of riches. Among the highlights are an essay by Truffaut discussing the genesis of Antoine Doinel; Truffaut's letter to Jean-Pierre Leaud's father raving about his audition; titles considered for The 400 Blows; treatments, script excerpts, and work notes from the features; and finally, essays from Andrew Sarris, Noah Baumbach, Chris Fujiwara and others on each Doinel chapter.

This truly remarkable Criterion production may not give everything you need to know about the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud, or French film history, but you will know Antoine Doinel, up close and personal.

For more information about The Adventures of Antoine Doinel Boxed Set, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Adventures of Antoine Doinel Boxed Set, go to TCM Shopping.

by Scott McGee