Truffaut’s “400 Blows” and Auteur Cinema
It can be said with confidence that Francoise Truffaut is the first theoretician and practitioner of auteur cinema. In an article written in 1954 for “Cahiers du Cinema,” he boldly laid out the guiding principles of this new kind of film and then he put them into practice in “400 Blows.” Granted that the films he made after “400 Blows” never came close in quality and stature to his first masterpiece, nevertheless, he deserves credit for taking films and film-maing into fresh and exciting new directions. Truffaut and his cohorts , Godard, Malle, Chabrol, and Rohmer, who formulated the ideas at the center of the auteur school believed that the director who directs the film is like the author who creates a work of fiction. The director controls and organizes all the elements that constitute a finished film. The overall look and feel of the finished film (mise en scene) expresses the director vision. This concept flew in the face of prevailing opinions that considered the film as an industrial product made by a factory i.e. a studio. Truffaut’s biographers, Baecque and Toubiana assert that “recognizing the man who has revealed himself emotionally on screen is the ultimate consequence of the auteur theory. In this absolute love, there is a quasi-anthropomorphic conception of cinema.” (Truffaut, 100)
Much has been written about “400 Blows” since it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and won Francois Truffaut the Best Director award. The question is: how did this black and white film made by an unknown director win the hearts and minds of an international audience of critics and movie-goers?
Now, more than half a century later, the radical polemics of the film world of the 60s have faded. The young, iconoclastic film-makers of the “New Wave” who challenged the established order of French cinema with new techniques and unconventional methods have themselves become a part of movie-making history and tradition. But “400 Blows” still retains a surprising freshness and vitality.
Truffaut’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the fact that he was only 26 when he made it and it was his first full-length, feature film. And the main character in the film, in fact, the one figure who carries the weight of the entire film, was played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, a fourteen-year old boy who had never acted before and never been in front of a camera.
Of course, Truffaut was not entirely unknown to film-buffs in 1959 nor was he new to the world of films and film-making. By the time he made his debut as a director, he had been working as a film critic and making a name for himself with his frank and, at times, almost brutal film reviews. Writing for “Cahiers du Cinema,” then edited by Andre Bazin, his friend and mentor, Truffaut had made as many friends as enemies with his bold attacks on respected script-writers and directors. In his article “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” which came out in the January, 1954 edition of “Cahiers Du Cinema,” Truffaut castigated the established figures of the French film industry who made movies that had come to be known as the “Tradition of Quality” cinema.
These films shared some features that Truffaut had come to dislike. Made by such screen-writers and directors such as Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, Claude Autant-Lara, Rene Clement, Jean Delannoys, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, were mostly made on sound stages within the confines of a studio where lighting and sound and other environmental factors could be kept under strict control. Many of these films exploited the literary and dramatic tradition of France, turning to the works of Zola, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Racine, Stendhal and other literary figures for their plots and stories. Naturally, they lacked suspense. French audiences already knew what would happen to Jean Valjean or d’Artagnan. These films also tended to highlight long lugubrious speeches delivered in a theatrical manner. The camera, because it was heavy, did not move much. The camera’s point of view became that of an audience member stuck in his chair witnessing a performance on a stage.
Truffaut argued that these films lacked the lightness-of-touch, the alacrity, the suspense and the cinematic qualities of Hollywood films. He also felt that they were marked by a certain pseudo-literary artificiality and lacked the leaven of realism. They did not show the lives of real people, the lives of ordinary men and women who walked the streets of post-WWII Paris. Even more importantly, these films did not depict the sorts of lives that Truffaut and his friends were living. Truffaut’s childhood had been spent in the poorer quarters of Paris: Montmartre, Batignolles, Place Clichy. This part of town belonged to the working class where the apartments were tiny and hotels rented rooms by the hour.
When Truffaut took up the challenge of making his own first full-length feature film, he decided to base it the events of his own childhood. He even filmed it on the streets on which he grew up. Place Gustave Toudouze, Place Clichy, and Place Pigalle are the terrain of his childhood. Many scenes of “400 Blows” were filmed on these locations.
Great art is often born out of great suffering. But an artist needs more than suffering if he is to create great art. He must also have skill, talent, passion and luck to turn his vision into art. He must also have control over the means of production. And, he must have financial support, without which even the finest artistic visions remain unrealized.
Truffaut had the good fortune to be able to marshal all these elements, when he began making “400 Blows.” He had the tools he needed. Panavision had launched a small, lightweight, fairly portable 35 mm camera that in the hands of the capable cameraman, Henri Decae, produced magical results. Decae used an Anamorphic lense (Dyaliscope) that could compress the scene when it was shot and then dilate the image through a reverse Anamorphic lense when it was projected onto a screen. These developments enabled him to film even extreme close-ups without running the risk of distorting the image.
The availability of a smaller, lighter motion picture camera permitted Truffaut to move outside sound stages and studios and shoot right on the busy streets and back alleys of Paris. Nor were cumbersome cranes and stabilizing platforms and tracks as necessary as they had been. The camera could be mounted on a tripod or placed on the roof of a car for tracking shots, or poked out of a third floor window. It could be re-positioned quickly for shots from different angles. This portability and mobility allowed the director to use the camera in a more intimate manner, investing a new emotional quality to the film. Under Truffaut’s direction, the camera becomes very involved, very intrusive, very intimate. The camera is no longer a passive observer. It participates, comments and influences. It becomes the director’s instrument the way the pen is the writer’s instrument. It can capture the director’s vision. The director becomes the “author” of the film.
By this time, a new highly-sensitive film stock had also become available. When coupled with the new camera, it aided and abetted Truffaut’s craftsmanship. The film stock could now capture sharp images in very low light without adding granularity. Filming night scenes out-of-doors suddenly became easier. Interior scenes still had to be lit, but the lights were small and portable, very different from the huge, hot, lamps that were needed on sound stages.
The effect of some of these innovations is visible in the films of other “New Wave” directors as well, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle and Claude Chabrol in particular. Notice the night scenes in Godard’s “Breathless” (1961) captured by his cameraman, Raoul Coutard. In one scene the lights of Champs Elysees come on during the shot. But the camera and the film are both able to adjust to the available light without any loss of visual information. Henri Decae’s skill with black and white film becomes evident in Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows,” (1958) where the night scenes shot in ambient street light have a haunting and memorable beauty and the interior scenes display such range of silken grays the color film becomes irrelevant. In Claude Chabrol’s “The Cousins,” (1959), the tortuous turns of Decae’s camera inside a small apartment contribute to the atmosphere of claustrophobia that the director wishes to capture.
Freed of the necessity of filming in a studio also freed Truffaut of the necessity of building expensive sets. He was able to produce his film much more cheaply. When sets became necessary he often filmed in apartments of friends or relatives. This tactic made his films even more rooted in the environment he wanted to capture. There is never a hint of anything phony or flimsy about his mise en scene.
With “400 Blows,” Truffaut advanced the craft of film-making and showed the path to new cinematic strategies for story-telling.
Baecque, Antoine de and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut. New York: Knopf, 1999.