...a unity of eyes and firelight...

Les Quatre Cents Coups

In Film, Reviews on January 31, 2012 at 8:12 am

François Truffaut, 1959

Is this your story, or mine? Or his?

Les Quatre Cent Coups repeatedly presents us with familiar tropes on which we build to create our own story, only for Truffaut to invert those tropes and thus thrust upon us Doinel’s, and its unapologetic difference from ours. Doinel is a Parisian schoolchild who frustrates and alienates everyone around him – his teacher, his parents, his psychologist, his juvenile correction staff. But has he betrayed them, or have they betrayed him? The only person who sticks by him is his friend, Renžé, who eventually is turned away from the correctional facility when trying to visit him.

The film starts with panning shots of Paris as we imagine it from the ground, grand buildings, wide boulevards and always the Eiffel Tower in the background. We are then introduced to the classroom, where we witness boys being boys. They pass around a picture of an almost naked lady until one of them is inevitably caught; this is our introduction to Doinel. He writes a rude rhyme behind the blackboard and one almost smiles to oneself – ah, the follies of youth. We then follow him home, where he pulls out his books, ready to do his homework before his mother gets home. But when she does, she sends him out again to buy flour. Two women talking about childbirth make him queasy. Well, it would, he’s a child.

Is he? The high jinks at school develop into truancy and then lying, followed by vagrancy and then theft, for which he is caught. The opening shots of Paris are repeated as we see him transported in the back of a police wagon. This time though, the camera lingers behind the bars – this is not Paris as we remember it. This is not our story. The inverted tropes continue. In a wonderfully acted, wonderfully executed scene at the correctional facility, Doinel speaks to a psychologist (whom we never see as Doinel speaks straight to the camera) and reveals that he had once overheard his mother screaming that he had been an accidental pregnancy, that she had wanted an abortion, that it was only the intervention of his grandmother that had led to his birth. The scene in which the women speaking of childbirth had made him feel faint takes on more layers.

Other particularly grand scenes include one in which we watch hundreds of toddlers’ transfixed, innocent faces as they watch a children’s puppet show. Again we are lulled into thinking of childhood as we normally do – a time of untainted purity – until we hear Doinel and Renžé discussing how best to steal a typewriter from his father’s office. The camera lingers on the innocent faces before panning to the two plotting friends. This is their story.

The film poses questions of how Doinel has ended up where he is. A pompous English teacher suggests haplessly to Doinel’s mother, ‘Perhaps it’s the genes.’ When Doinel’s lies to his teacher are exposed, his parents say, ‘This is a family matter, we will deal with it at home.’ And yet, eventually, they decide that they can not do so. They appeal to the judge at the juvenile court to ‘scare’ him, because they can not ‘control’ him. The familiar themes of modern politics under Blair and Cameron (and Sarkozy) are raised: rights and responsibilities, a culture of entitlement. When the judge suggests putting Doinel in a correctional facility, his mother asks somewhat ridiculously, ‘Can it be by the sea?’ The judge does not flinch, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ The film offers no easy answers.

Finally, the film ends with a snapshot on the beach. Not the summer beach of our youthful summers. His beach is beautiful, empty and very much his own. His accusatory (or is it confused?) stare asks: whose story is this?

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