FOCUS The Politics of Authorship

Along with Jean-Luc Godard (with whom he collaborated on a number of projects, most notably as screenwriter for A bout de souffle, see chapter 21), François Truffaut is the best known and most influential of the French 'New Wave' directors. In an industry that has inspired many devoted practitioners, Truffaut's relationship with the cinema was obsessive. Both his wife and daughter have testified that Truffaut lived, ate and breathed cinema. Later in his career he admitted that his obsession with the movies was probably not healthy and certainly not one that he could, or would, change.

His appearance in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (USA, 1977) illustrates the way in which Truffaut was both fêted by, and enamoured of, American cinema. Which other radical French director would turn up in an American blockbuster? Certainly not Godard. For Truffaut, cinema was, quite simply, life. Unlike Godard, he was not really interested in experimentation for its own sake. What appealed to him was creating strong narratives out of the material of his own life. Thus five of his best films feature a character called Antoine Doinel (a thinly disguised version of Truffaut). Les Quatre Cent Coups is the first and arguably the best of these. What makes it an outstanding piece of film-making is Truffaut's masterly ability to convey emotion. Les Quatre Cent Coups is absorbing, funny and painful at the same time - but above all it is emotionally convincing. This is a portrait of early adolescence that captures the angst and trauma of family conflict with a rawness of feeling that both shocks and captivates the viewer.

Truffaut's relationship with cinema started when he was a boy. Like Antoine Doinel, the central character of Les Quatre Cent Coups, Truffaut slept in the hall of his parents' cramped Paris flat and was expelled from a series of schools. He has said of his life that to compensate for being unwanted at home he made cinema his family. Living in Pigalle (a bohemian area near the centre of Paris) during and after the war, he was certainly well placed to do so. From 1946 France was increasingly flooded with 'American cinema'. The vast back-catalogue of studio production was being exported to France in 1946 and 1947. The Boulevard du Fichu, near where Truffaut lived, had 25 cinemas in it. Every week there were 25 new films to see - many of which were Hollywood products. Thus, as a teenager, Truffaut was saturated in American cinema (which he evidently liked much more than the French product).

As his tastes developed, he sought out films by the likes of Hawks, Ford and, most of all, Hitchcock. These epitomes of craftsmanship were to have a profound effect initially on his opinions about cinema and finally on his work as a film-maker.

Truffaut's initial impact was as a writer, most memorably in his January 1954 article for Cahiers du cinéma, 'A Certain Tendency in French Cinema', in which he attacks the 'Tradition of Quality' in French cinema and sets out the basis for what became 'auteur theory' (politiques des auteurs). In the development of auteur theory, Truffaut is responsible for changing the nature of cinema studies. It is arguable that his auteurist approach has profoundly affected (for better or worse) the course of French, even world, cinema.

One of the darkest points of Les Quatre Cent Coups is the moment when Antoine's father has him arrested for stealing the typewriter. Here, as in much of the film, Antoine's fictional life is a reflection of Truffaut's real experience, except that Truffaut's crime was not the stealing of a typewriter but, true to his passion for cinema, running a cinema club with stolen funds. Truffaut's crime (misguided rather than malicious) was also the source of his escape to another life. He had met and impressed the renowned film theorist André Bazin. After his arrest he wrote to Bazin from reform school pleading for his help. Bazin helped him on this occasion and again in 1951 when Truffaut was once more imprisoned, this time for going AWOL from the French army.

It was thanks to Bazin's influence that Truffaut was appointed in 1952 as a film critic for the French cultural magazine Arts and also began to write regularly for the Cahiers du cinéma (edited by Bazin and Langlois).

As a film critic Truffaut was blisteringly vitriolic in his attacks of the 'Tradition of Quality' of post-war French cinema, which he abhorred for its literary (rather than visual) style. In 1958 Doniol-Valcroze said of him: 'What many muttered he dared to say out loud ... He has firmly kicked the conformist backside of French cinema.' Examples from his reviews illustrate this - for example, 'In not seeing Cheri-Bibi you will doubtless spend an excellent evening' and 'French Cinema will produce many more films of this non-quality until the public learns to choose and eventually to smash the seats.'

In such writing about film we can see the themes and ideas that would later inform his work as a film-maker, namely an abhorrence of the 'Tradition of Quality' and an admiration for the popular culture cinema of the American studios, two very different contexts that form the major influences on the French New Wave.

Like his first short film Les Mistons (The Brats) (1958), Les Quatre Cent Coups focuses on youth and delinquency. It is very different from Godard's A bout de souffle in its subject matter and style (as you would expect from two directors interested in the personal nature of auteurism). Of the two, Truffaut is less interested in experimenting with the conventions of cinema, and yet Les Quatre Cent Coups is still quintessentially 'New Wave'. It has a quality of freshness still apparent, not least in the subject matter: the story of Antoine's neglect at the hands of his parents and the French authorities. The film can hardly be described as either literary or designed to reflect well on France and French institutions. What this story was at the time was contemporary and original, fittingly in keeping with the 'youthful spirit' described by Françoise Giraud in her characterisation of the Nouvelle Vague. The structure of the film is also essentially New Wave. Less fractured than A bout de souffle, it still presents us with a total contrast to the tightly structured glamour of Hollywood. The resultant effect is that the film looks and feels like a glimpse into the real life of Antoine Doinel. We are presented with a series of loosely linked events where Antoine struggles to escape the confinements of his life. A claustrophobic sense of imprisonment created by the static camera in the indoor scenes (flat, school, prison, Borstal) is contrasted dramatically with the glorious bursts of feeling in the outdoor scenes, which are filmed with a fluid mobile camera as Antoine frequently runs in search of escape.

Perhaps the most famous and characteristic feature of the film is its ending, where Truffaut abandons the classic narrative convention of closure. The camera pursues Antoine in a long tracking shot as he runs away from Borstal towards the sea. In the final seconds of film Antoine turns to face the camera, which then freezes on his face, leaving the character suspended in mid-dilemma. The viewer is left to ponder the possible outcomes. In effect we are denied closure and left with questions - a stunning ending to a brilliant debut.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• How does the film compare and contrast 'indoors' and 'out of doors'?

• What does this film ask us to consider about outsiders (and particularly delinquents)?

• What are we to make of Doinel's (and by extension Truffaut's) relationship with women?

• Consider the film's approach to cause and effect (and, in particular, endings).

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