You might think that this disqualifies me from calling myself a classic film aficionado, but up until last night I had never seen a French New Wave film. Recognizing my deficiencies and wishing to rectify them, I watched with my wife last night Francois Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups (which is translated into English literally as The 400 Blows), which I recommend to you all.
My serious resolution to engage in the intellectual life dates to when I read The Stranger by Albert Camus. Meursault's disconnection from the reality that others so easily navigate, his estrangement from ordinary morality, the way in which he drifts, meaninglessly but more or less happily through life: all these impacted me immediately and in a way that has shaped my entire outlook since then. Ever I have felt the lurking absurdities of the world: I too could slay a man for no reason. Faith, reason, civilization, tradition are thin bulwarks, but bulwarks that must be defended, that I must defend, against the bottomless circles of the void that stretch below--but without ever forgetting that they are stretched over, poised over, that terrible abyss, and that one could, cheerfully, hurtle into it at any moment.
That just sounded, perhaps, trite and moralistic. Never mind. Anyways, Truffaut manages (maybe without intending it) to capture something of Camus' outlook in this film. The story (we've noticed that the great French films, much more than, say, the great Russian or Swedish or Polish films, manage to have a strong, coherent plot that moves you along and helps the film go down easier, without detriment to its greatness--which is not to say they are better or worse than those others, since plot is certainly not everything in a film) centers around a young teenager, Antoine Doinel, and his troubled relationship with his parents (his mother wanted an abortion) and his teacher, and his delinquent, petty-criminal activities with his friends. Doinel is alienated from others, from a moral sense, from any sense of rootedness or at-home-ness. Yet his heart perhaps opens (or maybe he just senses an opportunity to get some inspiration for an essay for school) in reading a few lines of Balzac, and he longs for a glimpse of the sea. To be rootless can be to be on the search. I don't know if Meursault is on the search, but Doinel is, though he doesn't know what he's searching for (aside from, perhaps, the sea, the oceanic abyss). Like Binx Bolling, he finds his solace in the movies, but he's looking for something.
The film is beautifully shot. The thing I most want out of a film is great cinematography (hence my relative indifference to plot); the second thing I want is great characters--Truffaut's film delivers on both. There's a scene where Doinel and a friend have just stolen a typewriter from an office, and they run through a flock of pigeons toward the camera, which captures the pigeons fanning out in an arc around the boys for the briefest of glorious seconds, before running off with them down the street. There's a long scene of Doinel running down a road and through a wood, the camera panning along with him for a long time, and framing him among the trees with the chiaroscuro impressionism of a Rembrandt landscape. Everywhere is gritty, and the camera lingers over the grit. This Paris isn't the glamorous, sophisticated fantasy Paris of, say, Midnight in Paris (my favorite Woody Allen film), but it's a real, raw Paris, a Paris for wild boys looking for something.
It's a sure sign of a decent director too that he can get so many child actors to act well, without being annoying. So many movies with child actors are just obnoxious. But the child actors act like real children here: petty, cruel, self-serving, that is, childish, yet with an innocence in their very childishness. Like another great French film, Au revoir les enfants, this film captures the joy, the immorality, the hopeful independence, and the bleakness of adolescent boyhood. That glimpse of real boyhood, which like faith is a thing that must not be lost to the world, alone makes this film worth your time.