The First Blow

I’m a big fan of French New Wave, and as this blog continues I’ll hopefully get a chance to write more on it. I’m currently working my way through the five films Francois Truffaut made charting the life of his restless alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played in each film by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 when he was just 14, Léaud and Truffaut give us Antoine realising unrequited love at the age of 17 in the 1962 short Antoine and Colette, through to his courtship and marriage of violinist Christine in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, and ending in 1979 with Love On The Run, by which time Léaud was in his mid-thirties.

Although Jean-Paul Belmondo is often held as the defining figure in French New Wave, due to his appearence in Jean-Luc Godard’s defining New Wave debut A Bout de Souffle in 1960 and his continued association with Godard throughout the sixties, Léaud’s claim to the title is resoundingly stronger. Along with his role as Antoine Doinel, he featured prominently in Godard’s Masculin, Feminin, Made in USA, La Chinoise, and Week End, as well as appearing briefly in Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou. His involvement with both directors was such that when Truffaut and Godard eventually broke off their friendship, as documented in the excellent documentary Two In The Wave, released last year, Léaud was so torn between the two that he felt bartered with and bandied about like a child caught in the middle of a messy divorce.

Long before the degeneration of their friendship, when both Godard and Truffaut were critics and friendly rivals on the burgeoning film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and Truffaut had just released the opening volley of fire at French cinema in the form of The 400 Blows, Godard wrote of his friend’s film;

‘The face of the French cinema has changed.’

Just a year after being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival because of his uncompromising attacks upon the French cinematic establishment, Truffaut had successfully transformed his sobriquet from the ‘gravedigger of French cinema’, to its saviour. The 400 Blows was selected by de Gaulle’s culture minister André Malraux to represent France at the 1959 Festival, at which it won Truffaut the award for Best Director.

If The 400 Blows was the opening volley against an out of touch French cinema, the opening scene in the film presented traditional French society with no question of what it was to expect from this new age. We find Antoine Doinel at school, in trouble with his teacher having been caught passing a picture of a bikini-clad woman amongst his classmates. He is sent to stand in the corner as punishment, and is not allowed to play with his friends at breaktime, leading him to scrawl on the wall behind the blackboard;

‘Here poor Antoine Doinel was
punished by Sourpuss
for a pin-up fallen from the sky
it will be an eye for an eye’

The scene plays out as a condemnation of the old forms of learning and expression, and the target identified can clearly be seen as French cinema and the cultural establishment. We see the disciplinarian teacher boring his pupils with rote learning of an uninspiring poem called ‘The Hare’, and the teacher himself is shown to be representative of the generation of wartime Frenchmen and women who confronted the sixties, and everything that came with it, including the New Wave, with disdain and a feeling of powerlessness. At one point, the teacher laments the rebelliousness of his pupils with a cry of,

‘Poor France! What a future!’

In the same way the New Wave was rebelling against the cinematic age its founders existed in, so too are Antoine Doinel and his classmates unwittingly rebelling against traditional French society. This is even more pertinent when we consider the political situation in France when New Wave was born.

The Fourth Republic had collapsed in 1958, after what was essentially a coup d’etat by army officers in Algeria, leading to the founding of the Fifth Republic and the return of de Gaulle as president in an almost dictatorial capacity, having granted himself extraordinary powers and an unchallengeable seven-year term.

The radicalising effects of the Fifth Republic, the opposition to the war in Algeria, the continuous liberatory movement of the young through France during the 1960s, all these factors exemplified perfectly in the films of New Wave, manifested itself in the largest uprising in Europe for decades, and the largest since; the near-revolution of 1968. Students rioted and occupied their universities, and even more threatening to the established order, the country experienced the largest general strike in its history, with hundreds of thousands of workers occupying their factories and running them independently of their bosses.

The uncompromisingly emancipatory nature of the uprising, along with its potential for victory, was such that the workers and students were eventually forced back to work by ‘their own’ organisations, the French Communist Party and the official trade unions. The level of political liberation was such that workers and students found themselves in direct opposition to their traditional representatives, who sided with the state against revolution.

The changes in culture, sexuality, political structure, ideology, gender relationships, in France in the sixties were massive. Antoine Doinel and his classmates are at the age of twelve in The 400 Blows, and in 1968 they will be students or young workers, and likely to be involved in some way in the 1968 uprising, and it is easy to imagine an older Antoine with a paving stone in his hand.

In this way the opening scene of The 400 Blows is a metaphor for the changes France is about to experience, and just as many of the older generation felt a sense of helplessness when confronted with the liberated young of the sixties, and the ’68 uprising, the teacher can do nothing in the face of his rebellious pupils but lament for the future of the country. Their rebelliousness is not without a check however, for the immediate image we are confronted with when we leave the classroom is a looming close up of the powerful emblem of traditional French republicanism outside the school, the immovable ‘Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie’, carved in stone, a reminder of the power and constant presence of the state.

Refusing to remain passive observers and documenters, when 1968 came around Truffaut and Godard didn’t leave it up to Antoine Doinel and A Bout de Souffle’s eternal gangster Michel to voice their rebellion, and they became actively involved in protests, notably in the campaign for the reinstatement of the dismissed director of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. Langlois had been dismissed by culture minister André Malraux, who had by this time turned against New Wave and sought to replace him with a government-appointed board of directors. The incident was a massive error of judgement on Malraux’s part, who had vastly underestimated the symbolic importance of Langlois and the Cinémathèque to filmmakers around the world. The campaign for Langlois provided a major rallying point for filmmakers’ involvement in the uprising and the campaign attracted support from names such as Hitchcock, Fellini, Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. Nicholas Ray was also a robust supporter of the campaign and attended demonstrations in Paris, including one a week after Langlois’ dismissal alongside Truffaut, Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marie Epstein, Bertrand Tavernier and others, during which the crowd was baton charged by the police.

After successfully forcing the Cannes Film Festival to shut down in 1968, Truffaut and Godard organised demonstrations in support of Langlois and he was reinstated later that year, although their partnership in the campaign was their last, and their friendship was bitterly broken soon after.

The 400 Blows heralded not just a new era of artistic and cinematic expression, but also the massive shifts that French society was about to experience. Antoine Doinel’s rebellion against his teacher and his parents exemplify this, as does his rebellion against the army in Stolen Kisses but nothing in the early New Wave films rivalled, as an opening declaration of opposition to all that had come before it, the first scene in which Antoine is chastised by his teacher. It is little wonder that the poetic lament for his situation and statement of revenge he scrawls on the wall is so reminiscent of the revolutionary slogans painted over Paris during the uprising of 1968. Sous les pavés, la plage – Antoine Doinel?

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