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Film as an act of love

Fifty years ago, François Truffaut’s Quatre cents coups
heralded a revolution in cinema. Sukhdev S

As a young man, before he had made his first film, and before he became a fiercely passionate and justly famous critic for Cahiers du cinéma, François Truffaut wrote a letter to his childhood friend Robert Lachenay in which he announced: “I now prefer judgements of the heart to those of the intellect.”

Les quatre cents coups – commonly known in English as The 400 Blows – is a film all about the heart: that of its chief character, Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is a teenager unloved by his parents and seen as a troublemaker by his schoolteachers, but longs for love, warmth, a real home.

The film was an immediate hit on its release in 1959. Truffaut had spent much of the decade attacking what he called le cinéma de papa – grand and creakily theatrical films that placed more emphasis on storytelling than on direction. The invective he heaped on the likes of René Clément earned Truffaut the nickname “The gravedigger of French cinema”, and led to his being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.

Yet, just a year later, Truffaut was welcomed back by Cannes. Les quatre cents coups, seen as an artistic breakthrough, won him the Best Director award (the film was later nominated for an Oscar), and attracted huge audiences both in France and internationally. Its success, and the revolution in cinema it helped to launch, finished the work his journalistic writings had started. The film, as in Britain with Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, was a refutation of the common charge that cinema critics lack creative imagination.

Les quatre cents coups was anything but creaky. It wasn’t a story, so much as a series of episodes that contained the rhythms of life, especially the rhythms of adolescence – a time of inexplicable longings, aching boredom, whimsical raptures – rather than those of well-made plays. The film used real locations, sounds and lighting. It seemed as improvisatory as jazz music, and felt just as modern.

As such, it fully delivered on the claim that Truffaut had made in an article just a couple of years earlier: “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary [. . .] The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.”

The idea that a film can be an expression of a director’s identity and personal vision became known as “auteur theory”, helped give space in Hollywood to directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch, and has become sacred for independent cinema. It was also a key element of the Nouvelle Vague movement, of which Les quatre cents coups, while not the first expression (that honour goes perhaps to Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge of 1958), nor even the only example in 1959 (there was also Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour, and Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle appeared just months later in 1960), remains one of the high points.

To prize Les quatre cents coups solely for the boost it gave to the Nouvelle Vague is to do it a disservice. After all, Italian neorealists such as Vittorio de Sica (who directed The Bicycle Thieves in 1948) and Roberto Rossellini (for whom Truffaut had worked as an assistant director in 1956) had already shown the value of abandoning costly studios in favour of small budgets and local landscapes. The influence on the Frenchman of the latter’s Germany Year Zero (1948), in which a 12-year-old boy alienated from his family struggles and scams on the streets of Berlin, is not hard to detect.

It is more important, I think, to honour the film for the sensitivity and acuity with which it depicts masculinity. Truffaut’s portrait of Antoine Doinel drew heavily on his own difficult childhood: he was an unwanted pregnancy, often ran away from home, forged school notes, and was eventually sent to a juvenile detention centre. Cinema saved him: it was a cocoon – a refuge not only from his family, but from the Nazi-occupied streets of Paris; Les quatre cents coups, which shows Antoine and his best friend bunking off school to attend early-morning screenings, was his way of thanking the movies.

“I could never have made a movie with Clark Gable or John Wayne or an American-style hero,” Truffaut claimed. “The trouble in the States is that so many actors today come from television, where they’ve been hired to play G-men and spies.”

In Léaud, an untrained actor who not only looked like him but had also had difficulties with authority, he saw a kindred soul. Through him, he could create a new kind of cine-poetics based around young men who were bruised, vulnerable, fearful. I suspect it’s no coincidence that I fell in love with Truffaut’s films at the same time as I discovered the Smiths.

According to Godard, Truffaut “made one film that truly expressed him, Les quatre cents coups, and that was it”. It was a barb partly fuelled by their different attitudes towards politics: Godard was a Maoist; Truffaut, although he opposed French policy in Algeria and campaigned against the sacking of Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française (an event which played a part in the May 1968 student uprising), never voted and said that he hated “social cinema”. For him, the personal would always matter more than the political. For him, the heart was all.

“Les quatre cents coups” is at selected cinemas across the UK from 10 April.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture