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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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis