Friday, November 21, 2014

An Afternoon in Paris at the Cinematheque Française with Les Quatre-Cent Coups by François Truffaut.

For Anjan Dutt and Thérese Gonzalez

It was a rainy afternoon in Paris and finally I found the location of the new Cinemathque Française. The Cinematheque presents at the time a huge exposition on Truffaut for the 30th. Anniversary of his death in 1984 and an integral retrospective. On this day they screened Truffaut's first long film Les Quatre-Cent Coups in the “Salle Henri Langlois” Even though I was surprised to see the hall almost full packed, I realized at the same time that it is typical for Paris. The audience was a mixture of nearly all generations, older people and as well school classes. The film is exactly as old as I am, 55 years. But this was not the only fact that made this afternoon to an almost Proustian experience for me. Truffaut and Bazin were probably my most important influences when I began or better when I wanted to write about films. Truffauts Les Films de ma vie, a collection of his film critics, his interview book on Hitchcock and Bazin´s books on Orson Welles and Jean Renoir are still after more than 30 years my favorite books on cinema. Some parts of it I have read more than a dozen times. In the early 1980s, Truffaut was even one of my favorite film directors. His first long feature film Les Quatre-Cent Coups came into my life even much earlier. It was a christmas eve in the late 1960s. I was about 8 or 9 and on the afternoon on this day the TV broadcasted this film. What stayed with me for much more than 40 years was Antoines escape from the youth prison. For nearly 30 years this film was totally hidden in my sub conscience.

The audience was enthusiastic. applause at the beginning, during the film and at the end rather a festival atmosphere than just a screening of film history. Everything came together, my long forgotten admiration for Truffaut and especially this film, my nearly religious admiration for Paris as the origin of cinephilia. Even though Les Quatre-Cent Coups tells about specific french locations, french habits and a specific datable time in Paris like for example the films by Yasujiro Ozu did with locations in Japan – it nevertheless gave me the feeling of a kind of homecoming. It is obviously Paris in the late 1950s but than if I remember this christmas afternoon in the 1960s, the film and all what is presented in it was quite young. The cobblestone pavement reminded me in some streets of my hometown. The time of occupation of Paris was just gone 14 years before like my home town displayed at this time still the traces of the war. As a child I was aware that this film tells about a totally different culture but I also recognized that I was familiar to the time presented in it.

There is an exiting dynamic between the fiction of the film and the real places, streets and buildings of Paris. Antoines Story seems to be really grown out of this concrete datable traces of reality. Two sentences of Truffaut stayed with me. The first was about art and entertainment when he wrote once that Hitchcock and Bergman are both entertaining and at the same time their films are great art. The other statement by him was that he always expected two things from a film, a vision of the world and a vision of film making.
When I saw Les Quatre-Cent Coups again after such a long time, I had the uncanny feeling that the film touches so much of my dreams of cinema. Truffauts ideas about cinema are totally absorbed in images and sounds. The “bigger than life”-element, the cinema scope photography a wonderful artificial device of the cinema of the 1950s has a unique relationship with this intimate story of an adolescent, a story which is probably influenced by autobiographic aspects of Truffaut himself.

As I was moved by the different ages of the audience – some were probably born after the death of Truffaut, others probably saw this film when it was released and others like my generation saw this film when it was already an icon of the Nouvelle Vague – I sometimes felt I experienced past and present of my cinephile life as well. My passion for Ozu, the Japanese masters came just after my first encounter with the Nouvelle Vague and the texts by Truffaut and Bazin.
There is also a moment which is very physical: when Antoine visits a round-up on a parish fair where the centrifugal force presses him against the wall. This is probably one the most physical scene in Truffauts work. We are not only seeing a film in this moment, we are part of it. I almost feel that I was already prepared unconscious decades before for the wonders of the films by Terrence Malick if Antoine has a sister in filmhistory it is for sure Linda from Days of Heaven) or the best example of Truffauts definition of “caméra stylo”, the films by Yang Yonghi.

At the end, Antoine runs and runs and runs. During a football play he uses a moment of lack  of attention of the prison guard to escape. There is one long shot where we see him running. After a cut he finally reaches the beach of the sea. A fleeting moment of freedom accentuated by the glory of the cinema scope format.
Than an Iris diaphragm and Antoines movement is frozen. This scene is one of the oldest memory I have in a film. In my memory and in my dreams it had a life of its own.
Another thing which comes to my mind when I think of this strong experience on this day at the Cinemathéque is, that a film like Les Quatre-Cent Coups keeps his life of its own even after 55 years of a history of reception, categorization forgetting and re-discovering.
I celebrate this screening in the Cinemathéque Français with Les Quatre-Cent Coups like a homecoming.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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