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Related Reading: Death in France: Liebestod and The Green Room, featured in Issue No. 6 of Senses of Cinema.


Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959
[The 400 Blows]

LeaudStories of childhood have often been tempered with the melancholic yearning of lost innocence (as in Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants) or the profound weight of human misery (as in Robert Bresson's Mouchette). In The 400 Blows, François Truffaut introduces his alterego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young man attempting to break from the confines of his unremarkable life through escapism and mischief. Antoine's vacuous, neglected life unfolds before us with dispassionate objectivity: a misunderstood, underachieving student invariably caught red-handed with the pinup centerfold or scribbling on the classroom wall; a selfish, adulterous mother attempting to reach her son through bribery; a crude, distant father flaunting his generosity in giving the illegitimate son a name. But the pensive Antoine is hardly the incorrigible delinquent that everyone has destined for him, and his fascination for cinema and literature provide a fleeting distraction from his ennui. Attempting to conceal a failing grade on a Blazac-inspired essay (which the teacher is convinced he has plagiarized), he runs away from home, an act which exacerbates to theft, and inevitably, sends him to a camp for juvenile delinquents.

Truffaut's assured camerawork never wavers in this highly influential and relevant film of adolescence. Successive, montage shots of children watching a puppet show emphasize their innocence, and sharply contrast with the disillusioned Antoine in jail, seemingly detaching himself from his inextricable situation by pulling his turtleneck over his nose. Fluid camera tracking pervade the film's exterior shots, reflecting the humor and vitality of youth. Note the lightly paced, overhead shot of the outdoor exercise scene, as the boys slowly splinter off in different directions until no one is left. In contrast, Antoine's flight from the reform school is slow and labored, reaching an uncertain conclusion. Ending with the infamous stop motion zoom of Antoine at the shoreline, he is at a proverbial crossroads: unable to keep running away, looking back at a familiar, hopeless fate.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Jules et Jim, 1961
[Jules and Jim]

Serre/WernerJules and Jim is François Truffaut's deceptively lyrical, yet understatedly complex nouvelle vague film on love and friendship. At the heart of the conflict is the enigmatic Catherine (exquisitely played by the incomparable Jeanne Moreau), whose chameleon personality adapts to suit the relationship she is in. (Note the effect of the equally inscrutable character, Anna, in Louis Malle's Damage.) In fact, she is the avatar of an intriguing, seemingly unfinished statue with a haunting smile that the two best friends, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre), were captivated by during a friend's slide presentation of the Adriatic Island (so much so that the two travel to the same outdoor museum just to see it). For Jules, the shy, conservative Austrian, Catherine assumes the image of a devoted country wife and mother. For Jim, the adventurous, extroverted Frenchman, she transforms herself into a carefree, sexually liberated lover. The tragedy of the film lies in Catherine's emotional ambiguity towards Jules and Jim. Inasmuch as she desires both men, she eludes their attempts to love her. Unable to choose between them, she destroys everyone by holding on. Set during the advent of World War I, Jules and Jim is an allegorical film about the turmoil between French nationalism and the German occupation of World War II. As with the characters' doomed love triangle, the film is a scathing indictment of a country led to ruin by lack of conviction and feigned neutrality.

Truffaut uses the recurrent theme of cycles throughout the film (as in Anatole Litvak's Goodbye Again). Jules habitually turns an hourglass at his apartment in order to set his bedtime. There is a scene where the camera pans around the bistro, beginning and ending with the two friends talking. Catherine is constantly changing hats, and assumes a different personality with each one. Bicycle trips feature prominently in several scenes, and involve Catherine's lovers. Lastly, note the structure and lyrics of Catherine's song, which allude to her pattern of indiscretions, separations, and reconciliations with Jules. Similar to Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en Hiver, the cyclical theme represents a love triangle. However, it also symbolizes a vicious circle - Catherine's self-destructive "whirlpool" - of extramarital affairs, emotional vacillation, and cruelty to the people who love her. It is a desperate, hopelessly impossible situation that entraps, rather than liberates. Jules and Jim is a deeply profound film about the devastating consequences of indecision on three people... and a nation.

© Acquarello 1998. All rights reserved.

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La Chambre Verte, 1978
[The Green Room]

TruffautThe Green Room is a thoughtful, reverent adaptation of Henry James'The Altar of the Dead. Julien Davenne (François Truffaut) is a lonely, disillusioned widower who writes for The Globe, an obsolete, nearly defunct newspaper (with a target audience of elderly people, its subscription base is literally dying). From his methodical, dispassionate demeanor, it is obvious that he is sleepwalking through life. He is, in fact, emotionally dead (Truffaut's cold, deadpan performance is intriguing to watch). He spends his evenings looking at slides of war casualties, and sitting alone in a green room, where he has carefully assembled his late wife's possessions. He attempts to console his recently widowed friend, Gerard, by telling him to channel his grief into serving his wife's memory: "The dead only belong to us if we agree to belong to them." He is later appalled to learn that Gerard has become involved with another woman. When Julien meets a pensive, charming auction secretary named Cecilia Mandel (Nathalie Baye) who has experienced a similar loss, they decide to build a memorial in the bombed ruins of an abandoned church to honor their lost loved ones (note the effect of a similar act in Rene Clement's Forbidden Games). The haunting tragedy of the story lies in the characters' motives for the shrine. Cecilia envisions the memorial as a means of achieving healing and closure. To Julien, it is the culmination of his dedicated service to the memory of the dead. Having completed his life's work, his reason for existence is lost. The Green Room is a touching, cerebral film about grief, guilt, and survival.

François Truffaut uses a color palette that is washed and pale to set the thematic tone of the film (similar techniques are used in Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice). The opening battle scenes, filmed in black and white with blue tint, are almost monochromatic. The house, including the commemorative green room, appears dark, cold, and uninviting in tepid, washed colors. Julien is pale, unremarkable, and relatively expressionless. The effect is brooding and somber, a reflection of Julien's morbid preoccupation. The Green Room is a devastating portrait of a man consumed by such profound grief that he is incapable of experiencing the beauty and joy of life. It is a highly disturbing and provocative film about a man's self-destructive myopic obsession with loss and mortality.

© Acquarello 1998. All rights reserved.

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La Femme d'a cote, 1981
[The Woman Next Door]

Depardieu/ArdantFrançois Truffaut's The Woman Next Door is a somber, subtly disturbing film about the beauty and destructive toll of passion. It is a tragic story chronicled through the dispassionate, reverent gaze of Madame Odile Jouve (Veronique Silver), the kind and enigmatic proprietor of a tennis club, who was crippled from a suicide attempt after a failed love affair. Bernard Coudray (Gerard Depardieu) is an unassuming, married navigation trainer whose life turns into upheaval when a former lover, Mathilde Bauchard (Fanny Ardant), unwittingly rents a neighboring house with her husband. Still affected by the scars of their unreconciled past, they reluctantly resume their relationship. Similar to Stephen Fleming in Louis Malle's Damage, the tragedy of the film lies in their inability to recover from their self-destructive affair and move on with their lives. When the Bauchards decide to go on a belated honeymoon, Bernard flies into a jealous rage and attacks her. After a prolonged separation from a distant Bernard, Mathilde suffers a nervous breakdown. The Woman Next Door is a deeply unsettling portrait of obsession and madness.

Truffaut juxtaposes extensive incongruities throughout the film in order to illustrate the duality of passion. Madame Jouve's narration seems to create objective distance. However, as a wounded survivor of a consuming love, she is, perhaps, the only one who can understand their story. Chronologically, we first meet Madame Jouve with a backdrop of a tennis match, then the camera zooms out to reveal that she has a prosthetic leg. The Coudrays hear a pair of violent cats one evening and describe them as either fighting or mating. Mathilde submits a bloody, graphic illustration for publication in a children's book. Inevitably, the love that binds Bernard and Mathilde together destroys them.
The Woman Next Door is an elegant, brooding film that resonates with the haunting weight of profound love and inevitable tragedy.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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