During the last interview he gave before his death in 1984, filmmaker François Truffaut was asked why the French New Wave was an artistic success. "As far as I was concerned," he said, "it never occurred to me to revolutionize the cinema or to express myself differently from previous filmmakers. I always thought that the cinema was just fine, except for the fact that it lacked sincerity. I'd do the same thing others were doing, but better."
This month, the Brooks Museum is giving moviegoers a chance to revisit Truffaut's first two features — 1959's The 400 Blows and 1960's Shoot the Piano Player — so they can appreciate just how much better his work was, and is, than most of what has been made since.
The 400 Blows is an autobiographical drama about a kid trying to claim his own psychic space. Antoine Doinel (12-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, in a crafty, enormously charming performance) is a shy, restless, sensitive boy who spends most of the film attempting to escape his crowded school classroom and his parents' cramped apartment for the open-air liberation of Paris' sidewalks, shop windows, and cinema houses. Although Doinel lies, plagiarizes Balzac for an essay, steals his father's typewriter, and sneaks off to the movies whenever he can, his high jinks are not indicative of a latent mental disorder, nor are they signs of frustrated genius. He's just scrabbling for any way out of the psychological and physical violence assailing him from every direction.
A lyrical and expansive work, The 400 Blows is more formally conservative than Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, another French New Wave landmark released the same year. Godard trimmed scenes to see how much he could remove and still have a movie; Truffaut went in the other direction. He embraced the naturalistic long takes espoused by film critic and mentor André Bazin, and Truffaut's willingness to watch events play out is particularly rewarding in the lively classroom scenes. His proclivity for longer takes also intensifies the film's sudden changes in mood and tempo, notably throughout the tense scene when Antoine's parents arrive at school after he tells his teacher that his mother has died. Truffaut would continue to follow the Doinel character through four additional films, but The 400 Blows' famous final freeze-frame still evokes the pity and terror of great tragedy.
Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut's adaptation of American writer David Goodis' crime novel, is a fanciful, digressive work that may also be his best. It's set up as a typical crime story about a small-time piano player (Charles Aznavour) with a checkered past, but that story is ultimately overrun by dozens of entertaining, self-consciously trivial vignettes and asides that rejigger the film into a bittersweet meditation on man's inability to understand women. Although Raoul Coutard's cinematography constantly quotes the best films noir of the 1950s, the characters' affectionate and unpredictable humanism eventually free it from genre constraints. Like The 400 Blows, it exemplifies the ecstatic, personal expression palpable in the best works of art.
Films of François Truffaut
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
The 400 Blows
Thursday, July 21st, 7 p.m.; $8 or $6 for museum and Indie Memphis members
Shoot the Piano Player
Sunday, July 31st, 2 p.m.; $8/$6