In 1959, François Truffaut opened the 12th annual Cannes Film Festival with his directorial debut, Les Quatre Cents Coups (“The 400 Blows”). His very first film followed Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young and impoverished boy living in 1950s Paris with a strict father and indifferent mother. Little did Truffaut know at the time that this semi-autobiographical character of Antoine Doinel would return as the subject of four future films, one short and three features. Audiences would grow to love and despise Antoine as he grew from a mischievous little boy to an equally mischievous adult.
The 400 Blows (1959)
It’s perhaps no surprise that the first in Truffaut’s series of Antoine Doinel films is the strongest. An indisputable masterpiece, The 400 Blows is a memorable and warm coming-of-age adventure that introduced audiences to Antoine as a young boy. Using an aimless, vignette-styled narrative, Truffaut follows Antoine and his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay) as they rebel against their tough school teacher and absent parents. The camera is light and sympathetic to Antoine, even if we rarely see what’s going on in his head, and there’s an air of ironic tragedy surrounding his life. It’s easy to empathize with Antoine’s struggle because it’s likely familiar to everyone at some point in their adolescence, just as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was for many millennials.
For Antoine, adulthood can’t come soon enough. He’s clearly tired of being disciplined and singled out by his parents and school teacher, and wants to grow up and make a living. He tells his parents as much, though they’re unsympathetic and insist that he stay in school. After getting into enough mischief and running away, they become fed up and send him away to a correctional facility.
The film’s ending is dazzling, genuinely one of the cinematic greats. Antoine spontaneously runs away from a soccer game at the correctional facility, ducking under a fence and running for the beach. It’s not important what he does when he gets there. All that matters is, at least for a fleeting moment, he is finally away from all the rules and misunderstanding authority holding him back.
Antoine and Colette (1962)
Three years later, Antoine returned in the 32-minute short, Antoine and Colette, as part of the omnibus project Love at Twenty. The brief film picks up a few years after the ambiguous ending of The 400 Blows, catching up with Antoine as a late independent teenager working in a record store. Shot in black and white, Antoine and Colette feels the most stylistically reminiscent of its parent film out of all its sequels, but nevertheless loses much of the spirit of The 400 Blows.
Supposedly autobiographical, the film concerns an impossible romance between Antoine and Colette (Marie-France Pisier), a young girl whom he meets at a concert. Antoine becomes amusingly infatuated with the girl, meeting her parents and eventually moving across the street from her. Colette returns his affection as a platonic friendship. Effectively, the short depicts the all too familiar, uncomfortable situation of being “friendzoned”.
Truffaut also experiments with more situational humor in Antoine and Colette, but the short is at an awkward tonal transition between The 400 Blows and Stolen Kisses. It’s also pretty ham-fisted, heavily reliant on a voice-overs supplying expositional information likely because of its time constraints. Regardless, Antoine and Colette gave audiences one last look at an adolescent Antoine Doinel before his return as an adult.
Stolen Kisses (1968)
Stolen Kisses marks the most significant tonal shift of the Doinel series, picking up several years after Antoine and Colette in popping color. Antoine is well into his 20’s, and has just been dishonorably discharged from the military. Somewhere in between the two films, Antoine has developed a sweetheart in a young violinist named Christine (Claude Jade). The film follows Antoine’s humorously careless wander from job to job, lover to lover, and continues the tradition set by the previous two films of being a vignette-like coming-of-age tale.
Stolen Kisses is by far the best of the sequels. It’s warm like The 400 Blows, but it adds additional layers of comedy and romance in a way that feels remarkably natural. Antoine and Colette couldn’t escape the sense that it was a longer and more assured film trapped in the body of a short. With room to breathe, Stolen Kisses is a wonderfully fun film with an abundance of laughter and memorable moments.
Bed and Board (1970)
Bed and Board is to Stolen Kisses as Antoine and Colette was to The 400 Blows. Out of all the Doinel films, it feels the most tired and unnecessary, matching the style of Stolen Kisses but covering far less ground. The film picks up two years after Kisses. Antoine and Christine are married, but Antoine’s antics still continue as he drifts from job to job, this time from a florist to a miniature boat operator at the American embassy.
It would be doing a disservice to Truffaut and Léaud to say Bed and Board is boring. It has charm and wit, and is perhaps the most overtly humorous of all the sequels, but the final impression is notably fleeting. Unlike Stolen Kisses, whose warm glow lasts days after watching, Bed and Board is largely forgettable as a briefer and less-polished off-growth of its preceding film.
Its last act somewhat makes up for its shortcomings, giving an unconventionally mature portrayal of a marriage separation after Antoine is caught having an amusingly awkward affair with a Japanese diplomat.
Love on the Run (1979)
As suggested by the melancholy ending of Bed and Board, Antoine and Christine are now officially separated and divorced. Antoine has published a book on his life, a self-described “work of fiction with autobiographical elements” that sounds suspiciously similar to how Truffaut views his Doinel films. While dropping off his child at the train station, Antoine runs into an adult Colette (reprised by Marie-France Pisier), and the two reminisce on his life and their awkward adolescent romance.
It’s here where the film strays from a more traditional narrative into half nostalgic remembrance of Antoine Doinel’s life, half deconstruction on his failings as a character. A substantial quantity of the film predictably consists of footage from the previous four films, which is occasionally endearing but mostly eye-rolling. This nostalgic fatigue is more welcome than the weariness of Bed and Board, however, as it offers a final cathartic farewell to Antoine Doinel.
The 400 Blows assuredly has a place among the best and most important films of all time, and it’s astounding to recognize it as Truffaut’s directorial debut. Sadly, the appeal of revisiting Antoine Doinel as a character diminished with each sequel. Even so, it’s a rare treat in cinema to be able to so comprehensively know a character, to watch him grow from child to adult. Though each sequel, barring Stolen Kisses, failed to retain the magnetic energy of his character, the personal love that Truffaut brought to each film is undeniable. It’s clear that Antoine is in many ways a surrogate for the director, and his many adventures will remain a faithful testament to Truffaut’s self-reflective artistry.
The Cuckoo Clock is an ongoing column that looks back upon the films and filmmakers of yesterday. It reflects on the themes and artistry of bygone, but not forgotten, eras in filmmaking. The column acts as a companion to Of Our Time, a column that explores contemporary cinema.