“Elle est Morte!” Mother and Son in Truffaut’s Doinel Cycle

“Maybe it’s something in his glands,” one teacher haplessly suggests when trying to determine just what it is that has gone wrong with Antoine Doinel, the troubled adolescent protagonist in visionary French director François Truffaut’s stunning, semiautobiographical 1959 debut feature The 400 Blows (the English title is a puzzlingly literal translation of a French phrase meaning roughly, “to raise hell”). Of course it isn’t Antoine’s glands that are the problem. Neglected and too-obviously unwanted at home, Antoine finds little of the care and understanding he needs at school either. The first time we meet him in the film, he’s already in trouble, caught with a dirty picture that was passed to him by the other boys. His luck continues in this fashion, and soon the sensitive and intelligent but misunderstood boy has gone from cutting school to running away from home and engaging in petty theft. The film’s final shot – a freeze frame close-up of Antoine on the beach – has become one of the most iconic and most often imitated images in world cinema, a simple but extremely potent portrait of a young man alone and uncertain of his future. The story, apocryphal or not, that Truffaut actually ran out of film on the beach doesn’t lessen the brilliance of that parting shot – a celebrated and hugely influential film critic before he got behind a camera, Truffaut knew a good thing when he saw it.

The relationship that drives the action in The 400 Blows is the dysfunctional connection between Antoine and his mother. At the dinner table she talks coolly of sending her son off to summer camp, clearly eager to have him off her hands. This attitude manifests itself more bluntly in a scene that finds Antoine lying awake in bed. In another room, he hears the couple fighting (his mother is accused of infidelity, which Antoine knows to be true). The camera stays trained on Antoine’s young face and wide, dark eyes as he becomes the subject of all the shouting. “I gave him my name!” shouts Julien Doinel, who is not Antoine’s father after all, “I put food on the table!” It’s an awful moment, one in which Antoine cannot help but feel like an unwanted burden, but it’s followed by a worse one. This time it’s Antoine’s mother Gilberte doing the shouting: “I’ve had it with your criticism! Fine! We’ll send him to the Jesuits or the army orphans. At least I’d have some peace and quiet!” As the scene fades to black, the camera still locked on Antoine’s face, we sense his heartache. Shortly after this incident, Antoine arrives at school in need of an excuse to cover the fact he cut school the day before, the “bigger the better,” as his friend René advises him. Thus when confronted by his teacher, Antoine explains that he missed school because of his mother, blurting, “Elle est morte!” with disarming sharpness and conviction. Antoine kills off his mother as a kind of imaginary revenge, and given what’s come before, it would be difficult to argue that the extreme nature of Antoine’s lie lacks significance.

“So you think it’s normal for him to hate me?” Gilberte asks her husband after Antoine has run away for the first time. When Julien responds that she’s often very hard on Antoine, Gilberte snaps, “He gets on my nerves!” Though Gilberte treats her son kindly following his return, it’s clear that she is acting largely out of fear that Antoine will reveal the truth about her extramarital affair. Her inability – or unwillingness – to give her son the love and attention he needs is obvious throughout the film, and comes to a head when Antoine, mischievous and plagued with bad luck as ever, gets himself suspended from school, runs away once again, and is implicated in the theft of a typewriter. In response, Antoine’s parents ship him off to a reform school where his unhappiness and isolation can only increase, where there’s little for him to do but decide to run again.

The openness of Antoine’s fate at the conclusion of The 400 Blows might have left audiences speculating about him for decades on, had Truffaut not been so attached to the character, and to actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who brought the troubled boy to life and became known to film audiences as the director’s onscreen alter ego. Truffaut revisited Antoine with four more films. all of which are delightful in there own right, if never quite carrying the same emotional heft as the first, and in all of which acknowledge the mark that Antoine’s difficult relationship with his mother has left.

Even for the light comic touch of the later films, there is an ongoing sense that Antoine hasn’t gotten over the past. Antoine always seems to be in search of the loving family he never had. Antoine and Colette, a half hour vignette from the international omnibus film Love at Twenty, finds an eighteen-year-old Antoine living on his own and insinuating himself into the family of Colette, a girl he has fallen for who mostly snubs Antoine’s eager advances. He endears himself to her mother and father, turning up for family dinners as though he’s been adopted. He tellingly has a similar relationship with the parents of his girlfriend (later his wife, and finally his ex-wife) Christine, who appears in the three later Doinel films. “I like a girl with nice parents,” Antoine insists in his third film appearance, the charming Stolen Kisses. Antoine also becomes and author in these later films, and unsurprisingly, a significant portion of his thinly fictionalized first novel retells the story of his unhappy adolescence, and the memories that that writing stirs for Antoine both upset him and place a strain on his marriage.

Truffaut ended the Doinel cycle twenty years after he began it with 1979’s Love on the Run, admitting in an interview that he had chosen to stop making films about Doinel in part because he found himself having trouble letting the character really grow up. For this reason, the former film critic wondered if the cycle failed as a whole, no matter how enjoyable the individual films might be. Yet the sweet and slightly frothy Love on the Run offers us something of closure both for Antoine and Gilberte Doinel. The main thread of the film’s plot involves Antoine’s always-complicated love life. But now there’s a difference. Not only do we never seen Antoine trying to involve himself with new love Sabine’s parents, but his new book isn’t about his painful formative years – it’s about wooing Sabine. And, memorably, Antoine accompanies his late mother’s former lover to Père Lachaise cemetery to visit his mother’s grave for the first time. The past has almost literally been laid to rest.

France, 1959. 99 min. Les Films du Carrosse/ Sedif Productions

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