“Time Regained” is a short series inspired by IFC Center’s series of the same name, timed to the release of Richard Linklater’s 12 year project Boyhood, finally arriving this Friday, and revisiting cinema’s bravest attempts at chronicling a character’s life over the years. Today, we’re talking about Francois Truffaut’s five films following the life of Antoine Doinel, the star of his 1959 debut film The 400 Blows.
I’ve stated my extensive thoughts on sequels on this site before, and before this week is done I’ll probably have articulated them a little more thoroughly. I’m not a cynic or an advanced intellectual when it comes to their role in the mainstream. In fact it’s often the denial of logic, if not the absolute obliteration of it, that often kickstarts my passion for sequels like Gremlins 2: The New Batch or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or more recent examples like Muppets Most Wanted or 22 Jump Street. Even The Dark Knight and Terminator 2: Judgment Day show signs of throwing the guide book to the wind and traveling the most radical distance with their ideas.
Independent sequels often play deeper with the consequences of returning to their characters, but the most intrinsic law of both branches of follow-up remains the same: Remain the same, or more accurately, remain yourself. Never lose the emotional core that was so strong in the first place. In that way, Francois Truffaut set himself at an unthinkably high bar for The 400 Blows (1959), his debut feature which, at the time, he likely never considered following up on. You can see it in the bleak tone of events that his central character, Antoine Doinel (played throughout his life by Jean-Pierre Léaud), gradually endures. He starts out the film a rather nefarious and habitual troublemaker for his teachers, materially cared for but emotionally neglected by his mother and his potentially adoptive father.
Not quite a deathly toxic environment to live in, things nonetheless move casually from bad to worst as a series of happened upon mistakes sees the freedoms and desires of Antoine’s life slowly, and then quite rapidly, stripped away. As far as the French New Wave is concerned, Truffaut is markedly more reserved than colleague Jean-Luc Godard, less interested in straining the reality of details as he is in showing the full weight and duration of that reality. He leaves his most extensive cinematic cue at the ambiguous end, where the empty void of an uncertain, but almost certainly unloved, future comes crushing down upon Antoine. The last frame sears us into the end of Antoine’s childhood, an image jarring enough to resound as the permanent definition of his life.
Except it wasn’t quite so literally permanent, as Truffaut would go on to revisit the character four times over the years, starting just three years later with the half-hour short film Antoine and Collette (1962). No longer a boy, Antoine’s now a teenager pining after a girl he meets at the cinema, though his affections are never returned by Collette, even as he implants himself into her home life, winning over her parents in his own desperate coup for familial love. He can’t quite have both, and is left at the end in bitter awkwardness, with a family that isn’t his and a girl who doesn’t want him. It’s the closest Truffaut would get to recapturing the tone of The 400 Blows, but he uses this short as a transition to telling a different kind of story for Antoine’s life, one predicated on the principals of love and restlessness.
What he loses, though, is a sense of the inescapable devastation that consumed Antoine’s childhood. If it’s only tucked in the corner in Antoine and Collette, his next feature about Doinel, Stolen Kisses (1968), moved closer to absolutely discarding it. Picking up more appropriately on the emotional cue The 400 Blows left off with, only nine years after that film, we see Antoine dishonorably discharged from the military (he joined for “personal reasons”, perhaps a lingering side effect of his estranged father’s insistence during his childhood). From there, though, we’re left wandering with him from odd job to job, his boyish charm playing more to comedy than tragedy. We touch upon his unresolved mother issues through a brief obsession with shoe store boss’ wife, only to find him falling happily into a convenient romance by the film’s close.
It was at this stage during a day long marathon of Antoine Doinel films that my spirits sank. I settled in for Bed and Board (1970), now eleven years removed from the childhood Doinel I’d only that morning been emotionally crushed by. In those eleven year, though, I’d found the most distinct aspects not just of Doinel, but of his desperate life, to have been stripped away. He was happily married, though with the quivers of having a child on the way, and though I could sense his life being potentially upended through an affair with a Japanese woman, I never felt the fear of an uncertain future that The 400 Blows left me with, or the dread of a future too certainly set to defeat Antoine. I left half an hour in, though in catching up with fellow Antoine-a-thon-ers, found out he’d found a way to salvage his marriage.
I was ready to escape this pleasant, but scarcely satisfying future, but for the sake of completion, found myself returning for Love on the Run, the conclusion of Antoine’s journey twenty years after its beginning, and very consciously so on Truffaut’s part. We see countless flashbacks to the previous films as their principal players return into Antoine’s life. Collette is now an aspiring judge, but hasn’t grown any more passion for Antoine from their years apart. Christine, his wife, is now divorcing him for fooling around once too often, in spite their seemingly happy end in the last film. Even a chance street encounter from The 400 Blows comes back to tie Antoine back to his relationship with his supposedly unloving mother. All these returns are meant to unify the series, but if anything they come much closer to twisting our original perception of it. Looking at The 400 Blows placed stylistically against Love on the Run, it seems impossible that they’re chronicling the same life, not to mention from the same filmmaker.
I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that Antoine ends happily in love with his latest girl, on pleasant terms with both the former ladies of his life. Why don’t I consider it as such? Because by this point I’ve done all I can to psychologically extricate The 400 Blows from the films that followed, because Truffaut started his career with a masterpiece that, on its own, speaks as much to childhood today as it did in the lingering aftermath of WWII Europe. It shows even in the films of today, with last year’s The Selfish Giant coming across with many narrative similarities to Doinel’s difficult adolescence. The follow-ups have much less cinematic impact. Though you can perhaps see glimmers of them in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, mainly in Ethan Hawke’s character, their historic lack of resonance comes from a ideological remove from The 400 Blows. Truffaut returned to the same name and the same face, but never the same world. We like the idea of certainty and closure in theory, but not in practice.