Crash Course: The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

One of my all time favorite films is François Truffaut’s 1959 classic The 400 Blows, and I’m not alone in my assessment.  The 400 Blows is a Revival House classic, a major entrant into the French New Wave, and one of the foundations of modern world cinema.  What’s a little less known is that Truffaut actually made four semi-sequels to The 400 Blows, each starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and each depicting a different stage in the life of the Antoine Doinel character.  It’s not the first series to do something like this (it was preceaded by the Apu Trilogy for example), but it’s still a likely influence on other life-spanning sagas like the “Up” series of documentaries and Richard Linklater’s “Before” series.  I’ve always wanted to check out Criterion’s boxed set of the series, but it’s always been a bit tricky getting a hold of the copy of The 400 Blows that comes with the Antoine and Colette short without buying the whole box, but luckily TCM ended up airing all four films in the series recently as part of their Truffaut retrospective and I leaped at the opportunity.

Antoine and Colette

The first of the Antoine Doinel “sequels” is Antoine and Colette, a thirty minute short which was part of a mostly forgotten anthology film called Love at Twenty.  I should probably try to track down that anthology some day; it apparently also featured shorts on the subject of young love from a number of well regarded directors from all over the world including Andrzej Wajda so there must be something to it.  Of all the films here this one is probably the most stylistically similar to The 400 Blows in that it was also filmed in black and white and in the scope aspect ratio.  I guess that makes sense as this is the only of the four “sequels” where Doinel is still a minor, although he’s now well into his teen years and he’s left his delinquent ways in the past.  He now works for a vinyl record factory and lives pretty modestly.

As the title implies, the film is mostly an account of Doinel’s rather confused relationship with a girl named Colette, who sends him a lot of mixed signals about whether or not she wants to be his lover or just a friend: realistic awkwardness ensues.  This was all auto-biographical on Truffaut’s part and Colette was apparently inspired by a real woman named Lilliane Latvin.    Truffaut had apparently expressed some regret for having never expanded it into a feature, and I also sort of wish we’d gotten a wider look at Doinel’s life at this stage, though I’m not sure that I necessarily would have liked to see more of this awkward relationship than we already do.  This could almost be seen as a precursor to a lot of the “auto-biographical coming of age” films we’ve been seeing a lot of these days, and Colette could have easily turned into a proto-manic Pixie Dream Girl had we gotten more of her and had the relationship sprouted a little more successfully.

*** out of Four

Stolen Kisses

Made about eight years after Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses is the second feature length film in this “series” and in some ways the first of a trilogy of films that will close out the story.  Things have certainly changed aesthetically in that this installment is in color and not in widescreen.  I would say that this was some kind of statement distancing this installment from what came before, but really, it’s pretty much in line with an evolution that had been going on throughout François Truffaut’s work in this era.  The Antoine Doinel here is older, but he hasn’t really changed a whole lot, he’s still a fairly awkward young man who’s having trouble understanding the minds of the various women in his life.  He also gets a job as a private investigator for a little while, which is fun, and the film introduces the woman who will be his wife in the rest of the series named Christine Darbon.

This film comes at something of a slow and somewhat aimless point in Doinel’s life, and the film’s pacing sort of matches this because it doesn’t really have the sort of strong propulsive narrative that you usually expect from a film.  One could even call it meandering.  Still, I can see the influence that this may have had on future filmmakers, especially the lighthearted indie-comedy guys like Wes Anderson.  This iteration of Doinel reminded me a lot of Jason Schwartzman’s shtick, especially when he was in his private investigator mode which had to have had some influence over that “Bored to Death” show.  The film was actually a pretty big hit for Truffaut and is considered by many critics to be one of his best films of the 70s, but I can’t exactly see why it caught on in such a big way.

*** out of Four

Bed and Board

The French title for Bed & Board is “Domicile Conjugal,” which makes sense because this film is all about conjugal domesticity.  Not much time has passed since the last Antoine Doinel film, but in the time we were away he’s gotten married to Christine and they’re expecting their first child.  Early in the film Doinel even manages to find a pretty decent job, and from pretty much every vantage point he would seem to be set for life as a happy citizen, and yet something nags at him.  From here we’re basically watch the good and bad sides of Doinel’s marriage and watch as it starts to crumble after Doinel meets a striking young Japanese woman and begins an affair.

Bed & Board is perhaps the most focused of the five films, and certainly more serious than the quirky fun of Stolen Kisses, in part because Doinel is firmly entrenched in the adult world at this point and his decisions have more consequences.  Still, the Antoine Doinel we see here reminds me more of the young Doinel from The 400 Blows than the Doinel in Stolen Kisses did.  After all, that film was all about a boy who was unsatisfied with the status quo and ended with him running away toward an uncertain future, and this adult Doinel is similarly unwilling to simple “go with the flow.”  It should also probably be mentioned that these films do continue to be autobiographical, and this whole scenario is meant to be based on Truffaut’s own infidelities.  Most people making a film like this based on personal experiences would probably emphasize the pain of the situation, but Truffaut seemed to have a sense of humor about his personal problems, and he brings a lot of wit to the table here rather than angst.

***1/2 out of Four

 Love on the Run

Though Stolen Kisses and Bead and Board were made in quick succession, Truffaut waited almost a decade to make the fifth and final film in the Antoine Doinel saga: Love on the Run.  This installment is unique among series entries in that it’s mostly set in a short span of a day or two, and in that short time Doinel finally divorces Christine, spends a little quality time with his son, tries to juggle his new mistress, reunites with Colette, and even meets his mother’s former side-lover for the first time in years.  As you can tell, this is a denser and faster paced film than the previous installments and is also more story driven.  Because the time is more compressed, the film is forced to rely on coincidence in order to make everything happen, but the time span also brings the film a lot of energy so I think it’s worth it.  The film also benefits greatly from the return of Colette, in part because Marie-France Pisier had grown into a fine actress and is extremely charming in this film.

 One aspect of the film that will be off-putting to some is that it utilizes footage from previous installments of the franchise for an handful of flashback sequences, almost like a T.V. “clip show.”  When watching these sequences its important to remember that this was made before the era of home video, and its likely that the audiences of the time would have been watching these movies over the course of twenty years, so the material likely would not have been fresh in the minds of the original audience.  It never feels like this footage is just being inserted in order to fill time, rather, I think it gives the film a better sense of finality and helps to bring closure to the series.  I’ve heard that when all was said and done Truffaut was not happy with the way that Love on the Run brought an end to the Antoine Doinel saga, but I for one think he was being way too hard on himself.  This is a fine coda to put at the end of the series and is in itself a very fun movie to watch.

***1/2 out of Four

Ultimately I think “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” is a good, but not necessarily great series.  Every installment of the series is good, but none of them hold a candle to The 400 Blows.  There’s a reason that that original film is a classic of world cinema and that its sequels are semi-obscure efforts that are probably best left for Truffaut-completists.  Part of me wants to argue that the story would have been better left on a freeze frame of a young Doinel looking towards the ocean.  That’s an image that left everyone wondering what would become of this child and to some extent knowing that the answer was “a bad marriage and a series of odd jobs” kind of diminishes that mystery.  However, leaving it at that would have robbed us of three and a half pretty solid little movies, so I don’t think that’s really a legitimate sticking point.

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