The Final Image in Les Quatre Cents Coups

This essay was written on 23 October 2002 for Introduction to the Study of Film with Linda Delibero during the first semester of my sophomore year at Johns Hopkins University.

Carlos Macasaet
Ms. Linda DeLibero
061.140 – Midterm Essay
22 October 2002

The Final Image in Les Quatre Cents Coups

In Les Quatre Cents Coups, François Truffaut exploits the medium of cinema to touch the audience in a novel way. In the film, he challenges the viewer to react morally outside the scope of the film. He culminates this in the final scene in which, during a soccer game Antoine escapes from incarceration.

Antoine’s escape from the juvenile correction centre corresponds to the capture and release theme of the film. As Antoine runs through the countryside, the camera tracks with him. This frames Antoine in the centre in a medium shot. This mise-en-scéne makes it impossible for the viewer to see where he is going or where he coming from. As viewers, one of the first things that strikes us is that there is no indication as to what dangers or obstacles lie ahead as Antoine flees. Moreover, we cannot tell if he is making any progress in his flight. He is simply running. This is indicative of the fact that, at this point, Antoine’s future is completely uncertain.

Soon, however, our concerns are allayed as the length of the tracking shot causes us to realise that Antoine has been running for a while and has probably eluded his captors. Antoine’s long run through the countryside represents his enthusiasm for having finally achieved the freedom that he yearns for. Thus, it is only natural that the positive musical theme from the opening sequence accompanies Antoine once again as he runs away. This is emphasised by the sound of each footfall in Antoine’s stride. It is as if each step is a celebration of his freedom. Freedom and as we see later, the sea drives Antoine as nothing else in his life gives him any direction. His parents and teachers are unsupportive and he has no real goals. He lacks discipline and detests school. As a result, he receives poor marks and is often reprimanded, which only serves to discourage him further.

The fact that this shot is taken outdoors reminds us of the time when he was most free the day he played hooky. However, it also reminds us of a time when he was most desperate, namely the night he ran away from home and frantically searched the city for shelter and the nourishment that he did not receive from home.

The tracking shot of Antoine running also reminds us of the opening credit sequence of the Paris Montage. In this sequence, Truffaut combines realist imagery with romantic imagery to show the emotional tension that exists in the monotony of everyday life. As the credits roll, we see shots of ordinary buildings juxtaposed with shots of tree-lined boulevards and shots of the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, the shot of Antoine running across rural France is very realist. However, towards the end of the scene, as Antoine runs down a staircase, the camera pans in the direction he is running to show the beach, the waves and the sea in all its splendour adding an element of romanticism to the scene. This particular shot is the culmination of realism and romanticism. The sea is what Antoine has longed most for. As a result, this image represents all the potential he possesses having just escaped.

As Antoine runs down the stairs to the beach, we are reminded of the night he ran away from home and slid down the rim of a fountain to get water to wash his face. Likewise, he is again seeking water. This time, as he runs towards the sea, he is running towards an uncertain future. In this long shot, we see Antoine dressed in his black juvenile correction centre uniform contrasted against the white sand. Similar to the juxtaposition of realist and romantic imagery, this underscores the co-existence of darkness and beauty in his life. The darkness is evident in the way he is treated by people who do not understand him. Antoine, however, always manages to find beauty in the simple things such as his friendship with Ren.

The positioning of these scenes at the beginning and end of the film serve to frame it with images that depict Antoine’s struggle for solace in a world that is trying to make him conform to social conventions while ignoring his own needs. Through the juxtaposition of realism and romanticism, Truffaut has used reality in a poetic way to tell the sentimental story of Antoine’s life in an unadulterated fashion free of melodrama.

In the final sequence, having finally reached his ultimate aspiration, Antoine turns away disillusioned, realising that the sea could not fill the void in his heart left by the adults who refuse to take the time to understand him and love him. He cannot go any further and so he must turn back. As he turns, his gaze moves towards the camera. As he looks the viewer in the eyes, the image freezes and the image zooms in on his face, capturing a look of tenuous potential, doubt and expectation. This image stays on the screen to further exaggerate the effect. This end to the action prompts the viewer to wonder what will happen next. We are left with Antoine’s perspectives, our views of justice and expectations of what should happen and what could happen instead. At the same time, we realise that Antoine’s life will continue in the same cycle of misfortunes that have plagued him from the beginning.

Truffaut’s intention, however, is far greater. In this last view of Antoine, we are seeing him in a completely new way. When we see Antoine’s eyes, we cannot help but wonder if we are looking at him or if he is looking at us. Indeed, initially, our views of Antoine distanced us from him, as we were simply observers. However, our perspective becomes much more personal, as several shots are taken over his shoulder to show us his point of view. The prime example of this is Antoine’s view from within the amusement park ride. We also join Antoine’s view within smaller and more intimate environments, such as his incredibly cramped flat. However, we still see him as we would a protagonist in any story. We remain an observer. There is no convention that says that we ought to take responsibility for our own view of him.

Truffaut challenges this by drawing the audience into the film in an unprecedented way in this last scene. The puppet show scene foreshadows the final image of the film. In that scene, we watch children as they react to a story, brought to life by puppets, as it develops. Now with the final image, Antoine has caught us watching his story unfold. Only this time, it is not a play, but rather, the reality of his life, which as we know was largely autobiographical for Truffaut. However, it is more general than that. Truffaut is commenting on the general treatment of youth at the time. Indeed, many of us can relate in some way to Antoine’s pain in our own childhoods. Truffaut is telling us of a moral truth of which we are already aware, but that is often suppressed by our adult conformity. In particular, he is saying that that the passage from childhood to adulthood is a painful rite.

When we look into Antoine’s eyes, we are looking at him more closely than any of the other characters. Even characters that can understand him, such as Ren, do not see him as deeply as the film viewer. In this way, Truffaut offers us a difficult choice. Will we ignore our responsibility and become like the adults in the film indifferent to Antoine’s plight? Will we simply watch as the word Fin imposes itself over his face forming bars reminiscent of incarceration over his face? Or will we take responsibility for our gaze? In a classic French sentiment, Truffaut is challenging us to react morally and take action against a social injustice.

With Les Quatre Cents Coups, Truffaut has gone beyond merely telling a story or sending a message through his film. He has given life to his creation and allowed his protagonist, Antoine, to break free of the medium so that he may address the audience himself.

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