Day 91: THE 400 BLOWS + Should I Go, Can I Stay + ‘Le Dernier Metro’ 1980


blow by blow

I did my usual written reduction, having been grabbed by its obvious, unaffected, genuinity/genuineness but ungrabbed by its greatness. It’s really interesting, I thought.

I now see, after 20 hours, that it is an amazing film, for so many reasons. But, seriously! I watched it, wondered at why it has its greatness and wrote everything down to discern its greatness. So how do filmmakers and academics know this is an extraordinary film? Did they see it once and understand its authenticity? Was it screened in a college or university course which explained its worth?

That’s actually the wrong question and won’t bring me any closer to an understanding of why a number of people put this film on their top ten list.

While writing some raw notes in a file about the film, I happened onto an understanding of the emotion of the escape, and an understanding of fear outweighing reason.

Should I Go, Can I Stay

In 1981 the band The Clash wrote a song asking, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ It’s a near perfect fit for the mounting urgency of that question for Antoine, the thirteen-year old character in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows’.

Twice before he’s run away. But it’s not been a pre-meditated action at that point. The third time, when he’s incarcerated in a boy’s home, it’s the result of a desperation transmitted to him by at least one other boy – if not all of them. This one boy, tracked down and imprisoned again, says he’ll keep escaping no matter how many times they bring him back to the institution.

Antoine heard that and it was a juvenile feeling he could identify with. When boys are in a prison for troubled youths, they already know the answer to what now is essentially a stupid question regarding life: ‘Should I stay or should I go?

It’s now, in its most distilled emotion, just a fight-or-flight question.

Antoine has asked everyone the questions in The Clash’s song and no one has taken him up on it.

Should I stay or should I go?

If you say you are mine

I’ll be here ‘til the end of time

So you got to let me know

Should I stay or should I go?

Whether it’s a lover or family member or someone who’s part of a group of friends, or in band, it’s a timeless question.

The 400 Blows could be 1000 blows for one person or 1 or 2 big blows for another. Everyone’s different. For anyone caught stealing, given detention or caned, this film will have meaning when their act wasn’t much more than a youthful misdemeanor. For anyone caught stealing twice, or three of four times, and it involved the police, receiving detention occasionally for youthful exuberances, it resonates even louder. For those who have skirted the edge of minor criminality between the age of ten and eighteen, it’s a, “that could be me” moment.

Antoine reaches a point of emotional and psychological stress, that has him looking for any opportunity to run away again. It’s a place that is anywhere but here. It’s a place that is somewhere that I’m not in trouble.

When he takes the chance to run away from the institution, he’s acting in a way that is a purely animal response of standing up for himself or fleeing. It’s a physiological reaction in his body to terrible fear. Now he’s running for his life.

What is at stake is no longer the idea of wanting acceptance. It’s the need to have the freedom to be himself. He runs blindly, trying to escape from everything that is wrong with his life. He’s running from a mother who is unfaithful to him (by not wanting him) and his stepfather (sexually). He’s running from a school in which he can’t find acceptance. He’s running from an institution for bad boys, and he knows he’s not a bad kid. He’s running from friends who lead him down the wrong path

As he runs away from the guard, with long tracking shots of him running across meadows and down streets, running far beyond the endurance of any boy, it is a metaphor for the fact that he is running away from life, not toward anything in particular. When he was coming up with a plan to steal a typewriter so he’d have some money when he goes to wherever he was going, it was a positive plan, which he was initiating, even though it was criminal. When he’s running away from home at the end, he is literally running away from everything he has known, with no purpose and no destination. It’s the polar opposite of the tracking shots over the credits where everything is about how beautiful Paris is, and how beautiful the Eiffel Tower looks, from every conceivable angle.

The need to belong is the feeling that motivates all of the decisions we see. At home he does the chores that enable him to belong. At school, he gets caught being willful, and therefore isn’t accepted by the teacher. While having his crazy day in Paris, when he skipped school, he saw his mother kissing another man in the street. In trouble again at home for nearly burning the place down, and then at school for presenting someone else’s work as his own, leads him to give his trust to the friend who looks after him, gives him a place to stay on two occasions. It’s a friendship that leads him down the wrong path and into reform school.

The Science of Running

Other than Francois Truffaut’s own feelings of what it’s like to experience acute stress and run away, I don’t know if he had any understanding of the science that supports how his character, Antoine, was able to run and run and run at the end, beyond all believable endurance, and actually makes it quite feasible.

A part of the brain, the hypothalamus, sends messages to the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. The nervous system tells the body to be alert. It tenses and heart rate and blood pressure increase, affected by the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream. Simultaneously the adrenal-cortical system is activated, releasing the adrenocorticotropic hormone, which targets the adrenal cortex which in turn releases another 30 different hormones into the bloodstream. Epinephrine and norepinephrine change the body’s ability to do things far beyond its normal capabilities. This is seriously cool: pupils expand allowing more light in, veins constrict to allow more blood to get to the muscles, other muscles relax and more oxygen can come into the lungs, the brain’s scope is limited for finer tasks, so it can take in all the information it can collect about the threat. Where is it coming from? Who or what is it coming from? Should I run? Should I fight? The Clash who even wrote a song about that fear but in the context of love:

Darlin’ you got to let me know

Should I stay or should I go?

If you say you are mine

I’ll be here ‘til the end of time

So you got to let me know

Should I stay or should I go?

It’s very appropriate to Antoine. 20 years later, it was written about the danger of love, about the danger of hanging around, about the fear of rejection.

No one, not even his mother in a meaningful way, said to Antoine, “you are mine.” If she or anyone had, he might have said, “I’ll be here ‘til the end of time” and acted accordingly. So, Antoine asked, “Should I stay or should I go?” And no one asked him to stay, and everything that life threw at him – in the context of the film – was circumstantial. And when he was abandoned by his parents and locked up, he saw the chance to escape and instinct, pure instinct, took over. And he ran and ran until he reached the beach, then the sand, then the ocean lapping about his shoes.

If Antoine ran northwest it was the English Channel (193km to Dieppe) that stopped him. If he headed west, it was the Atlantic Ocean – 591km to Brest). If it was south it was the Mediterranean Sea (787km to Marseille).

‘Le Dernier Metro’ 1980

I watched a film out of order, which I haven’t seen in thirty-seven years. It’s not significant on any compilation list of 100 great films. But I’ve remembered this film for four decades because it had one of the most beautiful themes ever composed. I returned The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim on Friday and saw four other Truffaut films on the shelf, so despite whatever my plans for this week, I borrowed them. I figure I can watch and absorb them before I write about the two big ones, T4B and JJ.

They were Shoot the Piano Player, Bed and Board, The Last Metro and Stolen Kisses and something about Mermaids.

After watching the film about the occupation, about a theatre group who innocently attempt to mount a play, I researched those real events and the events surrounding the Austrian and French occupation and learned some important historical details which gave greater detail to the events in these films.