Truffaut: The 400 Blows (1959)

“You take him from here. I’m going home.”

It’s those three little words. “I’m going home.” They really strike me as getting to the heart of things in this film. Not in some silly metaphorical sense, I mean, but literally: this guy has finished up at work, though he’s not finished with this particular job, he’s just handing off the boy to another officer, and he’s going home, where he lives, where he’s likely in charge. Maria Montessori said that children are the most oppressed group of people in the world, and that’s partially what this film is about. The boy barely speaks, and when he does it’s of the lowliest parts of the adult canon, yet somehow we know that he’s good, and know what he’s trying to do, to just get by, to follow his little heart! He doesn’t know where he’s going, that’s obvious, but the same could be said of most of us anyway.

One of the puzzling things to me about this film is how Paris is a character. Is it that Paris is just so beautiful that we can’t take our eyes off her? No…Paris could be ignored, she’s just another city. Yet these lovely cuts of Paris adorn the film every few minutes. And I’ve thought about this for years until it occurred to me today, when the boys get off the metro in Pigalle, why it matters. This is a French film, made for the French and for speakers of French. Films in New York? The Empire State Building looks like any other from the street level. None of the bridges are so remarkable, one from the next, Carnegie Hall is fairly chaste, Central Park might mean you’re near Harlem or midtown, Union Square and Columbus Circle aren’t particularly special…there’s a reason why films in New York show us the cityscape and then plant us on some anonymous street, which is that the physiognomy of New York isn’t ubiquitous in our hearts. What’s the difference between SoHo and Tribeca? But Paris? We don’t need to be told what to think when we see its streets, because it isn’t so fond of novelty as we are here. Vuillard was painting the cafe Wepler more than a century ago, it survived both wars and more than another sixty years. Pigalle means something, and it doesn’t change. Like the pyramids. Part of the charm of Paris is that it knows precisely what it is, and it doesn’t have to be, nor does it try to be, everything…it just has to be Paris. So Truffaut doesn’t have to tell us where he’s filming, he doesn’t have to describe the parts of town, because we already know them, they’re heavy with meaning.

The only other examples that I know of offhand are Blake’s cosmology being symbolically London-centric, and maybe even the Wizard of Oz being a metaphorical representation of the United States. The US doesn’t have any city that the world ‘knows’ but the country as a whole is subject to a fair number of stereotypes we’re all pretty comfortable with. And I continually return to the uncomfortable notion of London and Paris being important places…where else are we supposed to know? Didn’t the rest of the world have history too? That’s what I’ve heard. Yet looking at a map of the world’s major powers in the early 1500s, China’s stuck with ancestor worship, Japan’s essentially an eternal Sparta, Muscovy fairly isolated and otherwise interested in eastward expansion…I don’t know enough about the Ottoman empire to characterize it at all, but Western Europe has all its powers fragmented. But there’s London. And there’s Paris. England and France are the only two countries still recognizable on that map (and Spain and Portugal…but…um…)–it’s not just that those cities were there, as plenty were, but it’s the meaning that each of those cities held at the time, and that remains in our consciousnesses today, it’s their calm longevity in an otherwise frenetic western world.

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