Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel (1959-1979)
Directed by François Truffaut
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud
French Language

I didn't see The 400 Blows until 2010, and I've been interested in seeing the other four films featuring the character of Antoine Doinel ever since. When Turner Classic Movies decided to air them all last week, I finally had my chance. I'm not sure why, but I wasn't expecting the sequels to live up to the magic of The 400 Blows. However, I was pleasantly surprised. While the overall tone of the four additional entries in the series is quite different, I found that I was excited about seeing all of them.

Has there been another series of films like this, showing different stages in the life of the main character over 20 years or more? I guess you could count series such as Die Hard, Rambo, or Rocky, but those titles focused more on the genre than on the development of the main character. As a fan of the Harry Potter movies, I'm also aware of how the younger members of the cast played their characters for almost half their lives up to the point that the story ended. While all of those movies are in my collection, none comes close to Antoine Doinel's story, and they are not meant to be serious studies of how someone changes through the course of their life.

Let's take a brief look at Truffaut's five Antoine Doinel stories:

The 400 Blows (1959)
Crime, Drama, 99 minutes

I wrote a short review of this masterpiece in my 100 movies series. It begins Antoine's tale when his is a 12-year-old, living in Paris with his mother and stepfather. It's loosely based on Truffaut's own childhood, and we learn that Antoine's home life is not the easiest of existences. He's a bit of a rebel, and often in trouble at school, when he bothers to show up at all. His real love is cinema, and that's one of his main escapes from his troubled young life. Truffaut doesn't seem to judge Antoine. Instead, he shows us the facts and asks us to think about what we have seen. How would be react if we were in Antoine's situation. Is he good or bad? Should we root for him or not? Unlike the other four movies, this introduction is most definitely a drama. I appreciated it on first viewing, but it took a few more before I came to love the story. Because I'm hoping that you will eventually watch all five movies, I'm not going to ruin the plot of any by going into too much detail. All I will say is that it's one of the best coming-of-age stories I've ever seen.

Antoine and Colette (1962)
Comedy, Drama, 32 minutes

Antoine is now 17, and he's starting to focus on things other than his problems at home and his flirtation with crime. I found myself smiling that his life has taken a turn for the better. It was like meeting an old friend and seeing that they were suddenly thriving. The movie is a short, lasting just 32 minutes and ending rather abruptly, but it accomplishes a lot. At times, it feels closer in tone to The 400 Blows than the remaining three movies, but it has a fair amount of humor nonetheless. Antoine first sees Colette at a classical music concert, and he's immediately drawn to her. It's fun to watch his attempts to gain her attention, and interesting that he is so capable of impressing her parents, after struggling in that department with his own family. Antoine is somehow extremely likable, and it's easy to hope that wins Colette's affection. I felt as if I were in Antoine's shoes as I watched his audacious and inexperienced advances. I would love this to have been a full-length feature.

Stolen Kisses (1968)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 90 minutes

After being given a dishonorable discharge from the army, 23-year-old Antoine seeks out Christine (Claude Jade), his former girlfriend. Continuing the theme from the previous short, Antoine is well-liked by the parents of the girl he is pursuing romantically. Her father even manages to find Antoine a job as a night clerk. This movie has its serious moments, but it almost plays out like a romantic comedy. The acting is excellent, and it's easy to laugh at Antoine's attempts to succeed as a private detective. He doesn't seem to care what he does for a living, and focuses more on women, and passions such as music. The best moments feature Antoine's meetings with Fabienne Tabard (Delphine Seyrig), and one of her monologues is particularly memorable and effective.

Bed & Board (1970)
Comedy, Drama, 100 minutes

Antoine is now 26, and married to Christine with a baby on the way. His latest job involves dying flowers different colors, but that doesn't last for long. After finally marrying the woman he loves, Antoine still isn't content. He always seems to be searching for something, although he rarely has a definite goal in mind. He's an opportunist, and things usually fall into place for him. Even when he has an affair, and occasionally seeks out the services of prostitutes, we never get the feeling that he means any harm to the women he loves. Why is that, I wonder? Bed & Board features plenty of amusing moments, and more than a few touching scenes. By this point, we know Antoine pretty well.

Love on the Run (1979)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 94 minutes

What was to be Truffaut's final entry in the Antoine Doinel series is probably the weakest, but it does have some memorable moments. After divorcing his wife, Antoine still lacks focus in his life. He has published a book, which isn't shy about detailing many of his former relationships, and some of the best sequences in the movie happen when he has a chance encounter with Colette, who is now a lawyer. Antoine is fixated on yet another beautiful woman, Sabine (Dorothée), and there's a great scene in which he explains how she first caught his attention. Love on the Run relies too much on flashback footage from the first four movies, but the best scenes still make it a must-watch. It's fun to see two of his girlfriends meet, and characters from the earlier movies making an appearance. One encounter in particular is effective at showing how Antoine has evolved, and how people he once knew now view him differently.

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel is gripping entertainment and, at its best, features some of the most compelling storytelling I have witnessed on screen. Truffaut's way of narrating the story places you right in the middle of the action, except when he deliberately creates distance by placing you outside a room or a store, while concealing dialogue with noise from the street. Antoine is always fascinating, and Truffaut's characters are fully-developed, and often endearing. The five films feature good acting, comedy, drama, romance, and plenty to care about. His leading ladies are all beautiful in their own way, and I am sad that Truffaut's untimely death (from a brain tumor at 52) robbed us of the conclusion to Antoine's story. This is probably the best episodic character study that I've encountered, and I hope that Criterion upgrades the entire set to Blu-ray as it did with The 400 Blows. I'm looking forward to seeing other Truffaut titles that have eluded me thus far.

Overall score 4.5/5

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