Saturday, April 25, 2009

I had the good fortune to catch two good movies recently: Shifty (which opened in cinemas yesterday) and Les Quatre Cents Coups, a classic French film by Francois Truffaut.

Shifty's about a day in the life of best mates Shifty (Riz Ahmed) and Chris (David Mays). Chris has returned to Dudlowe, a fictional borough on the outskirts of London, for the first time in four years, ostensibly for a party. He'd fled following an incident involving a female friend's death, and we only learn about what happened as the film unfolds. Shifty, once the brightest kid in school, is now a hardcore drug dealer. The film follows him and Chris around as he plies his trade, and has to contend with a hard-up and desperate client, the police, and a double-crossing drug dealer. It's a little like The 25th Hour, and if you enjoyed that (which I did), you'd probably enjoy this, although you may have to struggle to understand the British slang used.

Following the screening, I wasn't overly impressed. I felt the film was average at best. The character of Shifty was excellently portrayed, and the friendship between the two characters was convincingly done, but, overall, it felt a little cliched. I saw the twist coming quite some time back and wasn't too surprised by the ending.

But then, I decided to find out more about the origins of the film. It turned out that this was part of Film London's Microwave project and was Eran Creevey's directorial debut, and Riz Ahmed's acting debut. This film was filmed on a budget of £100,000 and completed in just 18 days. That changed my opinion of the film greatly. It was meant to be an independent, low-budget film. And for a first-time effort, it really wasn't that bad.

Now onto Les Quatre Cents Coups, an iconic film of La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) cinema. Directly translated into English, the title means "The 400 Blows". Not only does that sound incredibly dodgy (it could just be my gutter mind, I concede), but it's rather inaccurate. Les Quatre Cents Coups is a phrase that roughly translates into "raising hell" which is what this film is about. Antoine Doinel (played by 14-year-old Jean Pierre Léaud, who goes on to reprise the character in a further three films) is a 12-year-old boy with an equally troubled home life and school life. His teacher has marked him out as a troublemaker, while his mother and stepfather pretty much neglect him. The only time we see his mother paying him any attention is because she wishes to distract Antoine from an indiscretion on her part. Easily influenced by his best friend René, they go on to play truant, run away from home, get expelled from school and commit petty theft. Exasperated, Antoine's stepfather turns him over to the authorities and he ends up in a detention home for juvenile delinquents. It is there that Antoine opens up to a psychiatrist and we learn about his family situation, and come to grips with why he is the way he is. There are several very impressive scenes in the movie, and this is one of them. Instead of a dialogue, the scene is done as a monologue, with Antoine talking directly to the camera. It's very nicely done.

The ending shot of the film - a freeze frame of Antoine staring directly into the camera both pleading and accusatory at once - is legendary. It's a very powerful shot.

Les Quatre Cents Coups was Truffaut's directorial debut at the young age of 27. He based the character of Antoine on his own life experiences. Remarkably, Léaud even resembles Truffaut.
I'll admit certain parts of it seem a little dated - it was set in the late '50s after all, and it's in black and white - but it's still a powerful film. My enjoyment of it was marred a little by the inconsistent subtitling on the part of either the BFI or the distributor. Some parts of the film weren't subtitled, and, while I understand French, I don't usually manage to get all of it especially if spoken at the speed at which a native French speaker tends to speak at. As a result, I felt I didn't quite understand certain bits of the film, such as when Antoine's mother speaks to the judge and he responds something along the lines of "all the more praise to [Antoine] then" and she says she shouldn't have mentioned that. The only thing is that whatever she told him isn't subtitled, so, even now, one week after the show, I'm still wondering what she could have said.

I've got a couple of other La Nouvelle Vague films on my 'to watch' list such as Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), Jacques Demys' The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (even if Peau D'âne disturbed me greatly) and Claude Chabrol's Les jeux de l'amour (The games of love), but a French friend has told me that I need to understand the social revolution which France was undergoing at the time in order to better appreciate the films, so I may need some more time before watching these shows!

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