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Close-Ups: The French New Wave and the Face

by Iain Morrisson -- page 2 of 4
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Antoine's Face
In the course of Les Quatre Cent Coups, Antoine's (Jean-Pierre Leaud) face displays a combination of distrust at the world and a certain impenetrability--as if nothing that people do to him can really affect him. It is a look of learned indifference, a resigned look, the look of an older man, a man who has become used to his fate and we see this expression with every new trial that comes along. As a result of this there is an immediate ambiguity surrounding Antoine's age. Just how old is he supposed to be? His expression and gait tell us that he is sixteen, his behavior when it comes to school, sex and parents indicate that he is about ten. Early on, I found myself trying to get closer to the screen to see his face properly, only to discover that there is a tension between the youthful face and the aged expression that the face is carrying.

Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine in Les Quatre Cent Coups.

In the last sequence of Les Quatre Cents Coups, Antoine escapes from a reformatory on the coast of France. He heads for the road and follows it toward the ocean, all the while running as hard as he can. The camera tracks him for over two minutes, giving us a head and shoulders side-shot of him as he runs. Finally, he reaches the sea and the camera waits back as he scurries down to the water's edge. Now at some distance from him, the camera still follows him along the waterfront. As the sea rushes in he backs off, turning away from it. Suddenly the camera zooms in and at that precise moment Antoine looks up and into the lens. The shot is frozen. He looks confused and young. The image is truly arresting.

Les Quatre Cents Coups

View an animated GIF of the final close-up from Les Quatre Cents Coups (17 frames, 91KB).

What is it that prevents us seeing through the image to a puzzled and lost schoolboy? Essentially, the image jars us because it comes into direct conflict with all of our previously formed expectations. There is a youthfulness in his face that we haven't seen before; it is seen in his confusion, his wide-eyed expression of being lost. This forces us to notice his face as if we haven't quite seen it before. We see it as intimate, immediate, a new direct communication between Antoine and ourselves. By altering that which the face refers too, Truffaut has drawn our attention to it as something we are used to reading as a signpost to the mind.

Furthermore, what we might expect from Antoine at this point is a look of happiness. The sea represents freedom and escape; we have followed him on his journey down to this goal but now that he has arrived nothing has really changed, the sea has not lived up to his expectations as a haven of peace. He turns his back on it and runs back up toward the camera; uncertainties have been reinforced. Hence, the confusion–-Antoine does not know what to think. This confusion and uncertainty jars our expectations of seeing a happy Antoine--once again creating an image that resists transparency and easy interpretation. It is this resistance that causes our arrest in the face of the image.

As a general comment, we might first note that the image of the face is used by Truffaut to unsettle viewers--to defy their expectations. Tradition is broken for the close-up is no longer a vehicle for confirming our expectations regarding the joy or distress of the character. Instead, the face is itself the object of art; we are forced to take note of it and not merely to that which lies beneath it.

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