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American Cinematographer Magazine

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel: The 400 Blows, Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run (1959-1979)
2.35:1 and 1.66:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Mono
(French with English subtitles)
The Criterion Collection, $99.95

Numerous countries can boast about their contributions to the art of filmmaking, but in this regard, France remains one of the most influential and prolific nations. In the 1950s, a group of young filmmakers and critics set out to redefine the national cinema, and they became collectively known as the voices of the French New Wave. The New Wave ideals spoke of a more modern approach to cinema, one that indulged the "auteur theory," which proposed that a director could "author" very personal films like a novelist, using particular styles and recurring themes. One of the most celebrated members of the New Wave, Fran‡ois Truffaut, found inspiration for his films by drawing upon memories of his troubled youth in occupied France.

In 1959, with his landmark first feature The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups), Truffaut introduced his alter-ego Antoine Doinel, a 14-year-old misfit. Throughout Truffaut's varied filmmaking career, he returned four times to the character of Doinel, who was played in each film by Jean-Pierre Leaud. The Criterion Collection recently issued a remarkable, five-platter DVD box set that includes the four Doinel feature films, two shorts and an array of extras.

The 400 Blows finds Doinel, rejected and misunderstood, setting off on a journey to "raise hell" and "sow some wild oats." His path from troublesome adolescent to petty thief comprises one of the most important and popular films of the French New Wave. Truffaut's directorial eye is attuned to unique nuance and is aided by cinematographer Henri Decae's indelible images of young Doinel in Paris. Decae's extensive work on documentaries and industrials gave him a realistic aesthetic that was well suited to the tone of the film. Using the Dyaliscope anamorphic process, Dacae's work (much of it handheld and shot in very long takes) is particularly potent as he captures the contrasting urban textures of Paris, which is rendered as both romantic and alienating.

The gritty monochrome canvas of The 400 Blows is perfectly realized in this outstanding presentation. The transfer minimizes grain and translates beautifully with sharp, contrasting blacks and whites as well as an elaborate gray scale. The monaural audio is solid, free from the hissing and popping noises that have plagued earlier video versions of the film. Related supplemental features include screen tests, the theatrical trailer and the 1992 Criterion laserdisc's dense and informative audio commentaries by scholar Brian Stonehill and Truffaut's lifelong friend Robert Lachenay.

Also included on this first disc is Antoine et Colette, in which Doinel, now 17, is pursuing Colette, a girl he meets at a concert series. In 1962, this bittersweet short film joined the works of directors such as Rossellini, Wajda, Ishihara and Ophuls as a segment in the omnibus film Love at Twenty (L'Amour a vingt ans). The generally solid and crisp transfer of Raoul Coutard's gritty cinematography is occasionally hampered by sequences of poor contrast that clearly seem to be the fault of the existing source elements.

In 1968, Truffaut returned to the series with Stolen Kisses (Baisers voles), which finds Doinel discharged from the military and eager to return to Paris. While trying on various hats to find work and impress his love interest, Christine (Claude Jade), he becomes an agent for a notorious matrimonial spy firm. Striving to lend a lighter tone to this entry in the ongoing series, Truffaut looked to develop Doinel's Paris in color with cinematographer Denys Clerval. Clerval's soft, romantic palette of gently muted colors is very well represented in this uniformly sharp transfer, with much of the original film grain visible. The monaural soundtrack is crisp.

Supplemental features on this second platter include an extensive interview with Truffaut regarding his similarities to Doinel, the theatrical trailer, newsreel footage of demonstrations that resulted from the removal of Henri Langlois as head of Truffaut's beloved Cin‚mathŠque Fran‡aise, and footage of Truffaut's speech asking the film community to shut down the 1968 Cannes Film Festival in response to the Vietnam War.

In 1970's Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal), Doinel, a florist in search of a more lucrative job, is trying to work on a novel and learning to deal with married life. Complications arise after the birth of his son, when Doinel meets and becomes infatuated with the mysterious Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer). This darkly comic and somewhat melancholy entry features some of the series' most expressive compositions and uses of color. Cinematographer Nestor Almendros, ASC vividly contrasts the subtle, softer hues of Christine's world with the bolder, more exotic shades of Kyoko's. This color scheme has been perfectly realized in an impeccable transfer, and the monaural sound is clear and free of any distortion.

The supplemental material on this third disc includes an extensive interview with Leaud about playing Doinel over the years, interviews with Truffaut and co-writer Bernard Revon, location footage of the cast and crew and the theatrical trailer.

Truffaut reteamed with Almendros for the final film, Love on the Run (L'Amour en fuite), which catches up with Doinel in 1979. Publishing his "autobiographical" novel, staying on good terms with his ex-wife and son, and getting serious about record-store clerk Sabine (Dorothee), Doinel now finds himself helplessly drawn to his first infatuation, Colette (Marie-France Pasier, reprising her original role). Visually more complex and experimental in tone, the film features extensive flashbacks that necessitated the use of footage from the series' earlier films, and Almendros seamlessly fuses the different stocks. The cinematographer also created a warm and more subdued look that suits the somewhat ambiguous tone of this final segment.

The picture transfer is exceptional, with even the warmest primary colors free of chroma noise. The monaural sound is very fine and slightly better than that of the other films. This fourth platter includes an interview with Truffaut regarding his ambivalence about the series' narrative arc, the theatrical trailer and a gallery of marketing material for all of the films.

Rounding out the series is the disc Les salades de l'amour, whose design cleverly mimics that of Doinel's novel. Truffaut's first foray into romantic angst, the 1957 short The Mischief Makers (Les Mistons), begins this supplemental material. Also included are a 25-minute excerpt from a Serge Leory 1961 documentary, a 44-minute discussion with screenwriters Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon from 1986, and a French TV interview with Truffaut from 1981.

Lastly, a 72-page book offers a terrific collection of reprinted essays by Truffaut, as well as new essays by contemporary scholars and filmmakers. Full production credits and several film stills are also included.

With this box set, The Criterion Collection has produced a benchmark in the short history of the DVD format. With stellar transfers of the films and extensive supplements, this definitive and wonderfully designed package celebrates the work of a master filmmaker, and shows once again the superlative efforts of the Criterion production staff. This is easily one of the most impressive box sets on the market, and revisiting these timeless films of Doinel/Truffaut, the eternally romantic adolescent(s), is well worth your while.

- Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.