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THE ADVENTURES OF ANTOINE DOINEL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Box Set ****  

What was the French New Wave?  The origin of the phrase actually pre-dates the cinematic movement itself.  It arose in 1957 from an article (and later a book) by Françoise Giroud that called for a change within French society.  The French critic Pierre Billard, in February 1958, initially applied the term to the cinema.  By the time of the first widely successful New Wave film in 1959, the term had stuck.

In essence, the New Wave was a term which generally referred to the innovative French films of the late 1950's and early 1960's.  Nevertheless, the New Wave was not by any means represented in a singular, organized movement.  Rather, it was a loose conglomeration of young, up-and-coming French directors with often wildly varying, dogmatic styles.  This eclectic group of individuals was united solely by one common bond - an unwavering enthusiasm and love for film culture.  The 400 Blows, in 1959, was the first film to popularize the New Wave, and after its release, there was a veritable explosion of new directorial talent in French cinema.  By one estimate, nearly 170 directors shot their debut features over the next three years alone!

While the movement persisted to some degree until about 1975, these early formative years saw the greatest artistic output.  Among the early New Wave directors, some of the most notable ones included Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless), Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), Agnès Varda, and Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).  During the early years of the New Wave, these directors and others established a new language of cinematic expression.  Their films employed rapid filming techniques, location shooting with natural lighting, hand-held cameras, minimal crews, and small budgets.  The characters in their films were often contemporary rather than historic and were frequently cast from unknown actors.  For the New Wave directors, what a film said was intrinsically tied to how it was said.  Foregoing the usual narrative conventions, the New Wave films espoused bolder concepts in filmmaking.  These included the theory of mise-en-scène (referring to the arrangement of visual elements within a shot or composition) and new innovations in film editing, such as the jump cut (expressing a character's restlessness or sense of loss via disorienting leaps in space and time). 

While 1959's The 400 Blows popularized New Wave, 1962's Jules and Jim was the pinnacle of the movement.  Remarkably, both films were the creations of one man, François Truffaut.  Together, these classic films would firmly establish this young, iconoclastic director as the greatest New Wave director of them all.

As a director, François Truffaut was not only very prolific but also possessed a genuine passion for his craft.  During a short directorial career which spanned just over two decades, he made an indelible mark in cinema by creating some of the most memorable French films and characters of the latter half of the twentieth century.  The most famous of Truffaut's screen creations was Antoine Doinel, who was in actuality Truffaut's alter-ego.  First introduced in the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows, Antoine Doinel would re-appear in four more films.  Over the course of twenty years, this character would grow up from a carefree adolescent into a colorful young man.  Many of his misadventures would reflect Truffaut's own personal experiences, and as Truffaut changed, so did Antoine Doinel.

Now, for the first time, these five films have been assembled together in a glorious 5-DVD box set by The Criterion Collection.  The set comprises the films The 400 Blows (1959), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), Love on the Run (1979), and the short subject Antoine and Colette (1962).  While The 400 Blows is the most celebrated of these films, they are one and all indisputable works of  incredible artistry which communicate not only Truffaut's love for the cinema but also his affinity for personal films that explore human relationships.

Criterion has done a fantastic job with this box set, but the show is only just beginning!  Sit back, relax, and click on any of the links in this overview to begin your journey into François Truffaut's wonderfully whimsical world of Antoine Doinel. 

The 400 Blows
Stolen Kisses
Bed and Board
Love on the Run

Supplemental Features ****

This Criterion set, entitled The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, showcases not only Truffaut's films but also a wealth of superlative features.  Included among the five DVDs are film commentaries, documentaries, newsreels, trailers, interviews, auditions, an early Truffaut short, and much much more!  The extras are generally quite excellent, a testimony to Criterion's well-established reputation for producing the most consistently outstanding DVDs in the business.

Most of the features will be discussed within their respective DVDs.  However, this box set comes with a supplemental disc which deserves mention here.  The shorter extras on this supplemental disc include a small photo gallery and champ contre champ, an interview excerpt with Truffaut in which he discusses Jean-Pierre Léaud, the actor who would portray Antoine Doinel in all his screen incarnations.

More significant is Portrait of François Truffaut.  This 23-minute excerpt from a 1961 documentary about Truffaut focuses on his early years as a critic and as a director.  A significant portion of this excerpt is comprised of interview segments with Truffaut himself, so this feature serves as a good introduction to viewers who have seen few or none of Truffaut's films before.

Next is Working with François Truffaut.  This 44-minute documentary features an extensive interview with Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon, two of Truffaut's closest collaborators.  They discuss everything from Truffaut's early shorts to his Antoine Doinel films to his unfinished projects.  It is quite an enthusiastic perspective on the famed French director.

Best of all, however, is Les Mistons (1957), a 17-minute short film by Truffaut.  It was his second short film, the first being a silent one-reeler, Une Visite, in 1954.  I especially love the theme music and setting for Les Mistons, which almost seem to foreshadow the beauty and innocence lost of Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout.  Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers) is a bittersweet romance as seen through the eyes of five boys who follow two young lovers around the countryside.  There is a wonderfully refreshing spontaneity to the story, and while it is a minor production, early evidence of Truffaut's talents as a director, particularly in his ability to evoke the essence of  relationships and adolescence, can already be seen here.  As such, Les Mistons serves as an excellent prelude to Truffaut's next film, The 400 Blows.  In fact, I would recommend watching Les Mistons first, before any of the Antoine Doinel films, to set the proper mood.

As a nice bonus, Les Mistons comes with an introduction by Serge Toubiana, a Truffaut film historian.  He also serves as the interviewer for a commentary track by Claude de Givray, who was Truffaut's assistant director for Les Mistons.

Last but not least, this DVD set includes an outstanding 72-page booklet.  It is absolutely teeming with articles, photographs, early film sketches, reviews, and interviews relating to all five of the Antoine Doinel films.  It is beyond any doubt the best non-DVD inclusion I have seen for any DVD box set.  For Truffaut fans, this booklet would be worth purchasing alone even if it weren't already part of the set!

Summary:

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel is a wonderful introduction to the films of François Truffaut and especially to Truffaut's most famous character, Antoine Doinel.  Criterion deserves high marks for this excellent box set.  Check out the supplemental disc first, watch Les Mistons, and then be prepared to enter the comical and magical world of Antoine Doinel, starting with The 400 Blows!