A Note on Closure in Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups
Closure in film has generally been understood to be the opposite of open-endedness. For example, Bordwell and Thompson write:
In a mystery film, if we learn who the criminal is, the film has closure, but if it leaves a doubt about that person’s guilt, it remains relatively open.
Note that closure and open-endedness are viewed here as mutually limiting options, so that the more (or stronger the) closure a film is given, the less open-ended it will be. A film left open-ended is likewise assumed to have weak closure. Again, Bordwell and Thompson suggest that
most classical narrative film displays strong degrees of closure at the end. Leaving no loose ends unresolved, these films seek to end their causal chains with a final effect. We usually learn the fate of each character, the answer to each mystery, and the outcome of each conflict (p. 83).
As an example of an open-ended film, they cite Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups:
The boy Antoine Doinel has escaped from a reformatory and runs along the seashore. The camera zooms in on his face and the frame freezes. The plot does not reveal whether he is captured and brought back, leaving us to speculate on what might happen next (70).An ending can be relatively “open” as our example from The 400 Blows suggests. In other words, the plot presents story events that leave us uncertain as to the nature of the final consequences (74).
Bordwell and Thompsen’s argument could be taken one step further, since not only are we in the dark as to Antoine’s immediate future, but we are even left uncertain as to how to interpret the look on his face as the film ends. This can be demonstrated by the fact that readings of Antoine’s facial expression in the freeze-frame shot diverge considerably, and range from happiness (Baroncelli 1959) and hope (Katz 1982) to uncertainty (Insdorf 1979) and disillusionment (MacDonald 1960).
Yet other commentators take into account the fact that Antoine is looking into the camera, and therefore at us. For some, the film ends with an indictment of society (Allen 1974), for others with a child’s bewilderment and pleading (Crowther 1959) or questioning stare (Houston 1963). And one commentator has suggested, in a manner that would gladden the heart of any French intellectual, that “At the end, you are no longer looking at the film – the film is looking at you” (Croce 1960).
Other readings attempt to account specifically for the fact that the action is stopped in a freeze frame. For one commentator, this suggests paralysis or suicide (Kauffmann), for others, Antoine’s entrapment (Insdorf, Greenspan), a police photo or death (Thiher) and dehumanization (Shatnoff).
It would seem, therefore, that virtually everyone would agree that Les 400 Coups ends with weak closure, at least as that concept has been defined in the past.
However, as Richard Neupert has argued in his recent book, The End – Narration and Closure in the Cinema (1995), an important distinction must be made between story resolution and closure of the narrative discourse. For Neupert, the story in Les 400 Coups is left open but the discourse is closed, largely through the freezing of the final frame and the use of the musical score.
In describing the frozen frame, Neubert wrote for example that Antoine is transformed
from a solid body moving through space into a figure of the arrestation of the film’s driving strategies. The “stilled” Antoine becomes an image of termination; the optical zoom approaches, turning him into a static spectacle. There is nowhere for the viewer’s glance to wander. The point of view structure has changed the spectator’s look into a fixed stare, freezing the action codes and closing the narrative discourse by giving a final, impossible view of Antoine (99).
Whatever else it may be taken to signify in relation to the story (entrapment, paralysis, dehumanization, death), the freeze-frame image is a strong and innovative closure device, signaling that nothing more will happen in this film and giving us a moment to adjust to the fact that we now have to let go of the fiction.
Curiously, Truffaut himself thought of the freeze-frame neither in terms of its possible story meaning, nor even as a means for providing closure – at least if his reply to an interviewer was entirely frank. When asked about his intentions regarding the freeze-frame, he replied: “the final freeze was simply an accident. I told Léaud to look into the camera. He did, but quickly turned his eyes away. Since I wanted that brief look he gave me the moment before he turned, I had no choice but to hold on to it; hence the freeze.”
Truffaut’s original intention was thus for Léaud to continue looking into the camera in live action, presumably for the same 10 seconds the freeze-frame lasts. This ending would also undoubtedly have provided adequate closure. But the stasis embodied by the freeze-frame is even more striking. And considering how open-ended the story is, and even the final image of Antoine – susceptible as it is of radically divergent readings – it is probably just as well that Truffaut had to find an alternate and even stronger closural device.
This example illustrates the fact that closure and open-endedness are not mutually exclusive nor even mutually limiting options, as was previously held. It could even be argued that the more open-ended a film is with respect to story, the more important it is to provide the strongest possible closure within its narrative discourse.