The beach boys

Last night I went to the cinema to see Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962). I hadn’t seen it for many years, and it was good to be reminded of its beauty, especially the crystalline black and white photography, and of its handful of flaws. More than anything, though, as the end approached, I kept thinking of The 400 Blows.

The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, François Truffaut, 1959) and Ivan’s Childhood were two films I discovered in my early teens, when I was barely older than their protagonists. Truffaut’s Antoine is a Parisian boy who drifts into delinquency and petty crime. Tarkovsky’s Ivan is an orphan, his family killed during the war, who undertakes reconnaissance missions for Russian partisan forces on the Eastern front.

Both films end with the boys running along beaches. There are deeper parallels at work, with the common theme of children fending for themselves, forced to grow up before they are ready, but an inspection of this superficial similarity may be interesting, if not necessarily illuminating.

Antoine escapes his remand school during a football match, gives his teacher the slip, and runs away. A breathless 80-second tracking shot follows him as he nears the coast. A panoramic view of the beach, and then another long take as Antoine descends to the beach, jogs towards the sea, more slowly this time, not out of breath but brought up short by having come to the end. What does the sea represent to him? An opportunity, or a cul-de-sac? The final freeze frame, with him staring into the camera, is hard to read, but it seems at least to mark a turning point, though the direction is unknown. Back to the school, probably, however reluctantly, with his wet feet.

There’s no such hope for Ivan. He’s dead, we already know, hanged by the Nazis, and his final scene is posthumous, the last of several remarkable dream sequences that may be flashbacks or may be imagined but are probably a mixture of the two. It marks a return to innocence.

Ivan

The first thing you notice about Ivan in each flashback is how clean and carefree he looks. For most of the film, as above, he is dirty-faced, and even after taking a bath he seems world-weary, bitter, and concerned that he may have started talking in his sleep. He looks like the boy soldier on the cover of U2’s War.

But here he is younger, drinking gleefully while his mother watches on. He plays hide and seek with a group of friends — a sharp contrast, as his only companions throughout the film have been adult soldiers, father figures of various types. The friends disperse, he is alone; but a girl, his sister, remains. He catches sight of her, and she runs off. A chase, and he is running free, alive, laughing, as the sun glimmers on the water. He catches up to the girl and passes her and suddenly he is transformed into Christ, walking on water. He reaches out for the unattainable, a tree passes by, the picture fades to black in a second.

Perhaps the viewer is invited here to draw comfort from the thought that this gentle boy, turned hard by the brutality of war, is now at peace; but this is an angry film, and the final seconds leave a bittersweet taste behind. The thrill of the aerial running shot and the suddenness of the ending mean that this, rather than The 400 Blows, is the film that leaves the viewer breathless. Even writing about it makes me shiver.

It wasn’t merely the presence of the beach that led me to join the dots between the two films, it was the music. Both scores, Jean Constantin’s for The 400 Blows and Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s for Ivan’s Childhood, are written in a romantic idiom, which comes to the forefront during these scenes. Constantin’s music is often joyous (try this for size), but becomes self-consciously sentimental at moments like the final scene.

The thing that really struck me, though, was that Antoine and Ivan both have five-note motto themes, first heard over the opening credits, that return at the end of the film. Antoine’s is a free-standing motif repeated and reshaped to produce a longer theme, Ivan’s a fragment of a long, wistful melody that in the final scene is treated motivically in a rising sequence. And each essentially consists of a minor triad with jarring accidentals.

Motto themes

I don’t know that the themes embody the characters, but they certainly share a poignancy that comes perhaps from their angularity. Did Ovchinnikov know The 400 Blows? Did Tarkovsky, if it comes to that? It scarcely matters.

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2 Responses to “The beach boys”

  1. Michael Harvey Says:

    Haven’t seen ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ but definitely will.

  2. Gareth Says:

    Worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time, I’d say.

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