The 400 Blows (1959) directed by François Truffaut
What’s it about?
Jean-Pierre Léaud plays Antoine Doinel, a Parisian schoolboy who is perpetually getting into trouble in class. When he comes home he has to put up with demanding parents Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and Julian (Albert Rémy) who, when they are not too busy arguing with each other, set him an endless series of house tasks. One day he skives off school with his best friend René (Patrick Auffay) so they can go and enjoy the cinema and amusements. He spots his mother kissing a man behind his father’s back, and she, in turn, sees him walking past - but both know to keep quiet about it when they get home since they don’t want Julian to find out anything.
When Antoine returns to school the next day, one of his classmates arrives at their home to see if he has recovered from his alleged “illness”. Hence Julian finds out about him skiving, and storms off to the school to give him a good hiding. Antoine is too scared of how he might be treated by his parents to go home, so he instead goes and wanders the streets at night. Thus begins a cycle of delinquency, vagrancy and theft that lands him in a young offenders’ institution.
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Why is it significant?
The 400 Blows is the movie debut of film critic turned director François Truffaut, and one of the earliest examples of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) film movement in France. A semi-autobiographical picture reflecting Truffaut’s own childhood, it is widely regarded as one of his finest films. It won him Best Director Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. The film has also been included on Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” list and currently stands in the IMDB Top 250 table by user score.
The central protagonist Antoine Doinel became a recurring character in four more of Truffaut’s works: Antoine and Colette - his contribution to the five-director anthology Love at Twenty (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).
How does it hold up?
Truffaut’s background in understanding film from a critical perspective really shows when he flips it towards a creative perspective here; it’s a great movie with a great story, grittily realistic but with a palpable streak of cinema’s capacity for the fantastic.
The Nouvelle Vague scene was innovative for the time since it broke with convention by shooting largely on location with natural sound, extensive improvisation, tight budgets, anti-establishment slants, existential themes, handheld camerawork and a whole host of other innovations that washed away the rather staid studio-bound filmmaking that predominated up until the late 1950s. There is a freshness and texture coursing through The 400 Blows that makes it feel innovative even today when we thankfully have a society that is (at least to some extent) more understanding of wayward young people than it was back then.
It’s a film that teaches a lot without condescending or stereotyping its (potentially young or old) audience. Antoine’s behaviour is understandably unacceptable to either his parents or wider society who wish to turn him into a productive adult citizen - but at the same time he has a sense of wonder in the world around him that only the young can possess, and a sense of vulnerability and naivety at how this world works - witness the scene where he has the idea of returning a typewriter he has stolen.
His point of view is brought across extensively and (since he can’t express his inner perspective effectively to adults) largely wordlessly. The opening credits are played over a view from a car driving through Paris’s streets, the camera looking up excitedly at buildings and trees. There is an exhilarating scene on a rotor ride, with POV shots of the faces of spectators whizzing past as he is stuck by centrifugal force to the side of the drum. On the other hand, scenes where he experiences the darker chapters of his existence take on a haunting weight of melancholy, whether it’s his lonely walks through deserted night streets observed solely by Truffaut’s camera, a moment where the camera slowly pulls back from his holding cell as the trouble he eventually finds himself in slowly sinks into him, or his face framed by the bars of a police van as he passes the glowing neon night-time attractions of Paris that he knows he won’t get to experience again for a long time. Jean Constantin’s chiming soundtrack provides a gently sympathetic accompaniment.
Even the parental figures are quite nuanced - while they are often rather mean to Antoine, on the other hand, they are over the moon and briefly shower him with affection when they find him again after he runs away. The authority figures, however, are pure arrogance and cast disdain on child and parents alike. It’s hardly a wonder Antoine wants to escape when the rest of the world so conspicuously fails to see any value in him.
It’s a must for anyone who has ever been, and/or raised, a misunderstood youth. In a nutshell, that’s most of us.
Runtime: 99 mins
Dir: François Truffaut
Script: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier, Guy Decomble, Georges Flamant, Patrick Auffay