A revolutionary French classic about breaking rules, which broke the rules of filmmaking
“The 400 Blows”, or its original French title, “Les Quatre Cents Coups”, burst on the screen carrying a new approach to filmmaking and storytelling, breaking many of the conventional rules of cinema. This film, directed by François Truffaut, made such an impact that it (along with the following year’s masterpiece, “Breathless”, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and written by Truffaut) is credited for launching one of the most influential movements in cinema history - the French New Wave. The inventiveness and novelty in this film set a new standard in filmmaking which is felt even today. Because its ingenuity has now become part of film language, the boldness of “The 400 Blows” may not seem as cutting-edge as it actually was in its day, yet it is still spellbinding, and hasn’t lost any of its power. It still makes you exclaim “wow”! It has been cited as being one of the greatest French films of all time, as well as one of the most important and influential films in cinema.
“The 400 Blows” is a jarringly moving and brutally real look at life from the point of view of a troubled outcast boy trying to find his place in the world. The film’s original French title stems from a French expression "Faire les quatre cents coups", which means "to live a wild life", which pretty much sums up the lead character, “Antoine Doinel”. He is at the age just before puberty, where he is seeking independence but is still very much at the hands of adults. Starved for affection, he lives in a claustrophobic apartment with two parents who are emotionally absent (as we alarmingly observe in the first scene with his mother). One of the film’s triumphs is how we sympathize and identify with "Antoine" despite his devilish behavior. As he learns over and over again of the injustices of his world, it becomes a reminder of how we all need love in order to be whole.
As you watch "The 400 Blows", you'll see a brilliant documentary type realism, along with self-aware camera work and editing. This juxtaposition was the hallmark of the French New Wave (or “La Nouvelle Vague”). The use of documentary realism within “The 400 Blows” is exquisite. You’ll see it from the start, while observing a classroom of 12 year old boys. Their behavior feels so truthful one isn’t sure if it’s acting or real life. There is also the mesmerizing scene at the “Punch and Judy” puppet show. Instead of showing us the puppets, Truffaut surprisingly focuses on the faces of the children in the audience. Their reactions are so jaw-droppingly natural, you know they are real.
The film's glaring technical aspects, which intentionally remind us we are watching a film, were Truffaut's conscious rebellion against predictable, seamless, mainstream moviemaking. Among the technical mutinies are jump cuts. While getting my degree in film directing, even I was emphatically instructed to avoid jump-cuts unless absolutely necessary. Here they are brilliantly used, especially towards the end of the film when “Antoine” is being interviewed. Other elements that were shockingly new at the time include very long takes, how it uses voice over, lingering on unremarkable behavior (such as taking out the trash), the handheld camera style, and much more. “The 400 Blows” was a cinematic revolution. There is such an originality and unbridled honesty in this film, it is no wonder it launched a whole new breed of cinema.
One cannot separate “The 400 Blows” from its director, François Truffaut. Because the two are inextricably linked, first time viewers of this film might want to skip this paragraph and read it AFTER you watch the film, as it will reveal some key plot elements. François Truffaut was a French film director, screenwriter, producer, actor, and film critic. One of the concepts he helped create was the “auteur theory”, in which, similar to a painter or writer, a film director is seen as an artist with an individual style carried through their films. “The 400 Blows”, Truffaut’s first feature film, began his rise to becoming an icon, major figure in cinema, and auteur. This film is his most personal, emulating many aspects of his childhood, born out of his memories and experiences. Like “Antione”, Truffaut was a troubled child who ended up in a reform school and had a great love of movies. And like “Antoine”, he never knew his father and grew up with a non-present mother and stepfather who gave him his name (Truffaut). At eight years old Truffaut discovered movies and would often sneak into movie theaters rather than go to school. Much of this film was shot in the Paris neighborhoods where he grew up. He had a lifelong childhood friend who shared his love of cinema, and who was the inspiration for the character of “René Bigey” in the film. Truffaut even stole a typewriter as did “Antoine”, although the outcome in real life was different than in the film.
As a kid, François Truffaut would see as many films as he could (he had a goal of three a day), including Hollywood films and the films of Alfred Hitchcock (who was still making British films at the time). Forming a deep love of cinema, he didn’t finish school and started a film club through which he met, André Bazin, a French critic and head of a film society. Bazin would become a mentor and father figure for Truffaut, and you’ll notice that “The 400 Blows” is dedicated to him, as he died just as shooting began. Truffaut joined the French Army but kept trying to escape and was put in military prison for desertion. Bazin helped him get released and gave him a job at his film magazine, “Cahiers du cinéma”, for which Truffaut became a film critic and editor. Truffaut was outspoken and became notorious for his sometimes scathing reviews and criticism of the current French cinema. Other writers for the magazine included Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, all of whom would become influential filmmakers. In 1956 Truffaut made two short films, followed by “The 400 Blows” which he made when he was 27 years old. For “The 400 Blows”, he won the prestigious Best Director award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and also received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Script which he shared with Marcel Moussy. The flexibly written script was highly improvised as Truffaut would often give the actors an idea of what to say and do, and they would improvise around it. The film was built upon a mix of the Italian neorealism movement of the 1940s (which I briefly wrote about when talking about Vittorio De Sica in the “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” post) and his love for films. Truffaut’s love for movies can be seen throughout the film, such as when the family goes the cinema - the only time they bond as a true family. There is also the scene where “Antione” and “Rene” steal the lobby card from in front of the movie theater - something Truffaut and his friend often did when they were kids. There are even brief references to other films, such as the way “Antoine” washes his face in the fountain, which is the same way a character from 1953’s “Little Fugitive” does - a film Truffaut credits with being a major inspiration for the French New Wave.
Truffaut also makes a cameo appearance in “The 400 Blows”, most likely in a nod to director Alfred Hitchcock, whom he claimed as his greatest teacher. Truffaut appears in the scene on the “Rotor”, the spinning amusement park ride. He is the second man shown on the ride, and the last person to leave it. That scene is also a shining example of Truffaut’s directing skill with its creative variation of shots which give the viewer a complete sense of exuberance. His masterful and imaginative camera movements act like a viewer - inquisitively watching and exploring. In one quick shot the camera even points directly upward. And he knows when to keep it still. Truffaut would direct a total of 19 feature films, including four sequels to “The 400 Blows”, along with such important films as "Shoot the Piano Player", "Jules and Jim", "The Soft Skin", "Fahrenheit 451", "The Last Metro", "The Story of Adèle H.", "Small Change", and another of his masterpieces, "Day for Night” in 1973, for which he earned his final two Academy Award nominations (for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay). He also appeared as an actor in many of his own films, as well as a few others, including perhaps his most famous role in Steven Spielberg’s classic 1977 science fiction film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind “. Truffaut continued writing throughout his life. In addition to screenplays, he wrote a couple of autobiographies, and several books on film, including, “Hitchcock/Truffaut”, based on a week they spent together talking about movies. Truffaut was a womanizer, and was reported to have had affairs with many actresses who appeared in his films. He was married and divorced once, with two children. François Truffaut died in 1984 at the age of 52 from a brain tumor. He was a vital force in cinema.
To aid the documentary feel, this film used mostly unknown actors. The adults in the film were primarily television actors, except for two stars making cameos who I’ll briefly mention below. To cast the film, Truffaut placed a newspaper ad for auditions searching for boys, and that’s how he discovered Jean-Pierre Léaud who stars as “Antoine Doinel”. At his audition, Léaud mentioned he ran away from his boarding school outside Paris, to get to the audition. Truffaut saw a kindred spirit in his rebelliousness, and gave him the part. Léaud’s fearlessness led to a bold and unapologetic performance as “Antoine”. He was 14 years old at the time, and had previously appeared in a small role in one film. He is most closely associated with the character of “Antione Doinel” even though he worked steadily in film and TV. He reprised his role as “Antoine Doinel” in four sequels, all directed by Truffaut. Léaud appeared in other Truffaut films in which he didn’t play “Doinel”, including “Two English Girls” and “Day for Night”. He also appeared in many films directed by Jean-Luc Godard, including "Masculin Féminin”, “Weekend”, "La Chinoise”, "Pierrot le Fou", and “Alphaville". His other notable films include "Last Tango in Paris”, "Irma Vep”, "Les keufs”, "The Death of Louis XIV", and "The Departure”. To this day Léaud has appeared in 100 films and TV shows. Jean-Pierre Léaud never married, and as of the writing of this entry, he is alive at 76 years old.
The other two actors I’ll mention from “The 400 Blows” appear very briefly in cameo roles in the film. They are Jeanne Moreau, who plays the woman chasing her dog, and Jean-Claude Brialy, who is the man trying to pick her up. Both were famous French stars at the time. Jeanne Moreau would become an international star and one of France’s greatest actresses. Individually, they would each work again with Truffaut, Moreau most famously in “Jules et Jim”. I’ll talk more about Moreau when we see her in a more prominent role.
A film that launched a thousand films (so to speak), “The 400 Blows” is at heart an artistically intimate look at the difficult life of a young boy. This film left its mark on cinema, and is bound to leave its mark on you. Enjoy the game-changing “The 400 Blows”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The ending of “The 400 Blows” is one of its most famous scenes, and one of its most innovative. The unusually lengthy shot of “Antione” running, turning to look at the camera, and the final freeze-frame, were all nontraditional at the time. And it is a very moving scene, as he finally achieves some sort of personal triumph, yet turns to look at us with uncertainty. This film was among the first to end with a freeze-frame, a technique which has since been used many times, including in such films as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, "Saturday Night Fever", "Breaking Away", "Rambo: First Blood”, “The Hustler”, “Rocky”, and even the Barbra Streisand version of “A Star is Born”.
If you want to see the other films featuring the character of “Antione Doinel”, be sure to check out the short film “Antoine and Colette” from 1962, and the feature length sequels, “Stolen Kisses” in 1968, “Bed and Board” in 1970, and “Love on the Run” in 1979.