The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959)

Director: Francois Truffaut

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By Roderick Heath

The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s debut film, is a work around which implicit ironies swirl. It looks as much backwards as it does forwards, to Truffaut’s youthful experiences, and the artworks and ideals he considered vital, as well as attempting to articulate a fresh sense of what the cinema could and ought to be capable of. The movie made an immediate impact, proved a vanguard for the Nouvelle Vague, and ironically, won for Truffaut a director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, from which he had been banned only a year earlier for his notorious savagery as a critic, for the film’s compassionate and lithely expressive outlook. It represented an expansion of the cinematic lexicon, presenting a rich and original achievement precisely by reconfiguring the past of both film and Truffaut’s life experience.

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The 400 Blows offered a mode for making directly personal statements on film, without the encumbrances and clichés commercial cinema had developed. And yet it is the film’s intimacy that was striking, its closeness to its subject and lack of showy technique that marked it as special and distinct from the eruptive works of Truffaut’s friend and collaborator Jean-Luc Godard, whose À bout de soufflé competed with The 400 Blows at Cannes (along with a third Nouvelle Vague figure, Alan Resnais, with his Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Truffaut utilised an approach to shooting that other Nouvelle Vague directors would employ. Working on a small budget, he dispensed with bulky and expensive sound and camera equipment, employed natural lighting, and post-dubbed most dialogue and sound effects. He encouraged improvisation in performance, reflecting and influencing the “cinema verité” documentary craft which several Nouvelle Vague directors sprang from. The art was in turning this rough-hewn brand of cinema into an aesthetic asset, but it had clear precursors, most especially in the Italian Neo-Realist works—the “real, crude, natural images” that Truffaut loved—in the works of Jean Vigo and Roberto Rossellini. The 400 Blows concluded with a freeze frame that is now a recognized icon of cinema. Truffaut references classic works of cinema to inform his own vision, especially Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), to the point of virtually recreating one scene from that film, to absorbing the actor-centered style of Jean Renoir, a debt Truffaut acknowledged as vital for the growth of the film’s concept. But it’s an interior, rather than social, perspective that animates the film.

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Such innovations might not have amounted to much if the film had been no good, but The 400 Blows was immediately lauded as a great work, rife with authenticity and powerful, novel dramatic epiphanies. Truffaut, like other early Nouvelle Vague directors Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, was a critic for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and the possibilities inherent in bringing an intellectual, culturally informed perspective to filmmaking, steeped in a detailed sense of film lore and theory, as opposed to a technically assured, regimented experience from within studios, became apparent. The film is dedicated to André Bazin, a telling touch both in a cultural sense, as Bazin inspired so much of the young critics’ work, and in a personal sense, for Bazin and his wife had practically adopted Truffaut after the calamitous severance from his parents that the film more or less catalogues.

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The 400 Blows, whilst empathising with its young, raffish antihero Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), does as little as possible to manipulate or make melodrama of his story. No wise elder or beneficial authority figure, like, say, Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town (1937), is especially, personally interested or sympathetic to Antoine, nor are there reassuring changes of heart on the behalf of his self-absorbed mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) or erratic stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). Truffaut looks at the situation in humane, but unflinchingly pragmatic, analytical terms: unfolding as a process, watching Antoine move from being a scamp, hellraiser, and petty thief to a prisoner and a runaway from the law, and leaving him without his story or life in any way resolved. That Antoine is Truffaut’s alter-ego is generally accepted, and the subsequent series of films following Antoine into middle age confirms that he survives an adolescence that threatens to be thorny; but this film leaves him hanging at the cusp of a fraught moment of choice.

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Truffaut himself remarked that he wanted not to “depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but, on the contrary, to show it as the painful experience it is.” The 400 Blows opens itself up to the experiences of youth, attempting to capture its enthusiasm, amorality, confusion and honesty. Some hint of Antoine’s exceptional potential is given in his love of film and literature, rewriting Balzac off the top of his head in class, but this causes him only strife at this point in his life. Like many boys, his is a world of idols and fetishes, alternately intense and discursive emotions, private standards and amoral reflexes. The major characters in the film have a full-bodied, realistic, self-contained humanity to them; they are capable of actions both admirable and detestable, leaving motives hazy, needing to be teased out, like, say, the years of frustrated combat with classes full of boys that must influence the teacher’s reactions, or whatever makes Gilberte resent her son so intensely. Some motives only become explicit after some time, like the fact that Julien isn’t Antoine’s biological father.

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Either way, for all the moments of boyish or familial camaraderie that sprinkle the narrative, there’s a quality of solitude to the characters, a charged distance to which Antoine is heir and also passive mirror. His best friend is René (Patrick Auffay), who finally takes him in to his house when Antoine won’t face his parents after being expelled. Although from divergent backgrounds, Antoine and Rene seem drawn together as friends because both live with detached, inconsistent parents who often leave them to their own devices. The finest, and final flash of familial unity that Antoine and his parents experience is a jaunt to the movies where they see an unlikely choice for a family outing, Paris Belongs to Us by fellow New Waver Jacques Rivette. Rivette’s film is about conspiracies, and Antoine is always aware that this islet of amicability in his family life has been bought with a conspiracy between him and his mother to suppress the truth of her infidelity. Later, when Antoine attempts in his clumsy way to illuminate the truth by writing it in a letter to his father, he only succeeds in cutting himself off completely from his coolly vengeful mother, who summarises her affair as “my bad patch.” It’s a bitter scene, all the more so for the unredeemed hypocrisy. Through Antoine’s perspective, the barriers between adult and childish behaviours are vague, with the adults just as self-centered and buffeted by whim as he is.

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The fleeting joys of Antoine’s life are realised chiefly in movement: his ebullience in a fun fair centrifuge, his final escape from the reformatory. He attempts to be self-determining, first within the system, when he works hard to achieve something in class, and then outside it, as when he tries to steal and sell a typewriter to survive without his parents. There’s a quality of the frontiersman to Antoine in the way he treats the city as a terrain in which he must survive, snatching bottles of milk and washing himself in the frozen park. His independence is erratic and often foolish, and yet it’s a reasonable response to a home life in which he is regularly reminded of marital strife and his mother’s dislike for him. And yet his efforts often take him back to where he began. As in the centrifuge, there’s only an illusion of movement. His efforts to achieve something in school see him humiliated and expelled. His effort to be self-supporting with crime sees him try to return the typewriter, only then to be caught. From then on Antoine’s life becomes a repetitious series of closing doors, cutting him off from his past and from his options, as he is processed like a criminal, driven through the city, surveying its lights from the van now through bars, abruptly aware and weeping for a lost freedom that he had previously known only as a natural state.

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The reformatory is a break that a magistrate promises will do him good, but it simply proves a harsher, more arbitrary version of what he’s been through—a justice system the writer James Baldwin considered a manifestation of “the least sentimental people on earth.” A tiny infraction sees Antoine receive a slap in the face from a staff member when it took a significant deception to inspire such violence from Julien. The other boys are all up-and-coming criminals and rebels, aligned in militaristic ranks, a state of affairs a wayward individualist like Antoine can’t abide. Jean Constantin’s score continually counterpoints Antoine’s journey with ironic themes, his nighttime prison ride scored to a lilting waltz, the reformatory ranks moving to jaunty marches, providing a sarcastic commentary on what befalls Antoine that, without trying for maudlin identification, throws his perspective into relief. The long, innovative, improvised scene of Antoine being interviewed by a female psychiatrist in the reformatory both offers an unleavened insight into Antoine’s psyche (and that of Leaud) and possesses the qualities of documentary record. In the unblinking focus on Antoine, the sequence also reinforces the distant interest of the psychiatrist, which has largely been that of all the grown authority figures in Antoine’s life, only it’s now objectivised in the use of camera and sound. The technique is possibly also influenced by the long takes and hidden interviewer of Citizen Kane, a film Truffaut loved.

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In the concluding scenes, Truffaut shows Antoine running away in a lengthy tracking shot, moving with the boy and yet keeping him center frame, thus emphasising both movement and the exhausting effort of his flight. When he reaches the beach, he sprints out onto the sand to the edge of the sea, and then turns back, his bewildered face caught in that frozen image. The idea of ending a film without actually offering a conclusion was a radical one at the time, and about to be taken a step further by Michelangelo Antonioni just a year later with L’Avventura. And yet it is a decisive moment. Until this point, Antoine has done things as a boy—impulsively, intuitively, haphazardly. Now, having run to the farthest point possible, with his options exhausted, he has to halt and look back in apprehension and decide what the rest of his life is to be. The freeze frame that concludes the film is not merely an interesting technical flourish; it’s a shock, a needle pinning Antoine precisely at the point where, early or not, rightly or not, a boy becomes a man.

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It’s this sense of Antoine and his experiences as individual, precious even as they’re painful, that marks The 400 Blows as original and distinctive from realist, representative figures and experiences. “In speaking of himself, he seems to be speaking of us,” Jacques Rivette commented in his review at the time. Truffaut proposes no idealistic solutions to the situation, suggesting rather that the faults in the characters are common faults in human beings and thus unlikely to be altered by institutional changes. Adults will always resent a boy like Antoine, and boys like Antoine will always face their moment of reckoning a hair too early in life. Over and above its achievements as a new way of approaching life on screen, The 400 Blows, even if is was to prove far from the most formally or intellectually radical of the Nouvelle Vague films, proved the capacity of a new style to move and stir audiences. As such, not merely as an individual work, but as a trumpet blast for a moment of great importance in cinematic history, its continued presence in the canon of French and world cinema is readily explicable.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    3rd/04/2014 to 12:20 pm

    A fabulous review here, and one that has a particular interest to me at this time after having seen this New Wave landmark and film masterpiece at Manhattan’s Film Forum on Sunday as the first feature screened for the two week ‘Tout Truffaut’ Festival I am actively attending. Yes, like so many other cinema fans I have seen the film many times over the years, and in my case I fondly recollect it was the very first foreign-language film I ever saw as an impressionable teenager. This deeply affecting study of a troubled adolescent retains its universality, and as you note that unforgettable freeze-frame on the beach is one of the cinema’s most iconic moments. I was thrilled to escort my 16 year old son Sammy and my 14 year-old son Danny to the screening, and both were moved and motivated to talk about the film in the car on the way home. As always, Jean Constantin’s lyrical score enriches this personal experience, and I am still humming it and playing by CD days later. Henri Decae’s evocative black and white shows Paris in a unique way, stressing as it does a more alienating context. It remains Truffaut’s greatest film even after he followed it up with 20 some odd others before his tragic death at only 52 in 1984. Sure, JULES AND JIM, TWO ENGLISH GIRLS and THE STORY OF ADELE H are masterworks too (and high marks must also go to THE LAST METRO, STOLEN KISSES, THE WILD CHILD, SMALL CHANGE and THE GREEN ROOM) but their is a spontaneity and wistfulness in his first film that he never quite equaled, and it remains proof parcel for anyone trying to diminish Truffaut’s status as a French New Wave heavyweight. Anyway, fantastic review, and true enough that the director won that prize at Cannes only a year after he was banned.

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