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'The 400 Blows': François Truffaut Classic

Jean Pierre Leaud, The 400 Blows
Jean Pierre Léaud, The 400 Blows

In 1959, a pair of newly released French films were instantly hailed as classics, going on to become the twin pillars of the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave. One, Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle / Breathless, was bad; the other, François Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups / The 400 Blows, was good. But despite their reputation, neither film can be called great cinema.

That said, Truffaut's film is far better than Godard's because it mostly avoids overt clichés, even as the screenplay – the film's weakest element, written by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy – often bogs down in purposelessness. Like Godard, Truffaut shot his film in black and white, and indulged the real world, often in long takes, to feign naturalism. His approach, however, was often the outcome of necessity rather than choice, borne out of lack of financing rather than artistic vision.

As a result of those technical contrivances, both Breathless and The 400 Blows achieve a feel close to cinéma vérité. Yet, The 400 Blows has far more in common with Italian neorealism than with Breathless; the techniques found in Truffaut's film are hardly as radical as Godard's, while the eye-level view of Paris is in keeping with Vittorio De Sica's best films, such as The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D.

Another point: neither Truffaut's nor Godard's film could really be thought of as innovative from a narrative viewpoint, for Breathless is a string of unsubverted clichés while The 400 Blows is a rather familiar tale of misspent youth. The latter film is, in a sense, an updated and less colorful Charles Dickens tale transplanted across the English Channel. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]

In fact, the film's hero – the lower-class fourteen-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is supposed to represent Truffaut – is quite a bit less colorful than Dickens' young protagonist con men. Although Antoine is constantly in trouble – he is called thief, arsonist, liar, and plagiarist – these are clearly things most young boys do in their formative years, with few ever turning into major criminals.

The 400 Blows, shot in Truffaut's childhood Paris neighborhood, follows Antoine's descent into juvenile detention as he mouths off to teachers; gets into hot water with his pal René Bigey (Patrick Auffay); watches his amply bosomed, tight sweater-wearing blonde mother (Claire Maurier) cheat on his stepfather (Albert Rémy), the man who gave him a “name”; pushes the aforementioned stepdad to the limit; and generally thumbs his nose at authority.

The 400 Blows has no actual plot, which is supposed to represent a cinematic breakthrough by mirroring reality. But since by its own nature art can never be reality, when we see Truffaut's drawn-out scenes they come across as boring, not brilliant.

Admittedly, there are nuggets of absolute brilliance here and there. One of the best scenes in The 400 Blows shows René's dad seeing Antoine hiding in his son's room, after they've been smoking; the father doesn't say anything. Another good moment takes place when the Doinel family goes to the movies, which leads M. Doinel to playfully squeeze his wife's lovely breasts.

In addition, two bravura scenes are found at the end of the film: in the first, Antoine rambles on naturally about his life and situation while being interviewed by a psychologist; in the film's very last sequence, he escapes from the reform school, running toward the ocean he has never seen.

At the film's final freeze frame, Antoine can either stare at the endless and uncaring expanse or go back to confinement. It's a good ending, but not as powerful as that of another 1959 film with a beach finale: Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. In Fellini's film, the ending suspends – it never exhales – and, in all truth, this viewer was considerably less engaged with Léaud's young protagonist than with Marcello Mastroianni's debauched character.

Curiously, the scene featuring Antoine with the psychologist has seen variants play out in films as diverse as Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light and Woody Allen's Stardust Memories. The former takes the concept of speaking to the camera in the opposite direction, as Ingrid Thulin recites a handwritten letter with no cuts; Allen has Charlotte Rampling looking into a camera and rambling on with quick-cut edits that highlight her nervous breakdown.

Truffaut splits the difference, cutting the Antoine's replies seamlessly so that we get the sense of time wearing on the child, as his answers become increasingly more “real” and personal.

Also worth noting: Henri Decaë's cinematography is fluid but often just dies; this change in energy within a scene seems to be happenstance, making The 400 Blows reek of its low budget and inartistic roots a bit too much. Jean Constantin's music is a non-factor, for good or ill.

Other than that, there is not very much else to say about the actual film, for its vignettes just hang together well enough to create a moderately enjoyable viewing experience.

The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre LeaudI should add that without Jean-Pierre Léaud The 400 Blows would not have been what it is. The young actor gives one of the four or five greatest child performances in film history. Given that François Truffaut reportedly allowed Léaud to improvise his answers in the psychologist scene, I believe the filmmaker was fully aware that his film's success would either rise or fall with the young first-time actor.

Key to understanding the film's title is that the four hundred blows are metaphoric for the knocks young Doinel takes, as well as being French slang for “sowing one's wild oats” or “getting in trouble.”*

Truffaut got his start in film as a critic, writing for the notoriously pretentious Cahiers du Cinéma. He was a disciple of another of the seemingly endless gurus that pop up from time to time in certain art forms, the film critic André Bazin, whose “theories” were the impetus behind the New Wave that launched Truffaut, Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer. Truffaut was the most financially and critically successful of those directors until his death of a brain tumor at the age of 52 in 1983.

The 400 Blows DVD is part of The Criterion Collection's five-disc set “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel,” which includes the features Baisers volés / Stolen Kisses (1968), Domicile conjugal / Bed and Board (1970), and L'amour en fuite / Love on the Run (1979), in addition to the second Antoine film, a thirty-minute black-and-white segment from the 1962 anthology L'amour à vingt ans / Love at Twenty (which consists of short films from big name directors Shintaro Ishihara, Marcel Ophüls, Renzo Rossellini, and Andrzej Wajda; it was a commercial and critical bomb).

Love at Twenty's segment “Antoine and Colette” is a mere footnote, with a few flashback scenes to The 400 Blows. We get caught up with the fact that the now seventeen-year-old Doinel, again played by Léaud, was caught after his escape, was reformed, and now works in a record-pressing company. He is on his own, still friends with René, and is unrequitedly in love with a girl named Colette (Marie-France Pisier), whom he meets at local lectures and concerts.

“Antoine and Colette” has no film commentary, but two were appended to The 400 Blows. One is by Truffaut's childhood friend – the inspiration for René – Robert Lachenay, but it has almost nothing to offer save a few ramblings on their childhood, and how real events seeped into the film. They should have just recorded an interview with Lachenay, rather than trying to turn his few remarks into a commentary. The only worthwhile tidbit we learn is that Truffaut's parents resented the film's autobiographical nature.

American film historian Brian Stonehill's commentary is better, if a bit generic. He also goes overboard in trying to compare this rather familiar narrative to the writings of Marcel Proust, or the film's first-person narrative to Alfred Hitchcock's works. Even so, Stonehill's take is at least informative, especially when tidbits like The 400 Blows being shot silent, with dialogue and sound added back in during post-production, show just how “unrealistic” the New Wave films actually were.

The DVD also offers rare footage shots of some of the young actors in The 400 Blows, a French trailer, newsreel footage of Léaud at the Cannes Film Festival, an excerpt from a French television show, and a TV interview with Truffaut about The 400 Blows, where he sensibly admits it's not as good as critics say it is.

In sum, The 400 Blows is no more than a good film with several great moments. Its flaws highlight why most schools, movements, and -isms fail: because artists naturally must break free from the artificial constraints such ideas and ideals impose. Delimited art is generally bad art. The 400 Blows' formlessness prevents it from reaching the greatness it may have attained with a better screenplay and a more experienced eye both behind the camera and in the editing room.

On the positive side, The 400 Blows held out the potential for later and greater works. That's more than many first films, New Wave or not, have ever done. It's also something Antoine Doinel may embody, even if he may never achieve it.

© Dan Schneider

* Note from the editor: Faire les 400 coups means “to party,” “to be up to all sorts of mischief,” or “to live without abiding by laws and rules.” The expression originated from the 400 cannon shots that Catholic French King Louis XIII fired on the mostly protestant city of Montauban in 1621. The city's inhabitants, however, didn't surrender. Hence the expression.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS / THE 400 BLOWS (1959). Dir.: François Truffaut. Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick Auffay, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Georges Flamant. Scr.: François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy.

1 Academy Award Nomination

Best Original Screenplay François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy


         
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4 Comments to 'The 400 Blows': François Truffaut Classic

  1. Michele

    The low budgets and location shooting prevalent in French New Wave films was a choice made by the directors, and was not out of necessity. New technologies such as lightweight cameras designed for documentary work (with synchronized sound), as well as improved lenses and faster film stocks that eliminated the need for artificial lighting, meant that the New Wave directors could film anywhere they wanted, and needed less money and smaller crews to do so. French laws passed in the 1940s and 1950s gave these young writers (for the Cahiers du Cinema, such as Truffaut and Godard) a chance to make short films and so prove themselves capable to make feature-length films. The movement proved young filmmakers could revitalize film, and they did so, using the “low budget ideology” that gives their films a certain feel. Please check your history before insulting films and directors in such a blase manner.

  2. Lee Roden

    Hi there, just thought I'd offer my (late) two cents.

    I'm a 19 year old from Scotland, I'd never heard of the 400 blows (or if I had, I hadn't taken note of it!)and upon seeing it, I fell in love with both the films of Truffaut and the New Wave in general. I honestly think it is the best film I've ever watched, and I've seen a lot of films.

    If this film can still move someone this much 50 years after its inception, it must be doing something right, no?

    I find negative reviews to be pointless to be honest, indeed I think people should only write about films they like, because most of the time, this is when reviews come to life and the reviewer produced his best work. Defence is an art, offence often comes across as pretentious and, I'm sorry to say, you do this in spades.

  3. Dan Schneider

    Malachi.

    1) I do not like nor dislike New Wave films. I take any work of art on its merits. The fact is that most of the films were wildly overrated, for the reasons enumerated. Like has NOTHING to do with critical thought- which is intellectual. Like is an emotional response.

    2) Clearly, though, you like Cahiers, because, like their reviews, it takes you a few paragraphs to make a simple point.

    3)Auteur theory merely stated the obvious, which existed since the silents. Griffith, Murnau, Lang, Chaplin, etc. were all pretty much recognized as singular artists. Ho-hum.

    4) You did not refute a single quote of mine, because they were on the money.

    5) I always back up my critiques, and not based on emotionalism. You may disagree. So?

  4. Malachi Douthit

    “Truffaut actually got his start in film as a critic, writing for the notoriously pretentious and masturbatory French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma” (Schneider)

    Ok, I have begin my comment by quoting your ridiculous review of The 400 Blows. I've now read three of your reviews of French New Wave films (400 Blows, Breathless, Contempt) and I don't know where you get off with comments like the one quoted above. Ok…so you don't like the French New Wave, we get it…why don't you write about something else then. In all three of your reviews, you denigrate film critics while it seems fairly obvious to me that these articles would land you firmly within the confines of film criticism. You cannot discount the influence and importance of the critical and theoretical view put forward by 'Cahiers du Cinema'. Two words sum it up: Auteur Theory. While there are definite flaws within this theoreticlal framework, i.e. the theory places all emphasis on the author (usually the director) of the film when in fact, making a film is one of the most collaborative forms of art. But, criticisms aside, the theory completely changed the way the Hollywood studios operated and gave tons more artistic control to the directors. Without this reorganising of the studio system we may not have had the pleasure of multiple films by great directors like Altman, Kubrick, Coppola, Lynch…I could go on. If nothing else, the French New Wave and the critics of 'Cahiers du Cinema' were crucial to restructuring of the film industry we know today.

    Lets take a look at a few more of your quotes:

    1.) “Of course, leave it to film critics to a) miss some of the obvious flaws in the film's technical presentation and b) wildly rhapsodize about certain aspects of the film in the most trite of ways. In an online essay, a critic named John Conomos, not only ejaculates ridiculously about The 400 Blows, but he does so in a prose so gushing, so teenaged, that it seems as if it might be the writings young Doinel plagiarized (not from Balzac, however, but from some French romance writer).” (Review of 'The 400 Blows')

    2.) “as for the Breathless DVD, it offers an inane film commentary by film critic David Sterritt that basically consists of him oohing and aahing over the film's most meaningless dialogue or technical contrivances. As with most apologists, he does not defend what the film achieves, only what it intends to achieve.” (Review of 'Breathless')

    3.) “bankrupt intellectualized aesthetics of film critic André Bazin.” (Review of 'Contempt')

    4.) “Whenever one reads positive essays or reviews on Godard, all one gets are elaborate explanations for what was attempted, rather than an assessment of whether or not what is on-screen is successful. This is always the first sign of an inferior critic talking about a work of art that is not nearly as good as the critic claims.” (Review of 'Contempt')

    5.) “usual critical fellatrics” (Review of 'Contempt')

    6.) “That sort of artistic anomy may make many vapid critics drool, but it is not great art.” (Review of 'Contempt')

    So, I've looked at Cosmoetica and Cinemension as well as your Wiki entry (which I assume was written by you) and I think I understand why you hate the French New Wave so much…you're an instigator. You take a generally accepted maxim, i.e. 'The french new wave was responsible for producing some good films and has been hugely influential within the film industry', then you develop an argument that you may or may not have evidence to support. This argument will be designed to create controversy in order to further your career as a poet/critic/blah/blah/blah/blah. It seems to be working for you but don't expect anyone to take you seriously if these are the kind of statements you're going make.