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.
I 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