Director Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is a truly unique coming-of-age film. It is intensely personal – no surprise, given that it is substantially autobiographical.
Truffaut, who started going to the cinema at aged 7, left school at 14 and then founded a film club aged 15 in 1947… After meeting Andre Bazin, who became his protector to the basically delinquent Truffaut – he was in jail, had deserted the army and then in 1953 published his first movie critiques in "les cahiers du cinema." 400 Blows was in fact dedicated to Andre Bazin, the influential French film critic who took the fatherless Truffaut under his arm at a time when the young man seemed to stand between life as a filmmaker and life in trouble.
1959 was his breakthrough year with his first full-length film les quatre cents coups (1959) (the 400 blows), which to many heralded the birth of the new wave – a new way of making movies in France. Although never a formally organised movement, the new wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form and their spirit of youthful iconoclasm.
Although never a formally organized movement, the new wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form – many also engaged in their work with the social and political upheavals of the era. They made their radical experiments with editing, visual style, and narrative part of a general break with the conservative forms.
They featured existential themes, such as stressing the individual and the acceptance of the absurdity of human existence. Generally the cinematic stylings of French new wave brought a fresh look to cinema with improvised dialogue, rapid changes of scene, and experimental camera work. The camera was used not to mesmerize the audience with elaborate narrative and illusory images, but to play with and break past the common expectations of cinema. These effects that now seem either trite or commonplace were radically innovative at the time.
‘400 Blows’ was widely acclaimed, winning numerous awards, including the best director award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for best original screenplay at the 32nd Academy Awards.
It is a largely semi-autobiographical film, reflecting events of Truffaut’s and his friends’ lives; besides being a character study, the film is an exposé of the injustices of the treatment of juvenile offenders in France at the time. It is perhaps one of the most intensely touching stories ever made about a young adolescent in which we are allowed to share some of private moments.
The film's most poignant moments show him set adrift by his parents and left to the mercy of social services.
The young boy Antoine Doinel (played by the 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Leaud), who has a kind of solemn detachment – this was the first in a long collaboration between actor and director; they returned to the character in the short film "Antoine and Collette" (1962) and three more features: "Stolen Kisses" (1968), "Bed and Board" (1970) and "Love on the Run" (1979).
Antoine Doinel struggles to contend with all authority figures in his life, from schoolteachers to parents. Antoine’s life of petty crime materialises because of his lack of direction and boredom, rather than any malicious side of his personality, something, which is displayed subtly but effectively in this character study.
The performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud as the troubled runaway is what provides Antoine with this natural likeability in his first film role. Incidentally Léaud was himself a troubled child with a history of delinquency. As a result, his performance has the natural, unforced feel that can only come from true empathy with a role. He sometimes hardly seems to be acting.
Truffaut's film is not a dirge or entirely a tragedy – it has moments of fun and joy to enjoy. The cinema saved Francois Truffaut's life, he said again and again. “Films were a sanctuary, a special place”.
Between 1946 and 1956 it is said that he watched more than 3,000 films, sometimes as many as three a day. There is a lot of moviegoing in "The 400 Blows," with Antoine's solemn face turned up to the screen. So we know that young Truffaut himself escaped to the movies whenever he could, and there is a shot here that he quotes later in his career. As Antoine and a friend emerge from a cinema, Antoine steals one of the lobby photos of a star. In "Day for Night" (1973), which stars Truffaut himself as a film director, there is a flashback memory to the character, as a boy, stealing down a dark street to snatch a still of "Citizen Kane" from in front of a theater.
Truffaut (1932-1984) sadly died too young, of a brain tumour, at 52, but he left behind 21 films. His main themes were passion women, childhood and faithfulness, his innovations were of the dramatic sort, with a large proportion of his filmography dedicated to the boundaries between cinematic language and real life.
One of the great paradoxes of cinema is that we go for escapism, but we are so often profoundly affected by the films that accurately reflect our own experience. Perhaps to a certain generation, this is what The 400 Blows is; a distillation of youth just before the dawning of youth culture.
Alfred Hitchcock defined him as “his master” – this is a it's a masterful depiction of childhood that captures the rebellion, the uncertainty and, crucially, the possibility of the time…