The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups)
France (1959) Dir. François Truffaut
“Eureka! I’ve found it!”
Regular readers of this site will know that French New Wave and I haven’t been the best of friends, with François Truffaut being one of the directors whose works has yet to move me in the same way it does others. However a corner has been turned with Truffaut’s debut The 400 Blows.
A semi-autobiographical tale, it features Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young boy finding it hard to fit in with life in 1950’s Paris, enduring persecution and punishment at every turn. His mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) often snaps at him for no reason while his stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy) flits between nice and angry. At school Antoine’s teacher (Guy Decomble) regularly singles him for admonishment although he is short and testy with the whole class. Eventually Antoine tires of always being deemed in the wrong and decides to live by his life by his own rules.
For what is very much a zeitgeist piece, the themes of The 400 Blows remain relevant to this day and serve to illustrate how far we have come as a society in terms of how we view children, in particular the improved lengths we got to in order to understand them. The key thing that stands out throughout the film when dealing with Antoine, is not the level of punishment meted out against him, but the fact that no-one bothers to talk the boy.
In typical know-it-all fashion of the period Antoine’s behaviour is dismissed as unruly anarchy so slapping him about or sending him away to an academy is the only solution. There is a brief scene where he is questioned by a psychologist prior to his academy placement where Antoine begins to open up a little and seems relieved to have this opportunity to do so as there are no punishable answers, a new experience for him. Of course nowadays, this would be the first thing to happen.
As it transpires Antoine is merely a product of his environment and is in actual fact no worse than any of the other boys his age. His entire classroom is full of mischievous little tykes yet Antoine is usually the only one who gets caught. His best friend René (Patrick Auffay) regularly bunks off with Antoine, even providing him with false alibis when needed and a place to stay when Antoine finally runs away from home.
Home is a tiny flat where Antoine sleeps in the hallway next to the kitchen. On one of his truancy days Antoine espies his mother kissing another man and suddenly she is nicer to her son, until he uses her death as the reason for his day off school, a lie that earns him serious repercussions. When Antoine quotes Balzac (see the quote at the top of this review) in an essay he teacher expels him for plagiarism causing Antoine to run away for good.
Not everything depicted in this film is from Truffaut’s personal experiences, borrowing from the lives of his friends of the period of his youth as well. To keep the stories in check and make their telling more palatable and universal, Truffaut hired screenwriter Marcel Moussy to tidy things up for him. By its very nature, the narrative is more a series of incidents than a structured story yet it flows smoothly and is easy to follow.
A former film critic Truffaut was in a position where he needed to put his money where his mouth was and it fortunately for him he did score a hit with this film and, for many, marked the true birth of the French New Wave. It’s interesting to note that while many filmmakers begin making obtuse and indulgent films before slowly becoming more commercial, Truffaut went the other way, which may explain why I personally found this more enjoyable than his later works.
Not just content with the boldness of standing up for the misunderstood teens of France, Truffaut was also keen to try new ideas with the presentation, vis-à-vis the photography and editing. One stand out scene sees Antoine in a fairground ride in which patrons stand in an extremely speedy rotating dome where the gravity pins them against the walls. Remarkably shot from a fixed single position to focus on Antoine, this is a tribute to the sturdiness of 1950’s cameras!
Elsewhere Truffaut recreates a scene wholesale from Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite but adds his own cheeky twist to it, while the classroom scenes are also a respectful nod to Vigo’s short. The understated use of light and shade during the moments where Antoine lies in bed hearing his parents argue over him is a sublime moment of so little meaning so much.
With the rebellious open ending of this film it was almost demanded that we know what happened to Antoine in later life and Truffaut would oblige by making a further four films (including Stolen Kisses a decade later) about him. Played from beginning to end by Jean-Pierre Léaud, here he is arguably at his best, a figure of youthful vigour, pathos and precocious self-assurance. Even at just 14 years-old you can tell Léaud understood the character even when improvising in the aforementioned psychologist’s interview.
Patrick Auffay and the rest of the pre-teen tearaways are a joyous collective of proto-Bash Street Kids each one shining with their natural juvenile energy. Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier are an aesthetic mismatch as a wedded couple but this dynamic suits the uncomfortable home life Antoine endures. Guy Decomble is both a caricature of a teacher yet instantly recognisable to every pupil across the globe!
So it is then that after many false starts I have finally found a Truffaut film which I thoroughly enjoyed, understood and can see the merits in. The 400 Blows is not just a landmark piece of cinema but a life lesson in understanding the kids of today to ensure they become successful adults of tomorrow.