It was fifty years ago tomorrow that The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coup), the debut feature from François Truffaut, premiered in the United States. It was the first of what would be a five-film collaboration between Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Léaud that would cover twenty years in the life of Truffaut’s fictional alter-ego, Antoine Doinel. Along with Breathless, it is the signature film of the movement known as the French New Wave, but has transcended that label and become a classic in its own right. As I stop to consider the question, I realize it is my favorite French film, and would be in my top twenty or so of all time. A few years ago I received as a gift the Criterion boxed set of the Antoine Doinel films and yesterday popped The 400 Blows into my DVD player, watching the film for at least the third time.
Truffaut was only twenty-seven when he directed this film. He had been a critic, a disciple of Andre Bazin, and was among the daring young men who would leap from the pages of Cahier Du Cinema to the big screen, turning away from the silly romanticism of post-war French cinema and embracing the themes and style of a wide variety of other types of film, notably American B-pictures and Alfred Hitchcock. Though The 400 Blows is the quasi-autobiographical tale of a troubled boy searching for identity, the major subtext is a reverence for the image.
The title is a literal translation from the French, but it is meaningless to Americans, as the phrase is French slang that is roughly equivalent to “painting the town red” and has nothing to do with receiving a beating of any kind (the supplemental materials lists a few dozen alternate titles Truffaut considered, including The Vagabonds, Antoine Runs Away, or Down With School). Antoine is a thirteen-year-old boy in a largely loveless home. His mother is distracted and pays him little attention, more concerned with carrying on an extra-marital affair. His father, who is in reality his step-father, is a more likeable figure, but has no real connection to the boy. The autocratic school system is no succor, as the teachers are depicted as cruel brutes who inflict literature rather than teaching it (it is notable that Antoine’s love of Balzac comes not from school, but from his own intellectual curiosity).
Antoine is more interested in playing hooky with his friend, where they go to the movies or just hang out. He is in constant trouble for lying (most notably when he tells the teacher that his mother has died, a Freudian infraction if there ever was one) and then stealing a typewriter from his father’s office, which lands him in reform school. There is no snuggly reconciliation of family in this film (the next Doinel film, a short also on this disc, Antoine and Colette, reveals that Antoine is living on his own at the age of seventeen), but instead a search for identity that exists outside the boundaries of family. It is an anti-Hallmark card.
So on the one-hand we have something of a Dickensian journey of a young man, but on the other hand this is a film about the healing power of film. From the very first scene, when schoolboys pass around a forbidden photograph of a pin-up girl, the power of imagery is repeatedly explored. We see Antoine and his friend, René, going to a carnival where they ride “The Rotor,” a spinning contraption that is the same mechanism as the zoetrope. Other carnival patrons watch from above as those inside are spun around in a centrifuge. Truffaut, Hitchcock-like, gives himself a cameo as one of those being whirled. Then there are two instances where Antoine goes to the movies. In one of them, a rare enjoyable outing with his parents, they attend Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us, a bit of cinematic log-rolling as Rivette was one of Truffaut’s New Wave cohorts. And finally there is the magical, brief scene in which young children watch a puppet show, and we see not the show, but the faces of the kids as they are transported by what they see.
The pleasures of this film are many. There is plenty of comedy, ranging from the Our Gang-ish scenes of a boy’s slapstick struggle with his leaking pen and composition book to the scene, lovingly lifted from Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, where a gym teacher leads his charges on a run through the city, but he fails to notice that the boys drop off in dribs and drabs until there are only two boys left on the run. I especially liked the way Truffaut depicts Antoine as a boy who is growing up too fast, a kind of miniature adult. The shot of him lying back on his bed, smoking a cigarette while reading Balzac, is both funny and sad, and the way he shakes hands with René after being told by his father to say goodbye to him has a grim, fatalistic humor to it.
A lot of this has to do with Léaud, of course, who gives one of the most amazing juvenile performances in the history of film. The greatness of his work is best exemplified by the interview scene with the psychiatrist near the end of the film, where he discusses his dislike of his mother in frank, startling terms–we learn that his mother was talked out of an abortion by his grandmother, who actually raised him until he was eight. In this way the film ties into many of the American juvenile delinquent films of the fifties, but without the full-throated sensationalism. I never cease to marvel at the quick dart of the eyes and silly smile that Léaud gives when the psychiatrist asks him if he’s ever slept with a girl. It’s pure gold.
I learned for the first time that The 400 Blows was shot completely M.O.S. (without sound) and all of it was dubbed in later. Truffaut thought this was perfectly acceptable, as he was used to seeing American films dubbed into French, and because he was operating on a shoestring it allowed him to work without heavy and expensive sound equipment (he shot the film on the streets of Paris). Truffaut, in what was new then but is commonplace these days, would have the sound from one scene overlapping after a cut to another scene, as he figured the human ear could track the transition.
Then finally there is the closing shot, one of the most iconic in film history, a zoom to a freeze-frame, the first time a film had ended in that manner. Antoine has run away from the reform school to seek out the sea (he tells René that he doesn’t want to join the army, but wouldn’t mind the navy). When he finally reaches it, the film stops at his moment of self-liberation, but the look on his face doesn’t suggest triumph, but instead uncertainty. Truffaut and Léaud would carry forward Antoine’s story two more decades, but in a certain sense it ends right here, forever frozen in time.