by Sam Juliano
French film titles generally persevere over their English counterparts more than those in any other language, but Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is the clear preference over Les Quatre Cents Coup everywhere except in France. The French to their credit have always been fiercely loyal to their national heritage, especially their language, and translations -English or otherwise- are looked on disdainfully. To be sure there are instances where the English language is forceful and direct, and The 400 Blows, spare, direct and thematically relevant, is exceedingly effective. But I won’t hold it over the purists who favor Les Quatre Cents Coup either, especially since nothing is really lost in the translation. No matter what you opt for the landmark 1959 film is the maiden effort by the French cinematic icon Francois Truffaut, and arguably the film that remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films. Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians. Yet the film’s pre-eminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some, as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood, with 1970’s L’Enfant Sauvage and 1976’s L’Argent de Poche as the other two. Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing.
My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 70’s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director. I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discover critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time. In the beginning -as should be expected for one so green behind the ears- it was Jean Pierre Laude’s familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased. It sent shivers down my spine and still, does today though for some more snooty film buffs it has diminished in the vein of familiarity breeds contempt. It still was a novelty in those days to watch a film with English subtitles, and one with a potent strain of lyricism had a special allure for me.
The plot of The 400 Blows documents the various delinquent exploits of twelve-year-old schoolboy Antoine Doniel (Jean Pierre Leaud), who represents Truffaut’s pre-teen alter ego. This autobiographical work is also the director’s most personal film. It should be mentioned here that Truffaut tempered the film’s real-life events with the influence of two previous film classics. As an active, often controversial film critic, Truffaut was also a passionate advocate of films and directors that affected him emotionally and impressed him artistically. One of these, Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite, also deals with adolescents who rebel against school authority. A number of elements from that early classic are evident in The 400 Blows. Then there is Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, a 1947 work, which like Vigo’s evinces a grey, documentary, neo-realist look. Rossellini employs a number of the moving and panning camera workings adapted by Truffaut, though in the far darker Italian film, the boy commits suicide. Structurally, The 400 Blows is straightforward, all pointing to the outcome of this teenager’s crisis. Truffaut’s main concern is with character, mood and theme, all of which are examined with a magnifying glass as the plots unfolds without complication. It has been argued that the film is “seriocomic,” and that contention is hard to argue. While the film straddles the intoxicating line between the lyrical and the documentary, there is a consistent strain of humor, even with the underlying cognizance of the boy’s emotional pain. Later on after the police are involved, the tone is much more somber. In any case it seems accurate enough to frame the film as narratively episodic, complete with contrasting scenes. Word has it that the film was originally intended as a short feature, but that Truffaut kept adding from his childhood remembrances, finally realizing a full feature was wholly warranted.
At home Antoine is treated with indifference and nagging criticism by his parents. His mother had conceived her son out of wedlock, has subsequently desired an abortion, but was talked into having the baby by her mother. Antoine’s supposed father married his mother after she became pregnant by another man. His schoolmaster is no less hostile, though Antoine’s mischievous streak leaves little room for exoneration. Antoine is caught showcasing pictures of nude women and defacing classroom walls. With no love bestowed on him from home or school, it is understandable that Antoine would became withdrawn, alienated and prone to wrong doing, if for no other reason than to lash out against his miseries. He skips school with his friend Rene to wander the streets of Paris, stealing milk bottles at doorsteps and venturing into movie theaters in Place Clichy. (It should be noted here that Truffaut’s admission of putting aside everything to watch American movies in theaters during his adolescent alienation was also broached in one of the segments of his later L’Argent de Poche, a film also reviewed by this author earlier in the countdown). When the boy is asked why he wasn’t in school the day before he tells the teacher that his mother died. At first the boy is dealt with compassionately but after the ruse is uncovered his parents are called in. The father slaps the boy, who then angrily reacts by running away with Rene to steal a typewriter from the office of the father, intending to sell it. No one seems interested in buying it, so they take it back, only to be caught by the janitor. Prior to this event the boy caught a glimpse of his mother kissing a stranger on the street, which is no real surprise considering his parents are always fighting. Once arrested, Antoine spends the night at the police station before being punished for his misbehavior. He is sent to a correctional center for juveniles with the agreement of his dismissing parents. His mother, who comes to visit him at the center, announces that his father no longer wishes to see him. The disciplinarian life is very difficult for young Antoine, and one day, taking advantage of some confusion during a soccer game, he runs away, ending up on a Normandy beach, aimless but free. One guard pursues him, but Antoine runs with the camera running alongside him in one long continuous take. The boys runs past no people but past farmhouses, open fields, hedges and deserted buildings. Truffaut stresses that is is solitary. He then gets his first glimpse of the sea, and descends a large open stairway. He rushes toward the beach, and viewer impressions at first are that he may commit suicide. But he changes course and steps back on the beach. It is then the the celebrated closing shot by way of an unexpected freeze frame photographing the seemingly trapped Antoine from the last wave crest, facing the infinity of the sea, is utilized to leave the audience in the same state of its protagonist -one of uncertainty and seeming of hopelessness. It is difficult to be sure as to what Antoine projects. is it impassivity, the look of accusation or just one of sadness and resignation? The devise, pointing to an uncertain future, has been endlessly spawned over the years, but it is doubtful any have exerted the enormous impact as Truffaut’s has. It is face that will haunt us forever.
The 400 Blows is universal in theme but also in the manner it is presented. Dialogue isn’t part of many scenes (Antoine strolling the streets alone, he and Rene playing hookey, the escape from the home, and the camera alternates from static observation to one on the move. One of the film’s most resonant scenes is the static one of the interview with the psychologist. The camera stays on Antoine’s face, dissolving from one shot to another to show a passage of time, never showing the woman asking the questions. Others scenes are fluidly negotiated with a variety of pans and camera angles that are not negotiated for cinematic showing off, but to in effect to express the mood or character motivation of the scenes. In this sense there is a sense of flow and lyrical continuity, enhanced in some sequences by the music. The pans in the classroom are also effective is showing visually how isolated Antoine is from his classmates. Truffaut uses tight close-ups in the cramped apartment to accentuate there is no warmth or expression. The family are together out of economic necessity, not because of any feeling for each other. The close-ups of Antoine behind bars of his cell in the police station and in the police van are stark and effectively show how far the boy has descended. Truffaut makes no bones about what he thinks of the French school system, which he aligns here with both the police station and the detention home. The school is the reason why stoics and delinquents are created, and the verbal and physical abuse leaves young people with no direction by rebellion. The broken family reflects the condition of society at large, which has failed miserably. Antoine gets slapped in the face by his father for lying to the school master and then near the end at the detention home he gets slapped for eating too soon. There is no love in the boy’s life, and he is left to fend for himself unlawfully.
Constantin’s music is a structural element in The 400 Blows. The mood is often melancholy, but perhaps more often it is light and jaunty. Noticeably there is no music in the scenes that show imprisonment, and this includes the classroom. Music can be heard in Atoine’s flat when he is alone, but it stops when his mother enters. When his mother offers him a reward for getting a good mark in French the music plays. It is always heard in the streets, where he is gleefully unsupervised. It is also heard in the apartment when Antoine lights a candle in honor of his hero Balzac, an incident that leads to a fire. Constantin tellingly sets up the juxtaposition of music, and then silence, which underlines the boy’s own roaster coaster of a psychological state. The music’s main theme is a stunning burst of lyricism, combining the impressionist strokes of Debussy with the melodic thrust of Bizet. It is drenched in nostalgia, but not remotely in the sentimental sense, rather it represents the airy freedom from society’s suffocating restrictions and the hope that the future will bring some measure of happiness. But the aching poignancy in the melody seems to imply that sadness will not easily be chased away. It was a part of Truffaut’s childhood and now of Antoine’s. The 400 Blows paints nothing with rosy colors, and Constantin effectively masks his score from a mournful anchor.
Jean Pierre-Leaud’s performance is one of the cinema’s most justly celebrated childhood turns, especially since Truffaut left the young actor to improvise some of his scenes. His deadpan expressions superbly register anguish and alienation, and during his flights through the city we well rem,ember the way he wolfs
down a bottle of stolen milk, carries a typewriter over a bridge on the Seine or is seen bewildered and vulnerable during the interrogation sequences. He is your everyday Parisian youth, not especially creative or charismatic, just one victimized by the circumstances of his upbringing. He tries hard to endear himself to his family, but never really had a chance from the start. Leaud effectively plays a character who keeps his feelings contained – so much can be understood from his passivity. He did not fail society – he was failed by society. Leaud is both a physical and a psychological embodiment of the troubled youth, speaking volumes with his solemn detachment. The other actors in the film are more like symbols in Antoine’s life, and as such are distintly ordinary.
The 400 Blows is rated by Sight and Sound as one of the greatest films ever made. The film’s influence has been enormous, and Truffaut did win the Best Director prize at Cannes for his very first film. Truffaut did go on to direct some other great films like Jules and Jim, Two English Girls, The Green Room. Small Change and Mississippi Mermaid, and a few others near great, but in other films did all the artistic elements align so seamlessly as in this beloved film about a troubled youth. As the Number 1 choice in the Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films countdown it’s level of veneration is abundantly clear. It is perhaps the most emblematic work of the French New Wave films, and a film class essential.