EMPIRE ESSAY: The Four Hundred Blows Review

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After being ferried from foster parent to foster parent, a small boy is bullied through his adolescence but manages to find solace in his frequent trips to the cinema and the times when he hangs out with his best-friend, another misfit.


The Cannes Film Festival in 1956, and a young film critic for Cahiers Du Cinema, Francois Truffaut, is vociferously complaining that the rows of flowers running along the front of the auditorium are obscuring the view of the screen from the stalls. As a result, the organizers ban him from the world’s premier festival. Three years later, and Truffaut returns as a filmmaker with Les Quatres Cents Coups. Watching the film from the privileged position of the balcony, he is stuck by how beautiful the flowers are running along the bottom of the screen…

   Indicative of the difference between those that do and those that *critique*, the 27-year-old Truffaut’s change of heart must have been eased by the rapturous response afforded his feature film debut, including the Cannes Award for Best Director. As landmark films go, this is one unassuming masterpiece: intimate, accessible, funny, honest, fresh and heartbreaking.

   Unlike, say E.T., which locks you into a childlike point-of-view, or Stand By Me, which paints a patina of nostalgia on adolescent rites of passage, The 400 Blows is shot through with a matter-of-fact neutrality that borders on the documentary. The 400 Blows (the original title comes from the French phrase ‘faire les quatres cents coups’ meaning ‘to raise hell’) demolishes the barriers between autobiography and fiction, actor and character, performance and personality.

   The character study follows 12 year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) – toyed with by his glam mother, patronized by his ineffectual stepfather, picked on by his teachers – descending into teen rebellion, resulting in a life of petty crime and juvenile incarceration. Around the narrative thrust Truffaut manages to weave some hilarious vignettes of school life (a pupil tearing out ink-stained pages of his book until there are none left), exhilarating digressions depicting Doinel’s truancy, and a portrait of ‘50s Paris that teems with vitality, lending the film the unique quality of being at once light yet serious, both disciplined and free.

   Part-rebel, part-slacker, part-innocent victim, Doinel is, without doubt, cinema’s coolest kid. Truffaut discovered the 13 year-old Leaud after placing an ad in Paris Soir. Unlike modern cinematic searches for young leads which often encompass cattle-calls for kids, Truffaut only tested a few youngsters, finding one who resembled the director as a child and was preternaturally natural before the camera. Being interviewed by his social worker about his sexual experiences, Leaud’s expression of surprise before finding his confidence is the perfect synthesis of character, script and actor.

           Dotted around Les Quatre Cent Coups are references – some blatent, some subtle – to the central role movies played in Truffaut’s existence. Tellingly, the only point when Antoine experiences any prolonged domestic happiness is following a family outing to see Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient. Later, during Antoine and his friend Rene’s suspension from school, Doinel steal a film still of Monika from Bergman’s Summer With Monika, itself a tale of young people on the run. Like his hero Hitchcock, Truffaut also makes a fleeting appearance, cameoing as Doinel wanders reeling after his amusement park escapades.

   Despite its rep as the first stand of the Nouvelle Vague, The 400 Blows lacks the jazzy experimentation that the likes of Godard’s A Bout De Souffle claimed for the movement. Instead, Truffaut lenses Doinel’s life with a simple and lucid verisimilitude, punctured by flashes of lyrical eloquence: the lights of Paris at night glimpsed by a crying Doinel through the bars of a police van adds a poignancy to his plight.

   Equally lyrical is the tracking shot that follows Doinel’s escape from the detention centre. As he hobbles across the Seine estuary, the boy stops short of the lapping waves, walks parallel with the tide and turns to face the camera. The image freezes and the title ‘FIN’ appears. If the moment was a happy accident – “I told him to look at the camera,” recalled Truffaut, “like taking a bow in the theatre but he didn’t look long enough so we froze the frame” – it remains the most effective use of freeze-frame in movie history. With Doinel’s face full of bewilderment and uncertainty, it is a full stop on childhood before the sentence of adulthood begins. 

      In a run unique in any national cinema, Truffaut and Leaud collaborated on four more Doinel movies over the next 20 years, following young Antoine through the flushes of first love (Antoine Et Collette, from the international compilation film Love At Twenty, 1962), getting a job as a private detective then falling for a client’s wife (Stolen Kisses/Baisers Voles, 1968), the pain of marital discord and infidelity (Bed And Board/Domicile Conjugal, 1970), and the aftermath of divorce (Love On The Run/L’Amour En Fuite, 1979).

This film was one of Truffaut's first directorial offerings even managing to kick start the French New wave in the process. This semi-autobiographical tale allows Truffaut to excel with material only he knows best and create a film that will remain a classic.