400 Blows, The (France, 1959)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Calling The 400 Blows a "coming-of-age story" seems somehow inadequate. The label, while accurate, does not indicate either the uniqueness or the cinematic importance of this motion picture. These days, the average coming-of-age story tends to be a lightweight affair, often tinged with nostalgia and rarely perceptive. Such is not the case with The 400 Blows, which takes an uncompromising, non-judgmental look at several key events in the life of a teenage boy. With all of the melodrama leeched out, we are able to view and understand the factors that shape his present and the direction of his future.

The title, Les quatre cent coups is literally translated as The 400 Blows; however, since it's an idiom, a direct translation is imperfect. The phrase loosely means "Raising Hell", and, while that's not an English interpretation, it's a reasonable approximation. The 400 Blows sounds like a movie about violence and abuse, or (if you're thinking in sexual terms) something salacious. When the film opened in the late '50s, more than a few viewers were treated to an entirely different experience from what they expected. (A widely circulated, possibly apocryphal story says that the Weinstein brothers attended this movie expecting a sex flick. They were so astounded by what they saw that their entire perspective on cinema changed, eventually leading them to found Miramax.)

The 400 Blows is the debut outing for celebrated French director François Truffaut, who arrived in the filmmaking arena after taking a detour through film criticism. (During the years when he wrote for André Bazin's "Cahiers du Cinéma," Truffaut developed a reputation as being an acerbic, unforgiving critic.) Along with Godard, Rohmer, Malle, Vadim, and Chabrol (amongst others), Truffaut was one of the founding auteurs of the French "New Wave" cinema - a philosophy that sought to enliven the Gaelic motion picture industry by taking bold chances and telling personal stories. The 400 Blows became one of the first and most influential of the French New Wave films (it was released around the same time as Godard's Breathless), and, as such, was at the vanguard of a movement that had a worldwide impact on movie-making for more than a decade.

The 400 Blows is the first of five time Truffaut brings us a chapter in the life of his cinematic alter-ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Doinel (recurrently played by Léaud) would return four more times: in the 1962 short film "Antoine and Collette", then in the features Stolen Kisses (in 1968), Bed and Board (in 1970), and Love on the Run (1979). Love on the Run seems to close the Doinel cycle, but, because Truffaut died in 1984, there's no way to tell whether he might have again returned to this character. It's interesting to note that, while the Doinel of The 400 Blows bore a striking resemblance to Truffaut at 14, by the time of Love on the Run, the gulf between the character's life and his creator's had widened considerably.

Antoine is not so much of a troublemaker as he is unlucky. His exploits, at least early in the film, are no different from those of his school classmates - except he's the one who gets caught and punished. For example, when a pin-up is being passed around, the teacher notices it when it's on Antoine's desk. Once Antoine has earned his teacher's disapproval, he has placed himself in a bad position - one that is exacerbated when he fails to do his homework, then tells a foolhardy lie that is easily disproven. Still, many of Antoine's school infractions are minor. It's just that the authority figures see them in the worst possible light. Even when Antoine tries to do something right, it turns out wrong. On one occasion, he writes an essay inspired by and in the style of Balzac. His teacher accuses him of plagiarism.

Antoine's home life isn't much better. His mother (Claire Maurier), who gave birth to Antoine after an unwanted pregnancy, spends as much time away from home as she can. When she's with her son, she has difficulty controlling her impatience with him. His stepfather (Albert Rémy) is sometimes friendly and companionable, but, on other occasions, he's short-tempered and grumpy. Neither parent seems to care much about what happens to Antoine. To them, he's an inconvenience who cannot be ignored. When something goes wrong at school, they immediately adopt the teachers' position without listening to Antoine's perspective. One day when he gets in trouble, he deduces that it would be better to run away than go home.

By the end of The 400 Blows, Antoine is a juvenile delinquent. He has stolen a typewriter from his father's office (he is caught not when he steals it but when he foolishly tries to return it), been arrested by the police, and escaped from reform school. Antoine's life could have taken a turn for the better at any time had someone shown an interest in him - his mother, his father, or a teacher. But he is a victim of his circumstances, which are framed by neglect. Antoine gains no respite at home or in school. In fact, the only time he seems to be at peace is when he's in a movie theater, free to escape to another world for a finite period of time.

The 400 Blows is a portrait of innocence lost, as Truffaut is careful to point out. One scene in particular highlights this. We are treated to an extended series of shots of dozens of children gleefully watching a puppet show. Many of their faces are alight with innocent excitement. But Antoine has no interest in such childish things. While the others around him laugh and enjoy the show, he and his friend plot how to get more money. He has moved into the seedy side of the adult world: petty crime and its associated punishment - being locked in a cage. When he is in jail, he is treated as coldly as a hardened criminal.

Stylistically, The 400 Blows takes a number of intriguing chances. For the most part, Truffaut and cinematographer Henri Decaë go for a simple (but never simplistic) approach, but there are some radical innovations and adaptations. In the first place, The 400 Blows was the first French film to be shot in widescreen (aspect ratio 2.35:1), and this required much planning on Truffaut's part. The scene where Antoine speaks to the psychologist heightens the pseudo-documentary feel that shadows the entire production. Because we never see the questioner, it's as if Antoine is speaking directly into the camera, explaining his life and the reasons he is in his current predicament. Finally, there's the film's closing image: an optical zoom on a freeze-frame. This often-copied effect was not pioneered by Truffaut (it was, in fact, an homage to something similar in Ingmar Bergman's Monika), but this is the film that "popularized" it.

For all of Truffaut's mastery of the behind-the-camera aspects of The 400 Blows, an equal share of the credit must go to lead actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. One of the reasons Truffaut chose Léaud for this role is that he shared some characteristics in common with Antoine, such as his disdain for school and his tendency to be a troublemaker. In this role, Léaud is fantastic. There's never a sense that he is acting - every movement, word, and thought comes across as natural, not forced. He is not on-screen for every moment of the film (there are three "interludes" where Antoine is largely or completely absent - the classroom scene after he has been sent out, the defection from the gym teacher's jog through Paris, and the puppet show), but, when he is present, he compels the viewer's attention. Léaud's standout scene is probably the interview with the psychologist, where Antoine's fidgety reactions are perfect.

There's no question that The 400 Blows stands out when compared to other coming-of-age dramas. Even though more than forty years have elapsed since the film's release, its effect has neither faded nor been duplicated. By eschewing manipulation and sentimentality, Truffaut does not invite false emotions and insincere pity. Instead, his clear-eyed approach presents Antoine to us with all of his faults and foibles on display. He is not "sanitized" to shade our response. Yet, because Truffaut's style is so honest, we develop a deeper connection with Antoine that we would have in a traditional melodrama. And, when that final shot occurs, leaving Antoine suspended in time, with his future uncertain, our reaction is unforced. Of course we can now do what viewers could not in 1959 - look through other windows on different phases of Antoine's life and see how far he comes from the bored, uncertain boy presented here. The 400 Blows remains a remarkable film. As with all of the great classics, the passage of time only causes us to appreciate it more.

400 Blows, The (France, 1959)

Ranked #79 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1