The 400 Blows, 1959.
Directed by Francois Truffaut.
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier, Patrick Auffay.
A young boy, left without attention, delves into a life of petty crime.
Alongside the likes of Jean Luc Godard, Jaques Demy and Jean Pierre-Melville, François Truffaut was one of the pioneers of the French New Wave of the 1960s and 70s which produced some of the finest and most innovative films of the era. The filmmakers who owe a debt of gratitude to the era include Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. Truffaut’s career is getting a thorough retrospective courtesy of the BFI in January and February and his debut film The 400 Blows remains one of his defining works.
The semi-autobiographical film tells the story of Antoine Doinel, a troubled adolescent who is constantly up to mischief. Doinel would become a reoccurring feature in Truffaut’s filmography with a further three feature length films depicting his story, culminating in 1979’s Love on the Run (there was also a short film featuring Doinel called Antoine and Colette).
Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance is spellbinding and it remarkable to think he was just 15 when the film was released. He excels at selling the nuances of Doinel’s character, and his dissatisfaction at home which leads him to cause trouble for himself. So much of the film’s potency relies on Léaud and he manages to capture the joys and difficulties of growing up. Doinel is an alter-ego for Truffaut himself and clearly harks back to the director’s own troubled youth, here we can see glimpses at what led to Truffaut’s own love of cinema with the big screen proving escapist entertainment for Antoine.
As with many of the French New Wave classics, The 400 Blows captures the hustle and bustle of Paris as well as its beauty and mystery. The film’s cinematography is both visually arresting yet murky capturing the post war city and also a lingering sense of gloom. Henri Decaë was one of France’s most celebrated cinematographers and ensures the film looks the part with many standout sequences including the Wheel of Death sequence and the iconic beach set closing scene. At just over the 90 minute mark Truffaut managed to capture a clear sense of the character of Parisian youth in the late 1950s.
For a movie released over 60 years ago The 400 Blows remains strikingly current and many coming of age films in the decades since clearly owe it a debt of gratitude. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast feels heavily indebted to the film, though this is no slur against Belfast itself, such is the clear reverence held for this classic. The film has lost none of its potency, is full of imagination and emotion and superbly acted. It’s all the more remarkable considering it was Truffaut’s debut film and perhaps he could never quite escape its shadow; although later works like Jules and Jim, and Day for Night are also loved in circles, nothing Truffaut released subsequently had quite the same impact.
The 400 Blows still retains much of its prestige, transcending the time from which it came to stand out as one of the finest French films of its era. Jean-Pierre Léaud remains a transfixing presence giving one of the finest child performances of all time and leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of French Cinema. It can only be recommended to witness this classic on the big screen where it is currently available alongside many of Truffaut’s other best works and we can only hope this introduces many new audiences to the work of one of France’s finest directors.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★