The 400 Blows, 1959.
Directed by François Truffaut.
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud.
The 400 Blows follows normal adolescent boy Antoine Doinel as he struggles to contend with all authority figures in his life, from schoolteachers to parents. As we are invited into this character study of Antoine it becomes increasingly clear that he is already disillusioned with life at his young age, and the film also uncovers the ineffectual dealings of the French government with juvenile offenders.
In this semi-autobiographical directorial debut, François Truffaut writes and directs a film light-years apart from the norm of French cinema at the time, which he had argued so aggressively against in the magazine Cahiers du Cinema (he was subsequently banned from the Cannes Film Festival in 1958). Needing to prove that he in fact could create a superior film to those which he argued so strongly against, Truffaut debuted with the imperious The 400 Blows, coming through this test with flying colours and creating his own brand of character based cinema as well as defining French New Wave cinema in one masterstroke. Based loosely on Truffaut’s own upbringing in the suburbs of Paris, The 400 Blows depicts Antoine Doinel as a disillusioned young tearaway, ignored by his parents and chastised at school, which ultimately results in him falling into the hands of the authorities in a young offenders institute.
Antoine lives a mistreated life with his mother, a distant, harsh figure with little interest in the day to day activities of Antoine and his stepfather, a seemingly jovial man who is revealed as someone with little love for Antoine and no interest in declaring the child as his own. They live together in a cramped apartment in Paris, with barely enough room for Antoine to sleep and nowhere near enough room for the three of them not to get on each others nerves. Antoine becomes increasingly disenfranchised with this situation when, while playing truant from school, he sees his mother kissing another man. After being repeatedly punished at school for his trouble making behaviour, Antoine eventually decides to run away, living at first with his school friend René and then fending for himself out on the streets until he is arrested and imprisoned at a juvenile detention centre.
Antoine’s life of petty crime materialises because of his lack of direction and boredom, rather than any malicious side of his personality, something which is displayed subtly but effectively in this character study. This is particularly evident in a superb scene where Antoine is in the juvenile detention prison, answering questions from a psychiatrist who we hear but do not see. This scene draws the audience towards Antoine, as his honesty and intelligence shines through despite his neglected upbringing. The performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud as the troubled runaway is what provides Antoine with this natural likeability in his first film role. Léaud incorporates much of his own demeanour into the performance of Doinel and was even encouraged to adlib and improvise by Truffaut, who was immediately impressed with the young actor whose mannerisms increased the overall reality of the film. Léaud proved so popular with Truffaut and other directors of the time that he quickly became the poster boy of the French New Wave, acting in several films for Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard for many years to come.
This film is rightly considered to be not only one of the best French films but one of the greatest of world cinema, and one which defined a generation. Truffaut’s wonderfully original, highly acclaimed film launched his career, as well as that of lead actors Léaud, and spawned several sequels and imitations, none of which live up to the complete quality and originality of The 400 Blows. Truffaut went on to make many other great films but The 400 Blows is often considered his masterpiece and, as it is semi-autobiographical, it is the one for which he will always be remembered.