The narrative of The 400 Blows condenses events drawn from several years of Truffaut’s own childhood into what appear to be a few weeks or months in the life of Antoine Doinel. Antoine’s world revolves around three locations: the cramped apartment he shares with his mother (Claire Maurier) and adoptive father (Albert Rémy); the school classroom where he clashes daily with the ill-tempered schoolmaster (Guy Decomble); and the Paris streets into which he escapes with his best friend, René (Patrick Auffay). At school, Antoine is bored and inattentive, and frequently finds himself in trouble. At home, things are little better. He seems to be used as a skivvy by his parents and there is little warmth or joy or their relationship. His discovery that his mother is having an affair simply adds to tensions in the household. His one escape is out into the streets, cafés, fairgrounds, and cinemas of Paris; despite the seemingly constant rain, the film is a love letter to the city, right from the opening montage of tracking shots down avenues that take us closer and closer to the Eiffel Tower. As the story progresses, Antoine finds himself in escalating trouble. After a brief period of peace at home, Antoine and René are suspended from school and Antoine takes to living surreptitiously in René’s house (his parents are even more neglectful than Antoine’s but have more money). An abortive attempt to raise funds by stealing a typewriter from his father’s office ends with Antoine’s arrest and removal to an ‘observation centre’, as well as to his parents virtually disowning him. A final break for freedom leads to one of the most memorable and heartstopping final shots in all cinema.
By 1959 François Truffaut was established as a key figure within the emergent French New Wave. The origins of the movement lay with the group of young film enthusiasts writing for Cahier du cinéma, the magazine co-founded by theorist Andre Bazin; Bazin became a father figure for Truffaut who dedicated his first feature film, The 400 Blows (1959), to his late mentor’s memory. Along with Truffaut, the group included Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, all of whom would move from film criticism to directing. Reacting against the ‘quality’ tradition of safe, studio-bound productions which dominated French cinema in the 1950s (critiqued by Truffaut in his article ‘Une certaine tendance du cinema Français’), and inspired by Alexandre Astruc’s call for cinema to have an equal artistic status with more established forms such as the novel, the Cahiers critics championed films which reflected the individual vision of their maker, assumed to be the director. Appropriately, Truffaut opens his book The Films in my Life with a quote from Orson Welles: ‘I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it’ (Truffaut 1980: 1). The Cahier critics identified such film-makers via their own excited responses to that personal vision producing an eclectic list of approved auteurs, as evidenced by the range of work Truffaut chose to highlight in his book, from the more obvious John Ford, Mizoguchi or Bergman, to the idiosyncratic with Mervyn LeRoy or Anatole Litvak.
It was logical enough for the group to move from polemics to film-making themselves, even if the means was not always easy to secure. The young directors quickly realised that low budgets were the path to freedom of expression. Michel Marie charts this development back to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Silence of the Sun (1947) and Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1954) (Marie 2003: 48–52). The latter was produced by Ciné Tamaris who were able to cut costs by acting as a co-operative, a model adopted by the New Wave directors who often pooled their talents to reduce overheads and improve the chance of obtaining funding. Increasing criticism of policies pursued by the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC) led to a change in strategy with financial subsidies directed away from mainstream, large-scale productions towards cheaply made independents such as Claude Chabrol’s debut, Le beau Serge (1958), often credited as the real beginning of the New Wave. Truffaut’s own path into features lay courtesy of more providential funding: his father-in-law, Ignace Morgenstern, being a leading film distributor. It was he who provided the backing for The 400 Blows through Truffaut’s own production company Films du Carrosse. The film’s impressive box office performance, along with a positive critical reception, was followed by similar responses to Chabrol’s The Cousins (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960). Together these films announced the arrival of the New Wave (Marie 2003: 66).
The seeds of The 400 Blows lay in Truffaut’s earlier short film, Les mistons/The Mischief-Makers (1957), which had drawn on memories of his own childhood. From this he began to develop ideas for a screenplay which would use a number of interlocking stories on the subject of childhood (Baecque and Toubiana 2000: 126–7). One of these episodes, ‘La Fugue d’Antoine (Antoine’s Flight)’, was based directly on an incident in Truffaut’s youth when he had tried to cover his truancy by telling his school teachers that his mother had died, resulting in his father slapping his face in front of the class. This story eventually formed one of the key sequences in The 400 Blows, with the film itself growing out of an accumulation of childhood stories, some of them Truffaut’s own and others drawn from friends and collaborators, which became the tale of a single character, Antoine Doinel (JeanPierre Léaud). To develop these anecdotal moments into a coherent whole Truffaut worked with the novelist and screenwriter Marcel Moussy. Nonetheless, many scenes and details in the film belong specifically to Truffaut’s own memories, including his stay at the Villejuif Observation Centre for Minors and the fact that, like the film’s protagonist, Truffaut was born out of wedlock, passed around various family members including his grandmother, and then adopted by his mother’s new husband. So closely did Truffaut identify with his alter ego that he subsequently brought him back to the screen on four further occasions, with Léaud aging each time in parallel to the director.
If personal commitment to a project was an essential of the New Wave’s creed, this is apparent in more than just the autobiographical elements of The 400 Blows. The film was shot on location around parts of Paris which Truffaut had frequented as a boy, even down to the cinemas he used to play truant to from school: ‘I saw my first two hundred films on the sly, playing hooky and slipping into the movie house without paying’ (Truffaut 1980: 3). Films and film-going are an important part of Antoine’s growing up; his happiest time with his parents comes on an evening out to see a film (curiously entitled Paris nous appartient, the name of the film then being made by Truffaut’s friend, Jacques Rivette which was not completed until 1960). The films is also filled with cameo appearances from Truffaut’s friends in the New Wave, from fellow directors Philippe de Broca and Jacques Demy, to the actors Jean-Claude Brialy and Jeanne Moreau, and even Truffaut himself who can be seen briefly in the funfair sequence. One of Antoine’s friends at school is even called Chabrol.
In a manner typical of much early New Wave cinema, and of virtually all Truffaut’s work, the film is constructed as a series of self-contained vignettes. At home we see Antoine taking out the rubbish or laying the table. He sits at his mother’s dressing table, his face caught in a profusion of mirrors. We witness Antoine’s fascination with the writer Balzac which leads to his constructing a shrine to the father of French realism, only for this to inadvertently catch fire resulting in another fight with his father. At school, he is initially punished for looking at a girly magazine in class, then for writing graffiti on the wall, and finally for his drastic lie about his mother’s death (although this is a last resort brought about by sustained bullying from the schoolmaster). Out in the streets, he sees his mother with another man and spends a night scavenging for food and a bed. He also visits the cinema, a funfair, and a children’s puppet show. In themselves, these scenes appear minor but they gradually, almost casually build the impression of Antoine’s life; of boredom and bullying at school, of neglect and indifference at home, with only the streets and his friendship with René providing relief. Tellingly, the original French title, Les quatre cent coups, translates more accurately as ‘raising hell’, indicating defiance rather than the melancholy of The 400 Blows.
The film’s power derives as much from its technique as its narrative. The overriding mode is of realist social observation, with evocative use of location and natural light to build a feeling of place and space. A number of scenes have the feel of documentary, including the kids playing in the school yard or the small children observed in the audience of the puppet show. This is emphasised further by Henri Decaë’s camerawork. For the sequences at home and at school the camera is often static or tracks slowly back and forth across the confined space, while in the streets, and especially during Antoine’s concluding run towards freedom, the camera is either highly mobile or is set in extreme wide shot or at a high angle emphasising the space around Antoine. As Anne Gillain suggests, ‘these alternations give the film its powerful rhythm of tension and release’ (Gillain 2000: 144). Selective use of close-up brings us near to Antoine at moments of emotion, while the subtle mise en scène frequently reminds of the degree to which he is imprisoned, with recurring motifs of bars or lattices in front of his face. Antoine’s subjective experience of events is suggested by point-of-view shots, including an elaborate upside-down image when he is on a ride at the fair.
These techniques also place us firmly inside Antoine’s perception, so that we empathise completely with him. The adult world as seen through his eyes is cold and phoney. His mother only becomes interested in him when there is a threat that he might tell her husband about her affair. When the truth comes out anyway, she wrongly blames Antoine and abandons him to his fate. He is beaten at home, at school, and at the reformatory to which he is sent. As in Dickens’ novels, the maltreatment of children is seen as symptomatic of a rotten society. The only warmth he experiences is from his friend René who, with characteristic irony, is not permitted to visit him in the reformatory while his mother is allowed in, if only to reject him. This is a world where young and old are utterly at odds. In the end, there is no escape. Even out in the open, Antoine is hemmed in by sea and sky. Realising this, he turns accusingly to face us.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Les Films du Carrosse and Sédif Productions. Director: François Truffaut. Producer: François Truffaut. Screenwriters: François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy. Cinematographer: Henri Decaë. Music: Jean Constantin. Editor: Marie-Josëphe Yoyotte. Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Patrick Auffay (René), Claire Maurier (Gilberte Doinel – Antoine’s mother), Albert Rémy (Julien Doinel – Antoine’s father), Guy Decomble (‘Petite Feuille’ – The French teacher).]
Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut: A Biography, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.
Originally published as François Truffaut (1996). English translation by Catherine Temerson. Anne Gillain, ‘The script of delinquency: François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959)’ in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds), French Film: Texts and Contexts, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 142–57.
Michel Marie, The French New Wave: An Artistic School, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. Originally published as La Nouvelle Vague: Une école artistique (1997).
English translation by Richard Neupert. Phil Powrie and Keith Reader, French Cinema: A Student’s Guide, London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.
François Truffaut, The Films in my Life, London: Allen Lane, 1980. Originally published as Les Films de ma Vie (1975). English translation by Leonard Mayhew.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.