Truffaut's movies are like a life-long diary and his first feature is one from the heart, notable for its highly autobiographical nature. It was no secret that the protagonist character of Antoine Doinel, as played in total of five films by Jean-Pierre Leaud, grew from Truffaut's own childhood. Leaud and Doinel became cinematic alter-egos for the director.
"400 Blows" (Les Quatre Cents Coups) tells the story of Antoine Doinel, who studies at a grim boys' school and lives in a cramped apartment with his irritable mother and more genial stepfather. He spends the nights on the floor in a sleeping bag, kept awake by their arguments. The morning after a typically horrific day at school, Antoine and his friend Rene bunk off to go to the cinema and the funfair. Their day is spoilt when Antoine spies his mother embracing a stranger. This betrayal is sure in his head the next day when, in need of an excuse for his absence, he tells his teacher his mother is dead.
The news ricochets to Antoine's parents and Antoine leaves home but, after an unhappy night spent in an old printing works, he returns to his family. The family then enjoys a momentarily idyllic period, during which time they go to the cinema, but then Antoine and Rene try to get some quick cash by stealing a typewriter from Antoine's stepfather's office. Antoine is caught, charged and placed in an observation center for juvenile delinquents. But it will take more than this to keep the irrepressible kid down.
From the lyrical opening shots of the Eiffel Tower to the famous enigmatic freeze frame with which it ends, the film sports inspired direction from Truffaut. "400 Blows" was said to be shot on the same streets where Truffaut had grown up and there's a strong sense of his instinctive feel for the locations. Several of the scenes in the Doinel films were inspired directly by events in Truffaut's own life. It's said that, like Antoine, Truffaut was forced to sleep in the corridor of his family's cramped apartment. He also ran way from home on more than one occasion and was also placed in an observation center for delinquents.
Truffaut's best friend was Robert Lachenay. He was the inspiration for the character of Rene, Antoine's partner in crime, played in the movie by Patrick Auffay. The conspiratorial relationship between Rene and Antoine is especially convincing. The pair share a touching alliance, represent best by the moving scene in which Rene attempts to visit his friend in the institution. Truffaut handles another crop of badly behaved 'mischief makers' and he also sterling work from Albert Remy and Claire Maurier, as Antoine's parents, and Guy Decomble as the stern professor. All three veer between displays of animosity and affection for Antoine.
At the heart of the film is a towering lead performance from the young Leaud, who brings a high level of humanity to Antoine's sullen swagger. One moment impenetrable and indifferent, the next helpless, Leaud gives an impressively complex turn as a boy who seems more than his years. He drives the film, appearing in virtually every scene. His performers evokes the full range of childhood emotions, from overwhelming youthful passions to disillusionment with one's lot in life.
"400 Blows" is a celebration of the giddy liberty of youth, represented by the film's freewheeling opening, Antoine and Rene's sprints through the streets and in particular Antoine's spin on a fairground ride. However, the film also reinforces the crushing confines of childhood, represented by the family's claustrophobic apartment and the school's barren classroom, both of which anticipate the cell Antoine ends up in. The manner of Antoine's education itself comes under attack, damned as a dreary series of recitations and dictations.
This invigorating film immediately established Truffaut as the French New Wave's most commercially successful director. It was awarded the Director's prize at Cannes, received an Oscar nomination for its script and signaled Truffaut's arrival on the international scene. Akira Kurosawa championed the picture as "one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen", and Jacques Rivette described it as 'a triumph of simplicity.' Both perspective and poignant, "400 Blows" (1959) still feels impressively fresh and the timeless nature of its story means audiences of all ages and generations can empathize with it.
Jean Pierre Leaud's audition for "400 Blows"
400 Blows - IMDb
400 Blows -- Roger Ebert's List of Great Movies