Francois Truffaut's "400 Blows" -- An Analysis

                                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


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Another great article... unfortunately, I haven't seen the movie yet. I am already a great fan of the French master filmmaker even though I have just seen one film of his till date, the brilliant Shoot the Piano Player (1960) where Truffaut demonstrates why he is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

Ravi said...

Good movie. I saw this film a few years before, I still remb the scene where the school teacher take the students around the city, I think its jogging ? and the students getting disappearing..

This is off-topic. How do you watch "top rated films" ? I mean u read reviews, see the film is listed on the all-time top list. Then see the film with all the reviews in the mind, so even if the movie is not of good, u start liking the movie. Does it happen to u? Sometimes u might think why this movie is in the top 100's IMBD list? Is there any movie which u think so?

Arun Kumar said...

@Murtaza Ali, Thanks for the comment. You should definitely see this movie. From the acting to master class direction, "400 Blows" is more than perfect. All though it's part of French New Wave cinema, it's more simple and accessible than the works of Godard, Rivette, and Resnais.

@Ravi, Thanks for the comment. The final jogging scene is imprinted in my memory when I think about "400 Blows."

When it comes to "top rated films", most of the times i just read the plot given in IMDb or just take a look at who has directed or acted. Some how reading others reviews influences us in watching movies. So, I think when it comes to artistic movies it's best to experience the movie and then start reading some good reviews. If I am watching a movie for entertainment then i stick with the reviews before watching it.

In top "IMDb 250", most of the movies are over-rated. If I didn't like a top-rated movie, most of the time I try to watch it another time, that if I have missed something. For example, David Lynch's movies -except "Elephant Man" and "The Straight Story" --, i didn't understand what's so great about his movies. Watching it more than 2 0r 3 times made me understand the greatness of Lynch's images. In IMDb Top 250, I always hate to see "3 Idiots" over "Pather Panchali" or any of Satyajit Ray's films.

Ravi said...

Arun-Good to here that u2 like the same jogging scene.

Agreed that some films in IMBD Top 250 is over-rated, in my opinion. Few movies which I was not-interested are Blow-up and L'Avventura, strange both the films are from Michelangelo Antonioni, I had to stretch myself to watch these films.

I agree reading extensive reviews will be a spoiler or will influence us while seeing. But a little bit of homework is always good, cause while watching a film from different language ( not Hollywood ), they have their own culture, history which will be the underlying theme of the film itself ( some times ).

3 Idiots and Pather Panjali are alternate films for the west, just how their films are for us.

Now watching a film more than once is OK, if one likes the film, but do we need to watch the film for 2 or 3 times to understand the film itself ? Does it mean that the particular film maker is thinking above the viewer's line of understanding. Does this aspect make one as a good\top-rated film\film maker. ?

Arun Kumar said...

@Ravi, Thanks for the reply. I haven't seen much of Antonioni's works except "L'eclisse", which can be described in the same way as you have described "Blow-Up." Certain director's works deserves to be seen a lot of times to grasp the full artistic nature. For example, the movies of Tarkovsky or Kubrick. I think there is many unnecessarily convoluted films (like "Donnie Darko"), which are designed to give it an another try and then there are aesthetic flicks with many hidden meanings (provided if u have rightly understood the historical and cultural background of the film).

I recently watched ""Last Year In Marienbad" -- very hard to understand with an preposterous narrative.

Ravi said...

Last Year In Marienbad- I attempted to see this film few times, but failed after few mins.

வருணன் said...

@ Ravi and of course Arun,
Preparing ourselves for watching a cinema is akin to preparing yourself to meet a close friend after years. When you say,you watch a cinema, give a thought on what the movie has in store to provide you. There is plot, development of the story narrative style,structure of the film, colour scheme, production design, acting, contemplating over the theme of the work, back round information on the theme, camera angles, camera movements, what not...

I wouldn't say watching a cinema more than once is necessary. But when done there is always something to learn from it. Wonder why? The movie that you watch any number of times is the same but you're not. The way you perceive the same cinema from time to time keeps on changing because your maturity and outlook evolves all the time.

While taking ' Blow-up' for example some of the things that I noticed are the usage of colours, movement of camera and sound design and acting. Happy Viewing pals.

வருணன் said...

I personally feel very happy to witness that active discussion on cinema has kicked off, at last. That's a good sign.

Ravi said...

//Preparing ourselves for watching a cinema is akin to preparing yourself to meet a close friend after years//

I think you meant to say "new friend"!!

Sometimes I experiment like this- Pick a random film ( mostly unknown non-English film ), don't read the review or research about the film, just watch it. If the movie hits you, good, then the film-maker had done justice by making the film.

Yes after multiple viewing of a film, our view changes after each viewing.