Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The 400 Blows (1959) directed by Francois Truffaut

Genre: Drama
"The 400 Blows" is one of the great films of the French New Wave, a film I wished I had seen as a teenager because it captures so well that period in a boy's life when he is suspended between being effectively still a child and entering adolescence.

It is also a unique story of one youngster who lives a life of desperation, caught up in a small Paris apartment with a hostile mother and an indifferent father, and knocked about in school by teachers who are pompous martinets, quick to humiliate their pupils and slow to inspire.

There is a documentary feel to this film, as if we are prying into the life of the youngster, Antoine Doinel, played by the amazing Jean-Pierre Léaud, not seeing it acted out. When life at home becomes unbearable for him, he runs away to play hooky at the cinemas, or steals about with a friend, getting involved in the petty theft that will send him first to a police jail (in scenes inspired I believe by Alfred Hitchcock's 1957 crime drama "The Wrong Man") and then the reform school--and the final heartbreaking rejection by the mother who never wanted him born in the first place.

What could have been a tragic or melodramatic film is simply a powerful 99 minute personal statement by a director destined for other great films like "Jules and Jim"(1961), "Day for Night"(1973), and another excellent film about the unique (and soon all-too lost) world of childhood, "Small Change" (1976).

It's a matter-of-fact slice of life involving an intelligent and sensitive young boy who reads Balzac novels, smokes cigarettes, has the spunk of three ordinary kids and is equiped with a desire to live and enjoy a bit of freedom before being drafted into the military and/or the banality and conformity of the adult world.

One look at this film (I saw it first at 24 ) and you know without knowing much about writer-director Francois Truffaut that this had to be based on his own life, or someone close to him. The story is extremely intimate and the boy breathes life into a role that seems all too real. Nothing here suggests its drawn from a sociological study or the hyped 1950's "message" movie in the Hollywood tradition of Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) or "The Blackboard Jungle" (1956) and other lesser B-films of that era that lean toward exploiting the youth movement from a safe and decidedly adult perspective.

This is a singular vision of childhood without sentiment or hyper-dramatization. A must-see.


  1. This amazing scene of children watching a puppet show comes at the point where Antoine and his friend plot a heist involving the theft of a typewriter out of his father's office.

  2. Another one I've never heard of! Glad you enjoyed it.
    If you had seen it as a teenager, you might not have appreciated it as much!

  3. I think you have a good point, Jacquie, one I hadn't considered.

    It takes maturity to appreciate just how special some books and films really are.

  4. I love these French films, although I never saw this one Doug. They used to show quite a lot of these films on Channel 4 when it first started in the 1980s....I saw some brilliant French cinema on TV back then and films like Louis Malle's autobiographical film 'Lacombe Lucien' which remains one of my all time favourite films.

    I was very impressed by the moral ambiguities in the movie, the messy lack of symmetry in lives set against the backdrop of historical "throwness" and the situation that they find themselves in. No black and white goodies versus baddies morality play here, but something far more subtle, appalling and amazing than that, it has the stamp of authenticity to me ,

    This looks another great film with that same bitter-sweet taste of real existence that steadfastly refuses to transport us to a more comforting place for our cinematic catharsis.

    Thanks for posting the clip Doug, another film to watch out for as I scan the cultural horizons looking for something, that is never that far away from my own reality, that I forget I'm watching a film in the first place.

  5. Louis Malle's French work I admit I haven't about to yet, AA. I did see a lot of his English-language work, of which "My Dinner With Andre" (1981), the semi-notorious "Pretty Baby" (1977) and the off-beat drama "Atlantic City" (1980) are his most famous.
    Having just looked up the synposis for "Lacome Lucien" I seeits a film I have to put near the top of my list. Malle experienced the fascist occupation as a youngster and I imagine his intimate feel for the subject is even more straight on than his keen understanding of life on the fringes of American society.

    That's one of the excellent things about "400 Blows" for me; it comes back to you as a real experience in so many scenes. You feel you know this boy as you would a kid in thesame class with you or who lived on the same block or apartment house. This is not like say an adaptation of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" --not that I'm disrespecting Dickens, but he was a giant talent of another sort--with Fagin and Bill Sikes making life miserable for our sweet little lad, Oliver and his crew of fellow corruptibles. Antoine, as you well put it, is an example of a charaacter breakling through the morality play of stage drama or film to a fuller dimension--seeing a part of a life being lived inallits messiness and ennui and occasional excitement as opposed to being pulled from one scene to another by even the best of cinema or literary showmen(women).