Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"The 400 Blows" (1959) Francois Truffaut's Bittersweet and Honest Reflections on Growing Up

Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) was already an important film critic in Paris by age 27 when he made one of the masterpieces of cinema, "The 400 Blows", his first feature film.

Truffaut was never a political film-maker per se, unlike his most famous contemporary Jean-Luc Godard. Having grown up partly in a childhood of occupied Paris, he adopted the notion that a cop was cop no matter what government was  in control.   An autodidact who never went to a university and struggled in school, the young man drew a great deal from his own experiences as a child estranged from his mother (who couldn't marry Francois biological father because he was a Jew and her family was anti-Semitic)  and his adopted father.  Roland Truffaut was a kind if distracted parent as far as Francois felt, an intellectual and mountaineer who never had much use for the boy when he discovered he wasn't too interested in climbing around the Alps or Kilimanjaro  

 What the boy he was interested in was cinema.  After seeing his first movie at eight, he embarked a few years later on a a self-education program that included seeing three films a day and reading three books a week.  Lacking money and time for the pursuit, he often slipped into movie theaters after skipping school in the afternoon, seeing the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the classics of  Jean Renoir, and Marcel Ophuls, and various standard French films and Hollywood urban crime dramas. He managed in a pre-video age to see some films like "The Rules of the Game" and Marcel Carne's "Children of Paradise" a dozen times! As a critic in the mid-1950s, Truffaut was "adopted" by intellectuals in the Paris cinema and theater world and gained an entrance to Cashiers du Cinema" magazine  on the strength of his writings. He interviewed almost every major film-maker who came to Paris, including Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.  He later co-authored a book of extensive interviews with Hitchcock that cemented the older's man's reputation with critics as someone more than a "master of suspense", rather a true "auteur" of his movies.  They remained life-long friends.
"Les Quatre Centsd Coups" (The 400 Blows) is a title that is close to a French phrase meaning "to raise a little hell", which is exactly what Antione ans his friends do in this honest and unsentimental look at a difficult childhood with small interludes of  enchantment and wonder.

By sixteen he had somehow managed to start his own film club in one of Paris many movie theaters and even rented some movies from the MGM office in Paris with an older friend,  but got into trouble when he had cash flow problems and had to be bailed out by his father.  He spent time in juvenile centers for all the hooky playing and cash flow problems.      After a generally disastrous  year in the French Army, where at one point he unwisely volunteered to be be sent to Indo-China  and deserted before being shipped to Corsica for more combat training , the young Francois used what connections he already had at 18-19 among influential critics like Andre Bazin and Jacques Cocteau to get released from the service after a stint in a military brig. For some young men, this would be a setback--to Truffaut it was a goldmine of life experiences that he would employ to great effect in many of his "Antoine Deloin" films, a semi-autobiographical series of five movies for which "The 400 Blows" (1959) and "Stolen Kisses" (1968) are indisputable classics.

This is one of the most haunting films about coming of age I ever saw.  I wish I had seen it at 12 or 13 first rather than 21  years of age. It still had a profound effect on my psyche for its pure documentary style and lack of artifice any cop-out to a neat resolution.
Like most young boys,  I too went through these difficult times for most kids when they are stuck between authority and their own sense of justice and understanding. It is a voyage of one urban youth, under-loved and in the way at home and overdirected at school who tests   his truth against the hypocrisies of parents, teachers and The Law.  It is a film to be seen for all young people even 50-odd   years on.        


  1. Thanks for posting a review and link to the trailer for this film which I have never seen myself. Interesting right of passage film it seems Doug, I'll have to see it when I can. I do like French New Wave films a lot, they used to show them here on BBC 2 and Channel Four in the 1970s and 80s...i.e. before the British TV was as dumbed down as it now is. I have always admired the gritty realism and existential notion of Being in these monochrome French masterpieces. Having said that I particularly remember fondly 'Lacombe Lucien' a later colour film by Louis Malle which was shown on BBC2 I think sometime back in the early 80s. I have counted it as one of my favourite films ever since. I also admire the understated everyday 'normalness' which is quite different in flavour to the working class 'normalness' in English kitchen sink dramas, somehow the French is more trancendental in these movies where the magic in the mundane seems to be the underlying and even the central theme. I was influenced early on by The Red Balloon which was probably the first French film I ever saw (again on TV when I was very young) and I loved it for all the reasons I've already said, its charm and deep simplicity. Thanks for posting a reminder of the joys of French cinema and indeed French culture, something I have taken an interest in since I was a boy and started reading novels by Zola and Sartre, stories which have that same transcendental normalness about them to me as the films do, it's an intriguing mix I think Doug.

    1. Thanks for your insightful comments, AA. You are the second person in a week who has recommended a Louis Malle film I haven't seen yet, and I must admit I've only seen his English-language films "Pretty Baby", "My Dinner With Andre" and the modern film noir "Atlantic City" with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, his most famous film over here. So needless to say I need to get my arse to the local DVD rental shop and see if they have that movie!
      A national cable television network station, Turner Classics, recently dedicated each Friday evening to a showing of Truffaut's films. It was great for me because I think I've finally seen almost all of his films now, including my favorite again ("Day for Night") and others like the disturbing but engrossing "Two English Girls" (1971) and his thriller "The Woman Next Door" (1981), for the first time. I felt a connection to Truffaut initially from his acting role as Doctor Lacombe in Steven Spielberg UFO film "Close Encounters of a Third Kind" (1977), a film that was nothing short of a revelation to me and remains my favorite science fiction film. It deals with both the fear and awe of humanity discovering life outside our tiny sphere, and how by the way world governments would panic and try to keep a lid on the matter. I love the film in part because it shows us that other beings might not be terrible creatures, but simply might come to us to teach us something, a hope that sanity reigns stronger in another part of the universe that we could take a page from. Truffaut was quite a good actor too and well-cast in a small role.

      "400 Blows" is on most people's best film list from this period, of course, but Francois Truffaut is, for me, like his older friend Sir Alfred Hitchcock, a director incapable of making a dull film.

      Good for you for reading some works by Emile Zola, something I still haven't done. I'm sure Truffalt I did get the sense of what you call "transcendental normalness" from reading Flaubert's 'Sentimental Education' and 'Madame Bovary'. I agree you're right about that French ability to grasp the ordinary and make us see life as it is just as what it is and not go so heavy into symbolism or pointed representation. I think that is a legacy of their literature of which our subject here grasped so well. Some European and Americans directors try hard, but here in "400 Blows" we see a talent doing it so well at his first crack at a feature. A rare bird indeed was Truffaut, and one director I miss like I do John Lennon because he simply was irreplaceable.

      I also fondly remember seeing "The Red Balloon" years ago on a children's television program.

      Thanks for your comments AA.

    2. Typo correction time: I meant to say I read the novels by Flaubert, although I'm sure the director did too, and even probably read them in French! :-)

  2. Hi Doug...........I've never seen this movie ( or read the book) although in my defence I did read a little Emile Zola sometime in the distant past. I'm really glad you did this review, we do have a specialist cinema near here where little known French and European films are shown and I've often thought I should spend more time there. This is one I will look out for, hopefully if I keep checking the programme I'll be able to see it some time soon. I really enjoy films but often struggle to find something I think I'll like amongst the box office hits and latest releases, But for now, I'll carry on watching this in bits on youtube
    Thanks again Doug

    1. I'm glad you were inspired about Truffaut's work. You're ahead of me on Zola, it seems, but I take take comfort I'm still out front of some of my fellow bloggers on seeing Truffaut's films. :-)

      Yes, there is a struggle to find anything watchable on the new film releases---I think it's great you have a "specialist/revival" cinema near you. I wish I did as well, but I did get to see a lot of the better older movies like "400 Blows" on the big screen down near San Francisco so I have little to complain about. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy whatever is available of this gem of a movie on You Tube.

    2. Oh, and thanks Loretta for your blogs as well.