Directed By: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier
Trivia: The title of the film comes from the French idiom "faire les quatre cents coups", meaning "to raise hell"
Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Francois Truffaut was a rather vociferous movie critic, writing for, among others, the French periodical Cahiers du Cinema. His reviews were often scathing, and rubbed some in the French film industry the wrong way, so much so that he was barred from attending the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. One year later, his debut film, The 400 Blows not only premiered at Cannes, but also won Truffaut the award as the Festival’s best director.
The 400 Blows was the first of five Truffaut-directed pictures to center on the exploits of Antoine Doinel, who, in each one, was played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. As the story opens, Doinel is a fourteen-year-old Paris schoolboy whose reputation as a troublemaker is well known. He’s constantly being disciplined at school, and has even skipped class on a number of occasions to hang out with his friend, Rene (Patrick Auffay). Antoine’s home life is equally as unstable. His mother, Gilberte (Claire Maurier), resents her son’s presence and treats him harshly, whereas his adopted father, Julien (Albert Rémy), makes several attempts to connect with the boy, though he, too, can be distant at times. As his behavior worsens, everyone agrees a drastic change is in order, one that will hopefully set Antoine back on the straight and narrow.
The 400 Blows was something of an autobiographical work for Truffaut, who was raised by his mother and step-father and got into his share of trouble as a child. This basis in fact brings an honest feel to the movie, an openness that extends to the main character. Though occasionally the victim of adult tyranny, there are also moments in The 400 Blows where we’re shocked by Antoine’s behavior. When chastised by a teacher (Guy Decomble) for missing school the day before, Antoine lies and tells him he was absent because his mother had died. Of course, as Truffaut points out, those surrounding Antoine must share the blame for his questionable conduct. His parents are, at best, indifferent to him, while his teachers are so busy pontificating on the failures of the parents that they miss their opportunity to correct the situation. Everything in The 400 Blows is presented in a highly realistic fashion, with an almost documentary-like approach. There are no tearful confessions, no life-affirming changes; Antoine remains, from start to finish, a lost child, as evident in the famous final shot: a freeze-frame of the boy running aimlessly along a beach, leaving us to wonder how long it will be before he finds his way in the world.
Unlike his New Wave counterpart, Jean-Luc Godard, whose movies were often revolutionary in their structure, Francois Truffaut always maintained a level of emotional control over his films, almost all of which were, if nothing else, sincere. The 400 Blows served as our introduction to both this gifted director and his unique vision, and, as such, is a motion picture to be treasured.