“Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.”
François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” has been so much written about that I don’t know what else I can add to the mix. It’s one of the most important films in cinema, at the vanguard of the French New Wave, which many consider to be the beginning of contemporary film as we know it. What I’ve always been struck by in my repeated viewings throughout my life is how fresh and vital it remains. It’s a poignant and groundbreaking work of art and of particular interest to me is the role that movies themselves play for the main character. Seeing it for the umpteenth time a couple of nights ago it felt as if it was just made yesterday. Truffaut has such command.
It is a coming of age story, but it could be the best example of it. One memorable scene in a film full of many has always been my favorite for its impact and artistry. I’ve spoken before about metaphors in film, figurative comparisons in which the filmmaker conveys the crux of the themes in his movie in a visual scene. Here, our main protagonist, Antoine has skipped school with his best friend and they go to a carnival and take a spinning ride called a “rotor.” The camera stays on him as the ride starts, and then we see his point of view as he sees the crowd above looking at him circling and picking up speed. The contraption gathers such velocity that Antoine starts to levitate off the ground, and he bursts into a smile – the first time we see this fourteen-year old so full of joy. He attempts with all of his might to turn himself upside down, going fully against the forces of gravity and he doesn’t succeed. In that passage, we get the journey of this young adolescent who longs to break free from the constrictions and who wants to be himself. It’s a beautiful allegorical moment. The ride ends and Antoine goes back to the real world. As he exits the ride, you can catch a glimpse of François Truffaut himself making a Hitchcockian cameo.
Truffaut’s work is undeniably autobiographical. Antoine undergoes many of the situations that the director experienced growing up. We follow him living in Paris with his mother, Gilberte (Claire Maurier), and his stepfather, Julien (Albert Rémy) — who gave him his name. “Speaking of kids, what’ll we do with this one for the summer?” asks dad in front of Antoine. They live in a very cramped apartment and both parents are distracted by work, and parenting Antoine is a nuisance. We get the feeling that Antoine’s arrival was not planned and that his mother is slightly bothered by his presence. There’s even a moment where she has to step over his bed when she comes home late at night from an adulterous affair she’s been carrying on, and one that Antoine is aware of, for he caught her kissing in the streets.
At school things are not better. The curmudgeon teacher has it against him, and Antoine seems to have the luck of always getting into trouble. He lies a lot, and finds himself wanting to skip classes. He finds refuge at the movies which he attends with his close friend, and he has a kindred feeling for the writer Balzac. He builds a shrine in his room (unfortunately it leads to a close call with a fire). Lies, petty thefts and misunderstandings with his family lead him to juvenile delinquency and eventually he’s sent to the Paris Observation Center for Minors. There’s a longing to break free from conformity, to make your mark, to be loved, to belong, to leap the awkwardness of childhood and embrace the future and adulthood. All the blows that he’s receiving will ultimately liberate him and make the artist that Truffaut will become. The last ten minutes are spectacular and some of the most extraordinary moments in cinema history, as important as Dorothy opening that door unto Oz. Antoine escapes from the Center for Minors and the camera follows him on a tracking shot as he runs outdoors. We continue running with him as he starts to see the expanse around him. It all leads to the ocean, where he hadn’t been before and the screen takes it all in as he does. He runs towards it and then Antoine turns to us, and moves towards the camera. We lock eyes with him and Truffaut zooms in on his face and does a freeze frame. It is a stunning way to end his film. Defiant. The whole world ahead of him. The artist is born.
There are so many other scenes and moments that are so beautiful in “The 400 Blows.” The opening sequence shows a camera circling different sections of Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background. There are cuts and turns in the trajectory, but the top of the tower is always peeking, until the travels lead us close to it and we navigate it from below.
Antoine Doinel : “After this I can’t live with my parents anymore. I’ve got to disappear.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy and The Criterion Channel and to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon Prime.
Written by François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
Directed by François Truffaut
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier
Screenwriter and Director François Truffaut on “The 400 Blows”
“When I was shooting “Les Mistons,” “The 400 Blows” already existed in my mind in the form of a short film, which was titled “Antoine Runs Away.” It was because I was disappointed by “Les Mistons,” or at least by its brevity. You see, I had come to reject the sort of film made up of several skits or sketches. So I preferred to leave “Les Mistons” as a short and to take my chances with a full-length film by spinning out the story of “Antoine Runs Away.” Of the five or six stories I had already outlined, this was my favorite, and it became “The 400 Blows.” “Antoine Runs Away” was a twenty-minute sketch about a boy who plays hooky and, having no note to hand in as an excuse, makes up the story that his mother has died. His lie having been discovered, he does not dare go home and spends the night outdoors. I decided to develop this story with the help of Marcel Moussy, at the time a television writer whose shows for a program called “If It Was You” were very realistic and very successful. They always dealt with family or social problems. Moussy and I added to the beginning and the end of Antoine’s story until it became a kind of chronicle of a boy’s thirteenth year—of the awkward early teenaged years.
In fact, “The 400 Blows” became a rather pessimistic film. I can’t really say what the theme is—there is none, perhaps—but one central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about “the good old days,” the salad days of youth. Because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories. Now, when I feel blue, I tell myself, “I’m an adult. I do as I please,” and that cheers me up right away. But then, childhood seemed like such a hard phase of life; you’re not allowed to make any mistakes. Making a mistake is a crime: you break a plate by mistake and it’s a real offense. That was my approach in “The 400 Blows,” using a relatively flexible script to leave room for improvisation, mostly provided by the actors. I was very happy in this respect with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, who was quite different from the original character I had imagined. And as we improvised more, the film became more pessimistic, then—in brief spurts, as a contrary reaction—so high-spirited that it almost became optimistic.”…All I can say is that nothing in it is invented. What didn’t happen to me personally happened to people I know, to boys my age and even to people that I had read about in the papers. Nothing in “The 400 Blows” is pure fiction, then, but neither is the film a wholly autobiographical work.
…As for my method of writing, I started making “script sheets” when I began work on “The 400 Blows.” School: various gags at school. Home: some gags at home. Street: a few gags in the street. I think everyone works in this way, at least on some films. You certainly do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, in my case, was often based on memories. I realized that you can really exercise your memory where the past is concerned. I had found a class photo, for example, one in the classic pose with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could remember the names of only two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning over a period of several days, I remembered all my classmates’ names, their parents’ jobs, and where everybody lived. It was around this time that I met Moussy and asked him if he’d like to work with me on the script of “The 400 Blows.” Since I myself had played hooky quite a bit, all of Antoine’s problems with fake notes, forged signatures, bad report cards—all of these I knew by heart, of course. The movies to which we truants went started at around ten in the morning; there were several theaters in Paris that opened at such an early hour. And their clientele was made up almost exclusively of schoolchildren! But you couldn’t go with your schoolbag, because it would make you look suspicious. So we hid our bags behind the door of the theater. Two of these movie houses faced each other: the Cinéac-Italiens and the New York. Each morning around nine-forty-five, there would be fifty or sixty children waiting outside to get in. And the first theater to open would get all the business because we were anxious to hide. We felt awfully exposed out there in the middle of all that…” (newyorker.com)
The Making of “The 400 Blows”
In the late 1950s a group of iconoclastic young French film critics who had been attacking the established French cinema began to make their own very personal films. Among them was Francois Truffaut, just 26 years old, who had first proposed what came to be known as the auteur theory – that the director is the author of a film. For his first feature, Truffaut dug deep into his own troubled childhood to paint an unforgettable portrait of an adolescent whose resilience is tested by unloving parents and clueless teachers. The French title of “The 400 Blows” (1959) comes from the idiom, “faire les quatre cents coups,” meaning “to raise hell.”…As Truffaut put it, “I wanted to express this feeling that adolescence is a bad moment to get through.” “The 400 Blows” was shot in less than two months, in real locations, for only $50,000. (tcm.com)
About Composer Jean Constantin
Jean Constantin was a French singer, songwriter, and composer best known for writing Edith Piaf’s 1958 song “Mon Manège à Moi (Tu Me Fais Tourner la Tête)” and for composing the soundtrack of François Truffaut’s 1959 film Les Quatre Cents Coups. Born on February 9, 1923, in Paris, France, Constantin was primarily active during the 1950s and ’60s in both the music and film industries. Charles Aznavour’s “À T’regarder” (1955) and Zizi Jeanmaire’s “Mon Truc en Plumes” (1956) were among the first instances of his songs becoming popularized. Edith Piaf’s 1958 performance of his song “Mon Manège à Moi” (“Tu Me Fais Tourner la Tête”) would become the most enduring instance of his craftsmanship as a songwriter. Perhaps even more enduring is the soundtrack he composed for François Truffaut’s 1959 film “Les Quatre Cents Coups” (known in English as “The 400 Blows”), one of the defining films of the French New Wave movement. Among the best-known singers to perform his songs over the years are Yves Montand (“Barcarolette,” “Ellington Quarante et Love,” “L’Enfant Ébloui,” “Le Simple Jardinier,” “Ma Gigolette,” “Mon Manège à Moi,” “Napoli Jolie”) and Petula Clark (“Che Sbadato,” “En Juillet,” “Ne Joue Pas,” “Tango de l’Esquimau”). Despite his success as a songwriter and composer, Constantin had little success as a singer himself. Though his solo output is quite obscure, some highlights of it were compiled for release by BMG on the best-of collection “Les Plus Belles Chansons” (1994). Constantin died on January 30, 1997, in Noisy-le-Grand, Seine-Saint-Denis, France. (allmusic.com)
About Writer and Director François Truffaut
Truffaut was born into a working-class home. His own troubled childhood provided the inspiration for “Les Quatre Cents Coups” (1959; “The 400 Blows”), a semi-autobiographical study of a working-class delinquent. It is the first of the Antoine Doinel series, tracing its hero’s evolution from an antisocial anguish to a happy and settled domesticity. When it won the best direction prize at the 1959 Cannes film festival, Truffaut was established as a leader of the French cinema’s New Wave—a term for the simultaneous presentation of first feature films by a number of French directors—a tendency that profoundly influenced the rising generation of filmmakers around the world. The New Wave marked a reaction against the commercial production system: the well-constructed plot, the limitations of a merely craftsman-like approach, and the French tradition of quality with its heavy reliance on literary sources. Its aesthetic theory required every detail of a film’s style to reflect its director’s sensibility as intimately as a novelist’s prose style retraces the workings in depth of his mind—hence the term le camera-stylo (“camera-pen”). The emphasis lay on visual nuance, for, in keeping with a general denigration of the preconceived and the literary, the script was often treated less as a ground plan for a dramatic structure than as merely a theme for improvisation. Improvised scenes were filmed, deploying the visual flexibility of newly developed television equipment (e.g., the handheld camera) and techniques (e.g., extensive post synchronization of dialogue). The minimization of costs encouraged producers to gamble on unknown talents, and the simplicity of means gave the director close control over every aspect of the creative process, hence Truffaut’s term auteur, or film author.
Outside his art, Truffaut was reticent about his private life, although it is known that he left school at age 14 and worked in a factory before being sent to a reformatory. His interest in the cinema, however, brought him to the attention of critic André Bazin, doyen of the monthly avant-garde film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. After Truffaut enlisted in the military and then was imprisoned for attempting to desert, Bazin helped him secure a discharge and incorporated him into the magazine’s staff. For eight years Truffaut asserted himself as the most truculent critic of the contemporary French cinema, which he considered stale and conventional, and advocated a cinema that would allow the director to write dialogue, invent stories, and, in general, produce a film as an artistic whole in his own style. Thus, he was influential in the cinema world before he actually made a film. Like his leading character in “Baisers volés” (1968; “Stolen Kisses”), another film in the Doinel series, he was expelled from his military service. Again, like Doinel in “Domicile conjugale” (1970; “Bed & Board”), he married and became a father. Truffaut’s initial creative effort, the short piece “Les Mistons” (1958; “The Mischief Makers”), depicted a gang of boys who thoughtlessly persecute two young lovers. It met with sufficient appreciation to facilitate his first feature-length film, “Les Quatre Cents Coups.” An evocation of the adolescent’s pursuit of independence from a staid adult world of conformity and protocol, for which Truffaut evinced a romantic sympathy, the film proved to be one of the most popular New Wave films, especially in England and the United States, where he received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. Two tenderly pessimistic studies in sexual tragedy followed— “Tirez sur le pianiste” (1960; “Shoot the Piano Player”), adapted from a 1956 American crime novel (“Down There” by David Goodis), a genre for which Truffaut displayed great admiration, and “Jules et Jim” (1962). During this time he also made a second short, “Une Histoire d’eau” (1961; “A Story of Water”), a slapstick comedy for which Jean-Luc Godard developed the conclusion. After this burst of creativity, he seemed to have a period of hesitation.
All of his later works, however, were intensely personal and explored one of two themes: studies in forlorn childhoods—e.g., the Doinel saga and “L’Enfant sauvage” (1970; “The Wild Child”)…and sensitive melodramas sadly celebrating disastrous confrontations between shy heroes and boldly emancipated or possessive women…A certain hero worship, also, is discernible in Truffaut’s long published conversations with the veteran British American filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, rev. ed. 1984), whose work he admired in complete defiance of his earlier theories. Of Truffaut’s features, only “Fahrenheit 451” (1966), a film version of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction novel, falls outside these categories, though it relates to the American style and the poetic-melodramatic form. Through his production company, Les Films du Carrosse, Truffaut co-produced, among other films, Godard’s first feature and Jean Cocteau’s last. His own later films included “La Nuit américaine” (1973; “Day for Night”), for which both his direction and screenplay received Oscar nominations; “Le Dernier Métro” (1980; “The Last Metro”); and “Vivement dimanche” (1983; Confidentially Yours”)…Two autobiographical books, “Les Films de ma vie” (1975; “The Films of My Life”) and “Truffaut par Truffaut” (1985; “Truffaut by Truffaut”), shed further light on Truffaut’s philosophy and modus operandi. (britannica.com)