Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The 400 Blows (1959)

Title: The 400 Blows (1959)

Director: Francois Truffaut

Cast: Jean Pier Leaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Remy


In real life Francois Truffaut, the French director behind The 400 Blows and one of the finest French directors whoever lived, was always a rebel.  He displayed his rebellious tendencies from a very young age, which is probably why the main character in The 400 Blows -a 14 year old kid by the name of Antoine Doinel- is a rebel through and through. He doesn’t like going to school, he considers it a waste of time though he himself is obviously an intelligent young man, he smokes, he steals, he cuts class, in short, not necessarily what we’d call a model citizen. The title of the film refers to a French expression which means 'to live the wild life', so right there we can see what kind of a character we're going to be meeting in this film. The character of Antoine Doinel is a reflection of Truffaut’s own childhood, which makes The 400 Blows a very personal film for Truffaut. This is probably why the film rings so true, so real. When you see The 400 Blows you feel as though you are that little boy, because he talks and behaves the way a real 14 year old kid would. This genuine quality, this truthfulness, this sincerity is what makes this, Truffaut’s first full length feature film such a wonderful and endearing experience.

Truffaut’s rebellious nature continued on all through out his life, I was watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) the other night (a fine film I will be reviewing in the next couple of days) and in it, we meet three characters, Matthew the American who arrives in France as a student, and his new French friends Theo and Isabelle. All three of them meet outside a theater because they are all film buffs. But it just so happens that the French government is closing down movie theaters because the government recognizes the power of film and considers it a threat. Film makes the young generation think and that isn’t a good thing in the eyes of the government. So in The Dreamers these characters find themselves in the middle of a cultural revolution, and guess who is right there in the middle of the revolution amongst all the other filmmakers and poets? Fighting for the right to watch films? That’s right, one Francois Truffaut!  Bertolucci even includes real documentary footage of these events in the film, where we see Truffaut amongst other famous film directors of the time protesting against the oppression! I mention this just as a way to show what a revolutionary Truffaut was. Along with other filmmakers of his day like say Jean Luc Godard, Truffaut used his films to express his points of views and express what he felt was wrong with the world he lived in.

Francois Truffaut

With The 400 Blows Truffaut wanted to achieve various things, amongst them he wanted to capture what it meant to be a rebellious little trouble maker back in those days. We meet Antoine in the classroom as he passes pornographic material to his classmates, unfortunately, he is the one caught with the material in class. Antoine is a fascinating character because he is a child and usually, children are so truthful with what they say, usually they aren’t prejudiced, they simple say and do what they truly feel. In Antoine Doinel’s case, he wants to turn his back on the world the way it is. He can’t stand school yet  he actually enjoys reading a good book, he is miles ahead of his class, way ahead of what they are teaching him in school, which speaks a lot about the school system which in my opinion doesn’t really prepare children that well for what’s really awaiting them out there in the world. Antoine educates himself! Antoine is a character that gives his back to the things he considers a waste of time, he would much rather be out there in the world getting a job. He’d rather have a day of enjoyment with his best bud in the city, going to arcades and getting on wild rides in the fair, enjoying life.

I enjoyed that about this movie. It doesn’t portray Antoine as a perfect character with 100% admirable traits. Antoine is actually far from that, he is imperfect; he steals and lies through his teeth, which is the way a lot of 14 year old kids are. Antoine isn’t the picture perfect ‘Leave it to Beaver’ type of kid, nope. He smokes cigarettes and cuts class. He runs away from home and lies to his parents. This is an honest portrayal of what a kid at that age is, mischievous and curious to the max. The film also shows us the road that mischievous behavior can lead us to, as Antoine ends getting a taste of the long arm of the law.  In this way, the film plays around with similar themes to the ones explored in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), where we see a young man go through the whole process of getting caught by the police and going to jail. So it’s the kind of film that explores the realities of the way young kids are treated when they commit a crime in France during the 50’s.

This film exhibits many of the traits that distinguish the New Wave Movement, in fact if I’m not mistaken it’s actually one of the films, if not THE film that started the whole thing. As a result, the film was shot in the streets of France, and using little to no sets. I must say, the photography of the city of France in this film is really beautiful. This is something I enjoy about New Wave films and those films of the Italian Neo Realism, they show us the way countries and people where back in those days because they’d shoot these films in real locations. Keeping true to the traits of the New Wave Truffaut experiments with new ways of telling a story through film, one scene actually includes an interview to Antoine done to him by a psychologist in which he reveals the reasons for his rebelliousness. In reality, these scenes were actually the screen test done to the young actor, in which Truffaut was the interviewer. Truffaut simply switched his voice with that of the psychologist; the footage comes off as truthful, performance wise it feels like real life. Jean Pierre Leaud, the young actor who plays Antoine does a fantastic job in this film; he comes off as completely likable; so self reliant at such a young age. He went on to become one of the best French actors, actually, Truffaut and Leaud made three more films with the Antoine character, in each film we see Antoine at a different moment of his life, an amazing idea I might add.

A Night Out in the City with Mom and Dad!

The film explores family dynamics during trying difficult times. How does earning little money affect the middle class/poor family; those that struggle? In the film, Antoines family lives in a small, cramped apartment. The mother is portrayed as coming home, tired, in bad humor. In contrast, the father comes home with great humor, very jovial, I enjoyed the relationship between father and son, they come off as friends. In this way it was similar to the kind of relationship displayed in The Bicycle Thieves (1948), which is also a film about a father and a son who give themselves emotional support during trying times. A memorable scene in The 400 Blows has the family simply going out for a night in the big city, it's a very beautiful scene where we see the family simply enjoying each others company, laughing and being silly with each other. It brought to mind going out with my family in similar situations. And ultimately, that’s what works so well about The 400 Blows; it will make you remember when you were that age and the situations and worries you had back then. Truffaut effectively captured what it feels like to be 14 years old with great detail, my hats off to this master filmmaker for making such an endearing and special film. The 400 Blows is certainly one of the finest films ever made. 

Rating: 5 out of 5

Running away from the world, until he can run no more! 


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Good to see the early flowerings of the French New Wave represented on your site Franco! Truffaut's films have always left me a little cold; I find them to be a bit too sentimental at times, though admittedly this isn't entirely the case with THE 400 BLOWS. This is mostly due to the freeze frame that ends the film, a haunting shot full of uncertainty for the future.

There are two layers to this film; the highlight socio/political content of the film itself, and the films status as one of the major early successes of the French New Wave and all the baggage that came with it - the opposition to the 'Tradition of Quality', the 'Autuer Theory' which Truffaut himself proposed in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, and also the self interest of the critics who through their combative writing paved the way for their own careers.

But that really that's all beside the point, interesting to scholars, but the film itself is what is important. An interesting companion piece to this is Maurice Piliat's L'ENFANCE NUE which I reviewed some time back. It also deals with alienated young boy who finds himself pushed from pillar to post in various foster homes.

Betosky82 said...

If there is such a thing as a perfect movie, or filmmaking as art, this might be it

Franco Macabro said...

I loved that final sequence where Antoine runs towards the ocean, to me it felt as if he was trying to get away from everything as much as he could until he could run no more and the ocean stops him, so symbolic.

I'll have to read a bit about the 'Autuer Theory' I've heard the term, but dont exactly know what its about. I do love how passionate these New Wave French filmmakers were about Cinema, I mean they were obsessed with it, they literally lived and breathed films with a passion that isnt seen in a lot of todays Hollywood filmmakers. They took their craft very seriously, and they used it as a means to express their disgust with the way things where in those days...I'm going to be talking a bit about this passionate filmmaking in my review for The Dreamers (1993) hopefully it will be up by tomorrow.

I find it fascinating that a lot of these New Wave guys used to be film buff/critics themselves!

I'll check out your review for L'enfance Nue thanks for pointing it out.

LLJ said...

Not only is this film important to the French New Wave, it also pretty much set the template for almost every indie "coming of age" youth flick ever since. I've seen hundred and hundreds of coming of age movies (and anime) that have lifted shots, dialogue almost entire scenes from The 400 Blows.

eddie lydecker said...

The freeze frame at the end of this movie might be impressive and legendary but i still think the freeze frame at the end of the 1980 Bette Midler movie "Divine Madness" is a better one, in fact i think its the greatest freeze frame of all-time, with Midler in mid-air (as it were).

Franco Macabro said...

@LLJ: Certainly, I'm sure this film is quite influential, could you mention some of those films LLJ? I thought of 'If...' as I watched it because it was quite similar in premise as well.

@Eddie Lydecker: Ending the movie with a freeze frame is a popular technique, it's kind of shocking in a way. Lucio Fulci uses it a lot for example in his movies because it works wonders in a horror movie.

LLJ said...

Other films that owe a debt to 400 Blows (either indirectly or directly through lifting shots, themes, etc):

Bille August's Zappa and to a lesser extent, its sequel Twist and Shout

Cao Hamburger's The Year my Parents Went on Vacation

Nagisa Oshima's Boy

...are ones that immediately come to mind right now. The thing is, prior to The 400 Blows, most films about kids were Hollywood-style rite-of-passage films. You know, innocent kid from a normal family becoming a better and wiser person, etc,. The 400 Blows took a grittier approach and started a trend of films about kids who were troubled and/or even unlikeable and discovering the world isn't much better.

As for my mentioning of my favourite Ghibli films--which I watched again recently--Only Yesterday, also recalls The 400 Blows at times, in terms of themes about unidealized childhoods and social and domestic pressures on the child, ultimately leaving them lost and drifting. Incidentally, the ending also features a final shot of the main child protagonist looking towards the camera, although in this film it is a shot filled with hope, rather than pessimism.

Incidentally, it should be mentioned that there were a few sequels to The 400 Blows, all of them directed by Truffaut and most of them featuring Antoine as an adult. They're pretty hit or miss, but worth a look to see how this character develops.

LLJ said...

"Incidentally, it should be mentioned that there were a few sequels to The 400 Blows, all of them directed by Truffaut and most of them featuring Antoine as an adult. They're pretty hit or miss, but worth a look to see how this character develops"

Sorry, you mentioned this in your review and I somehow missed it. Never mind!

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for mentioning all of those films, I enjoy coming of age stories a lot, they feel truthful because most of the time they come from a very real place.

I haven't seen the ones you mentioned, so I'll try and get my hands on some of them.

I'm very curious for those sequels to The 400 Blows where we see Antoine in different stages of his life, it sounds like such an interesting idea to see the same actor playing the same character at different stages of his life.

Amazing how Jean Pier Leaud ended up being such a prominent actor and a true defender of cinema! Recently I also saw him (much much older of course) in Bertolucci's The Dreamers. He played a protester defending culture and the right to watch films! Loved that cameo, great movie by the way, I'll be placing a review for it at some point today.


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