THE 400 BLOWS
Review by Ed Nguyen
Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Guy Decomble, Patrick Affay,
Director: François Truffaut
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Features: two commentary tracks, auditions, newsreel, interview excerpts, trailer
Length: 99 minutes
Release Date: May 9, 2006
today when I hear an adult reminiscing regretfully about his childhood, I tend
to think that he has a very poor memory." - François Truffaut
Truffaut was born on February 6, 1932 in Paris, France.
The product of a broken home, the young Truffaut never knew his real
father and did not have a particularly good relationship with his step-father,
either. Not surprisingly, his
childhood years were a troubled and unhappy time for him.
Even later in adolescence, when Truffaut enlisted in the French army, he
repetitively went AWOL. The
military inevitably caught up with him, and Truffaut subsequently spent a great
deal of time in military prison. The
story might well have ended in this forgettable manner for the troublesome teen.
But, in this darkest chapter of Truffaut's youth, a savior appeared who
would alter the course of Truffaut's life and guide him towards a brighter
destiny. That savior was André
Bazin, and the whole cinematic world owes him an eternal debt of gratitude.
Bazin, during the 1950's, was the finest film critic of the day and perhaps the
best ever produced in Europe. His
articles were very sophisticated and wise far beyond his years.
It was once remarked of his reviews, "he writes like he's in his
nineties," truly remarkable praise for a man only in his thirties.
Bazin was also a charitable humanitarian and assisted many throughout his
life. In Truffaut, he somehow
perceived the potential for something better than the young delinquent's current
lot in life. Through Bazin's
efforts, Truffaut was liberated early from his prison sentence, a benevolent
deed which Truffaut never forgot. While
François Truffaut was merely one of many people whom Bazin helped, he was
perhaps the one most ultimately influenced by Bazin's guidance.
gradually came to regard Bazin not only as a mentor but almost as the father he
never had. Encouraged by the film
critic, Truffaut in the early 1950's began to develop his long-time interest in
cinema. Truffaut eventually became
a film critic himself, working for Bazin's own review journal, Cahiers
du Cinéma. As a critic,
Truffaut was known for being direct and sharp-tongued.
In his reviews, he would express great admiration for the works of Jean
Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock while displaying his increasing distress over the
current state of the French film industry.
In 1954, Truffaut wrote a famous article for Cahiers
du Cinéma; that article, Une Certaine
Tendance du Cinéma Français (A
Certain Tendency in French Cinema), lamented the direction of French cinema
and made a plea for a more earnest and personal vision in films.
In a sense, it marked the initial conception of the New Wave, a film
movement whose bold and expressive language would take the cinematic world by
storm only a few years later.
article also expounded upon an idea first developed by Bazin, la
politique des auteurs (the policies of authors).
Truffaut felt that films at the time were dominated too much by their
writers, and that a film's aesthetic value was often erroneously judged by the
extrinsic importance of its Big Theme (social consciousness, racial injustice,
human plight, etc.) rather than its expression or cinematic imagination.
For the auteur theorists, the true merit of a film was not
in its theme or subject matter but rather in the film's treatment
of that subject matter. This auteur
theory, very simply put, submitted
that the director was the predominant creative force behind his film and that
the writer's contribution was essentially neutral. The director, through his mise-en-scène, editing, and
construction of the film, determined the artistic worth of his film.
this mindset, it was not long before Truffaut decided to put his beloved
theories into action and to try his own hand at filmmaking.
His initial directorial efforts in the mid-1950's were one-two reelers,
interesting if not especially lengthy. But
for the next several years, Truffaut would carefully learn the craft of
moviemaking, further honing his skills by assisting the Italian neo-realist
director Roberto Rossellini. Truffaut
anticipated the day when he would be able to unveil the personal form of cinema
for which he had long implored.
1959, at long last, that day arrived. On
a barely-existent budget of $50,000, Truffaut completed and released his first
feature-length film - Les Quatre Cents
Coups (The 400 Blows).
its initial release, The 400 Blows
completely galvanized French cinema. In
fact, from its realistic portrayal of adolescents, unparalleled in earlier films
(or rarely since!), to its shockingly abrupt closing shot, The
400 Blows was so influential that it ushered in a bold and new phase in
cinema, the French New Wave movement. The
film's unusual title was a reference to a French colloquial expression whose
essence, roughly translated, meant to
raise hell, which was of course what the film's central character did quite
often. On an interesting note,
Truffaut's original title for the film had been Antoine's
Fugue, but the eventual title more imaginatively captured the free, new
spirit of the film.
the film's central protagonist, Truffaut created the memorable character of
Antoine Doinel. Antoine was a
hell-raiser, and many of his misadventures in The 400 Blows were drawn from similar, painful events in Truffaut's
own childhood. Truffaut's
truancies, his uncomfortable home environment, his detainment at an obedience
center for minors - these experiences and others were reprised in the film.
Even a scene in which Antoine glimpses his mother's clandestine lover
recalled a similar event from Truffaut's youth.
Thus, Truffaut understandably wanted the right actor to portray Antoine,
as Antoine Doinel was really François Truffaut himself.
of several scores of children who auditioned for the role of Antoine Doinel was
young Jean-Pierre Léaud, himself the product of an acting family.
Léaud had in fact run off from school specifically to audition for the
role. Perhaps Truffaut saw
something of Antoine Doinel's rebellious nature and disregard for authority in Léaud,
for Truffaut eventually rewarded the role of Antoine to the young child actor.
Léaud would in fact portray Antoine Doinel in all the subsequent films
chronicling the character's life.
its time, the semi-autobiographical approach of The 400 Blows was quite revolutionary and offered a degree of
frankness not previously seen before in movies. This honesty, in addition to the film's lack of
sentimentality, melodrama, or pretentiousness, was at the very heart of
Truffaut's ideal of the personal cinema. It
was for this reason that The 400 Blows
was so well received in 1959 and why even today, the film continues to be widely
begins with a brief travelogue of the city of Paris under the opening titles.
There is a fresh, unpolished appearance to this documentary-style
footage, which already signals that this film will be different.
After the credits, the film focuses upon a typical day at l'école
secondaire. The children are bored and fidget in their seats while their
teacher rambles on. They make
gestures behind his back as he scribbles bland nonsense on the blackboard.
They pass pictures amongst themselves while his eyes are averted
elsewhere. Today, however, one of
the students is caught red-handed. That unlucky boy is Antoine Doinel, the film's central
character. For him, this will be
but the first in a long line of indignations.
is chastised by the teacher in front of the entire class.
He is made to stand in the corner and consequently misses recess play.
Bored, Antoine writes on the wall. The
teacher, discovering his handiwork, chastises him again once class resumes and
assigns him extra homework.
in Antoine's home are not significantly better. His young mother cares more for her appearance than for him,
while his stepfather works at the races and is only interested in cars.
They do offer Antoine some parental support, but, for the most part, he
is essentially free to do as he pleases. So,
when Antoine forgets to do his extra homework, he does what any kid might like
to do in his situation - he skips school the next day and goes to watch movies
and visit the fairgrounds instead. Questioned
afterwards by a teacher about his excuse for being absent, he replies, "My
mother is dead." His
spontaneous, obvious fib is discovered soon enough, and once again Antoine finds
himself being punished in front of his classmates, with more promised by his
furious step-father once he returns home.
early glances into a few days of Antoine's life already demonstrate his penchant
for trouble. Nonetheless, Antoine's
greatest flaw is not that he is a delinquent.
In truth, Antoine is not very much different from his classmates, and he
even has several redeeming qualities. For
instance, he is an avid reader and a dutiful son at home, cleaning up and doing
the chores. No, Antoine's main
failure is his inability to exhibit good judgment or to foresee the consequences
for his actions, especially as far as the authority figures in his life are
concerned. The same thing may well
be said for any child, but as fate would have it, Antoine has been specifically
singled out by his teacher and labeled as a troublemaker.
Thereafter, Antoine is under constant scrutiny, and he can do no right.
when his efforts are earnest, his rewards are meager. For a school essay, Antoine quotes from his current favorite
author Balzac. He is consequently
accused of outright plagiarism by his teacher.
He receives an F. Antoine's
situation is one that probably many students have felt at one point or another,
a sense of "Why me? What did I do?"
Antoine is almost resigned to these
daily reprimands, and his judgment falters for it. Fearful of his parents' wrath, he shuns them, taking to the
nocturnal streets of Paris and even stealing a typewriter from his father's
workplace at one point to pawn for money. When
his conscience gets the better of him, Antoine decides to return it, but in
doing so, is caught. By this time,
his parents are fed up with him and ship him off to a disciplinary center for
many aspects of the events in Antoine's life may seem rather depressing, the
genius behind Truffaut's film is that it is not depressing at all.
The film consistently maintains a fresh and breezy ambience that captures
the essence of childhood. The
400 Blows presents its story in such a refreshingly direct fashion that it
often resembles real life rather than a fictional film.
Truffaut preferred to make films as true to life as possible, and The
400 Blows reflects this with its cinéma
audiences of the day, accustomed to the likes of Ben Hur or The Greatest Show
on Earth, the relaxed and casual atmosphere of The 400 Blows must have seemed like a revelation.
Instead of being a gloomy, preachy, heavy-handed drama about a juvenile
delinquent, The 400 Blows was an amusing and whimsical look at the often painful
process of growing up during the adolescent years.
Antoine Doinel was merely trying to find a proper balance between the
need for freedom and self-expression versus the need to conform to society.
It is the universal dilemma for adolescents everywhere.
contains numerous unforgettable scenes and images which reflect the joy and
frustration of being a child. In
one delightful sequence, Antoine has run away to the carnival and hops onto a
centrifugal ride while his friend René watches.
As the ride whips by, the other riders are pressed flat and upright
against the wall, whereas Antoine laughs and crawls all over, ending up in a
goofy, horizontal position as the ride slows down.
It is an ingenuous but candid scene which reveals Antoine's longing to be
slightly different, and what adolescent has never wanted to be different or
rebellious or unique?
of the funniest sequences involves a gym teacher who takes his class out on the
town for exercise. He cheerfully
blows his whistle and jogs on forward, while unbeknownst to him, the loose
procession of students behind him slowly withers away.
Store by store, block by block, they just melt away until only the unwary
teacher and two unlucky students are left. The sequence wondrously captures the mischievous spirit of
childhood that is not limited to Antoine alone. In contrast, compare this to the strict and orderly marches
at the somber disciplinary center, where even minor infractions are showered
two most famous images in The 400 Blows,
however, appear in the latter half of the film. The first is a shot of Antoine, locked in a small holding
cell for vagrancy and theft. Alone
and bored, he pulls his turtleneck sweater partially over his face, peering
dispassionately over the top of the fabric.
A descriptive expression of Antoine's resignation yet also his defiance,
this image came to be symbolic of the French New Wave.
Truffaut himself would use the image again fleetingly in Antoine
second image, however, is the famous closing shot of The 400 Blows, inspired by a similar shot in Ingmar Bergman's Monika.
The 400 Blows ends on two of
the longest continuous shots of the film. Initially,
we see Antoine running away again along a rural path.
He has no set destination, but his sense of liberation, of being free
from parents and teachers or other restraints, drives him forward.
His excursion leads into the next shot, wherein he comes across a
seashore. Earlier in the film, he had expressed a desire to see the
ocean. To Antoine, the ocean, with
its open blue skies and wide unhindered space, was the very vision of true
freedom. So, it is only fitting, as
The 400 Blows comes to a close, that
Antoine should now encounter these coastal waters.
approaches the beach. He enters the
water, then stops and looks around searchingly. The shot freezes. There
is an optical zoom into this freeze-frame that focuses upon Antoine's face.
For several seconds, this famous image is held, then it fades away, and
the film ends. It is a mysteriously abrupt conclusion to the film.
Antoine's expression, in this final shot, is not one of unadulterated
elation but one of thoughtful contemplation.
What does it mean? Is this final shot meant to signify the crossroads at which
Antoine now stands? Is he looking
backwards or looking forward? Is he
perhaps addressing the audience, as if to ask, "what happens now?" Or
perhaps, is it the first true indication of mature introspection in Antoine,
that he is now ready to graduate beyond adolescence? Truffaut offers no direct answers here, of course, but in
leaving this final shot open-ended, he allows the audiences to come to their own
conclusion. This abstract ending is
provocative yet ultimately more emotionally satisfying than any obligatory happy
ending could have been.
as The 400 Blows illustrated a new
change in Antoine Doinel, so it also completed Truffaut's transformation from
unruly youth into a world-class director. At
its premiere in the 1959 Cannes Festival, Truffaut's film won the prize for best
direction, a redeeming triumph for him. Sadly,
his beloved mentor, André Bazin, did not live to see his protégé's great
success. The celebrated film critic
had succumbed to leukemia early during the production of The
400 Blows. He was barely forty
years old. Truffaut, though
devastated, would ultimately dedicate The
400 Blows in lasting tribute to Bazin, the man who had once seen a potential
for greatness in the young, undisciplined Truffaut.
was the very first French film to be photographed in dyaliscope widescreen, a
2.35:1 format similar to the Cinemascope process.
At the time, the widescreen format was still a new and very laborious one
in which to work. Many good
directors avoided the format due to its unwieldiness.
Truffaut, on the other hand, still only in his mid-20's and directing his
very first feature-length film, boldly tackled the new format, not only
conquering it but also crafting a masterpiece in the process.
400 Blows is
presented in a black & white, anamorphic transfer that uses a 35mm composite
fine grain source print to preserve the film's original dyaliscope appearance.
The images are crisp and clear with good contrast levels.
While this film is also available individually from Fox-Lorber, that disc
had an occasionally shaky frame and noticeably jagged compression artifacts.
Criterion's version, on the other hand, has a superior transfer with a
solid frame, minimal debris, and no grossly discernable artifacts.
The film may show some small signs of its age (mostly from some minor
scratches here and there), but this Criterion disc is easily the best
presentation of The 400 Blows
available on DVD.
is something simply wondrous about Jean Constantin's light and jazzy score for The
400 Blows. The music truly enhances the film, helping to create a
magical Parisian setting full of things to do and places to explore, as it might
be seen through the eyes of children.
film's audio is French mono 1.0 and, as such, will not impress many audiophiles.
It's fairly thin and reedy with no low end at all.
My subwoofers never made a sound the entire film.
Dynamic is not the right word here.
Still, fans of the film will be more than pleased with the sound because
it is very clean, without any of the pops or hisses common in these older films.
Given the obvious limitations of the original source audio, this is still
a solid and high-quality job by Criterion.
- Interestingly, The 400 Blows was
originally filmed silently, with the entire soundtrack post-dubbed afterwards!
was once offered as an individual Criterion disc, but now it is only available
as part of The Adventures of Antoine
Doinel boxed set. This being
the case, many of the set's longer features are located elsewhere (on the
supplemental disc), but this DVD is still an exemplary case in point as to why
Criterion DVDs are generally considered the classiest in the business.
the shorter features are a trailer for The
400 Blows and a short 1960 Cinepanorama
interview by Truffaut in which he briefly discusses the film's reception in
various countries including the U.S. There
is also a short interview from Reflets de
Cannes 1959 with young star Jean-Pierre Léaud. It's quaint how he directly addresses the camera after each
question, but he does offer a personal perspective on his experiences during
filming, especially for the intriguing interview scene near the conclusion of The
are also some rare audition tapes of Léaud, Patrick Affay (Antoine's friend René
in the film), and Richard Kanayan (the hapless, ink-spilling kid in the film).
Léaud's spunky, mischievous audition clearly show that he is right for
the role of Antoine. As for Kanayan,
from his amusingly overly-caffeinated audition, it's easy to see the nervous
energy that also appears in his bit part in the film.
longer is a 1965 segment from the French TV programme Cinéastes de notre temps.
In this feature, Truffaut and colleagues discuss his complete fascination
with all things cinematic, from his early days at the movie theaters, to his
critical essays, and lastly to his early films and influences.
These influences included Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo.
The 400 Blows, in particular,
has often been considered a romantic and humanistic film, much like the films of
- In The 400 Blows, Truffaut also pays tribute to Hitchcock's tradition
of making cameo appearances in his own films.
Watch carefully during the carnival ride sequence.
The man to Antoine's left during the ride and smoking a cigarette
afterwards is none other than Truffaut himself!
There are two commentary tracks. The first is by Brian Stonehill. It is an excellent and informative commentary though very scholarly in tone. The other commentary is a interview between Serge Toubiana and Robert Lachenay, one of Truffaut's close friends. This commentary is more casual, although it is entirely in French. Optional subtitles are available for this commentary but they will cut off the film's own subtitles. Viewers who are fluent in French will have no problem, of course, but for non-French speakers, it's an either-or situation.