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THE 400 BLOWS
Blu-ray Edition

Film review by Ed Nguyen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Guy Decomble, Patrick Affay, Georges Flamant
Director: François Truffaut
Audio: LPCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date:
April 8, 2014

"Even today when I hear an adult reminiscing regretfully about his childhood, I tend to think that he has a very poor memory." - François Truffaut

Film ****

François 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.

André 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.

Truffaut 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.

Truffaut's 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.

With 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.

In 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).

In 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.

For 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.

One 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.

For 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 admired.

The 400 Blows 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.

Antoine 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.

Conditions 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.

These 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.

Even 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 minors.

While 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 verité style. 

To 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.

The 400 Blows 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?

One 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 with punishment.

The 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 and Colette.

The 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.

Antoine 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.

Much 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.

Video *** 1/2

It keeps getting better and better...Criterion has done a fabulous job with this Blu-ray transfer, which really delivers Truffaut's black and white imagery with surprising cleanness and crispness.  The print is well restored, and the darker and lighter depictions are strikingly rendered.  This is one of the best classic black and white offerings I've yet seen!

Audio ***

The uncompressed audio is a revelation...though original mono, there is a new depth and clarity to the sound, from the breezy jazzy score to the dialogue and effects.  This has more dynamic range than most mono tracks, and nothing sounds thin or compressed.  Very impressive!

Features ****

The disc includes two audio commentaries, one by cinema professor Brian Stonehill, and another from Truffaut's friend Rober Lachenay.  There is audition footage of Jean-Pierre Leaud, Patrick Auffay and Richard Kanayan, newsreel footage of Leaud at the Cannes Film Festival, a television interview with Truffaut and a TV program excerpt, plus the original trailer.  The booklet contains an essay by scholar Annette Insdorf.

Summary:

Truffaut's masterpiece The 400 Blows is universally recognized as one of the finest films ever made about adolescence.  Now, with this stunning Blu-ray offering from Criterion, there's never been a better way to view this seminal classic at home.

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