400 Blows (1959): Truffaut’s Stunning Debut, Seminal New Wave Film

One of the landmark films that launched the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is a captivating autobiographical study of a Parisian youth who turns to life of small-time crime as a reaction to derelict, neglectful parents (the father is ineffectual, the mother is adulterous) and an uncaring society.

Initially intended as a short, the feature was lengthened by adding numerous scenes from Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, through a rapidly presented series of anecdotes, displaying a dramatic and lyric perspective.

Starring Jean-Pierre Leaud (Truffaut’s alter-ego), this fine character study offers an in-depth portrait of a troubled adolescent with sympathy and insight.  The school and home backgrounds are authentically depicted with fresh observations. The director’s attitude is neutral and non-judgmental; he makes fresh observations without editorial commentary. There is no melodrama in handling the story.

This memory-like film is the cinematic equivalent of an autobiographical first novel.  Truffaut concludes with the celebrated freeze-frame shot, which accentuates the story’s prevalent moral ambiguity and youth’s unknown future.  In it we see Antoine from the back at the edge of the water, facing the infinite sea, with his whole life ahead of him.  This single shot of suspending Antoine the boy in an indeterminate future became one of the most influential devices in world cinema, spawning numerous imitations by both French, American and other directors.

The 400 Blows s dedicated to Andre Bazin, the influential French critic (Cahiers de Cinema) and Truffaut’s personal savoir-mentor, who took him under his wings and launched his critic’s career before dying in 1958.

Truffaut said at the time: “Adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who can’t remember.  When you’re in that difficult age, the thirteenth year is your bad luck time: discovery of injustice, first sexual curiosity left unsatisfied, too early desire for social independence, and often lack of family affection.”

About Truffaut

Truffaut returned several times in the next 20 years to the figure of Antoine Doinel, always played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, including an episode in “Love at Twenty” called “Antoine and Colette” (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), “Bed and Board” (1970), and “Love on the Run” (1979).

Truffaut began his career as a film critic for the prestigious publication Cahiers du Cinema.  Among Truffaut’s many great films are: Jules and Jim (which will be screened next week), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), starring Julie Christie, The Bride Wore Black, with Jeanne Moreau, the Oscar-winning Day for Night, and The Last Metro.  The director is also known for his definitive study, Hitchcock, based on a series of interviews with the Master of suspense.

Truffaut went on to become one of the most important international filmmakers.  His celebrated career was cut short in 1984, when he died of a brain tumor; he was only 52.

Oscar Context

“The 400 Blows” was nominated for the Original Story and Screenplay Oscar (by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy).

 Oscar Context:

 

The winner was the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy, “Pillow Talk” (see review).

 

In 1973, Truffaut won the Best Foreign-Language Oscar for the comedy “Day for Night,” one of the most poignant features about the process of filmmaking and the director’s multiple roles–on and off the set.

Please read reviews of other Truffaut’s films.