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  • Post last modified:November 13, 2022

The 400 Blows: This Boy’s Life


Jean-Pierre Léaud. Photo: Cocinor

I do recall watching this movie in film class, but it didn’t have that much of an impact on me at the time. I find that curious because when I saw it again now for the first time in two decades, I struggled to come up with one reason why it didn’t deserve my highest rating. Perhaps the passage of time and the experience it brings had something to do with it. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was tired and irritated after spending the day arguing with readers who thought their contempt of pedophiles gave them the right to label an African director’s highly personal but flawed film about an immigrant girl’s experiences in Paris ”child porn”.

The 400 Blows takes place in that very city, and I was treated to another story about childhood. Unlike Cuties though, this one has no flaws. 

Raising hell in school
We’re introduced to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a boy around the age of 13 who’s struggling in school. Just like all the other boys in class he’s raising hell and getting properly punished for it by one of the teachers. Discipline isn’t his greatest virtue, but there isn’t much in his life to inspire better behavior. The teaching is rigid and incapable of rewarding creativity. At home, Antoine’s relationship with his mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) is poor. At one point, he sees her in the street kissing another man; she’s having an affair, which makes Antoine resent her. His father Julien (Albert Rémy) is a kind, sweet man, but the lack of honesty in the family is palpable. It all leads to more rebellious activity from Antoine… 

Violence from teachers and society
I find that tagline highly amusing; as you might have figured out, it has nothing to do with the French release of the film, but the American, written by PR men who probably wanted to sell the movie as some kind of gangster melodrama. The tagline is an outright lie – it is the boys who are subjected to different kinds of violence, from their teachers and society. Much like the New Wave was a rebellion against a traditional way of making movies, so was The 400 Blows a rebellion against the conservative authorities in France, including how juvenile delinquents were treated. 

Together with Resnai’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour the same year and Godard’s Breathless the following year, the film became the most important example of the French New Wave; this one is head and shoulders above the rest. Dedicated to the memory of André Bazin (who died one day into the shooting), the most important writer on the idea of ”objective reality” in cinema, The 400 Blows shares a similar style with Italian neorealism, which Bazin admired. It is an example of a critic moving successfully into the art of filmmaking, inspired by both his upbringing and predecessors like Jean Vigo’s classic Zero for Conduct (1933), which was an obvious role model for the lively classroom scenes. 

Cinematographer Henri Decaë makes us feel part of it; Jean Constantin’s music score is instantly memorable. 

The Paris locations are all natural and a fascinating look at life in the streets of that city, from the opening shots as we pass the Eiffel Tower to the scenes where Antoine and his best friend are running with a typewriter they just stole (!). Cinematographer Henri Decaë makes us feel part of it; Jean Constantin’s music score is instantly memorable. 

Léaud is terrific in the lead, so good that Truffaut couldn’t let go of him or his onscreen alter ego, Antoine. We would see the boy become a man in three more feature films (starting with Stolen Kisses (1968) and a short, Antoine and Colette (1962)). The final scenes have Antoine running to freedom and end with his arrival on a beach where he suddenly looks into the camera, at us, as if he’s asking ”what now?”. Art-cinema cliché now, unforgettable then. 

The 400 Blows 1959-France. 99 min. B/W. Widescreen. Produced and directed by François Truffaut. Screenplay: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy. Cinematography: Henri Decaë. Music: Jean Constantin. Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Patrick Auffay (René Bigey), Claire Maurier (Gilberte Doinel), Albert Rémy (Julien Doinel), Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy… Jacques Demy, François Truffaut. Voices of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Trivia: Original title: Les quatre cents coups.

Cannes: Best Director. 

Last word: “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.” (Truffaut, The New Yorker)

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