Film Review – The 400 Blows (1959) by Francois Truffaut

The 400 Blows (French: Les Quatre Cent Coups), directed by François Truffaut in 1959 is one of the defining films of the movement known in film history as the French New Wave. It is Truffaut’s first feature film and is semi-autobiographical. The film is also an example of the auteur theory in which the film-maker uses the camera just as an author would a pen. As such, the film becomes a medium for the director to exhibit his own creative vision through camera techniques and mise-en-scène. The character of Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud is reflective of the film-maker’s own turbulent childhood and adolescence.

The French New Wave was characterized by the film-makers’ rejection of classically accepted film conventions. The movement was largely influenced by Italian Neo-Realism. The term “New Wave” (French:Nouvelle Vague) was coined by French critics, who worked for an influential film magazine called “Cahiers du Cinéma” in the late 1950s. It was a conscious and deliberate rejection of classical cinematic form coupled with a spirit of iconoclasm. A significant aspect of the French New Wave was the camera-as-pen style, in which the camera became the director’s mouthpiece. The use of light-weight cameras facilitated shots on location, which were largely in and around Paris. The 400 Blows is a narrative masterpiece in that it is a paradigm of film from a first person’s perspective.

The 400 Blows, translated in French means “to raise hell”. The film tells the story of a delinquent teenager, Antoine Doinel, who is caught stealing a typewriter, and is sent to a reform school, from which he escapes. The film begins by showing Antoine as having parents that do not care for him. One day, Antoine lies to his teacher at school, telling him that his mother had died. That night itself, he runs away from his home. His hunger leads him to steal a bottle of milk. However, the character manages to attract the audience’s sympathy. At this point in his life, he finds a true friend in René. He is caught and arrested while returning the typewriter that they had stolen. He is then sent to a reform school. His mother does not ask for leniency in the way he is treated there. Instead, she reckons that he is incorrigible and that he deserves a harsh life, to correct himself. But, Antoine runs away.

The film is largely shot on location in Paris, except the last scene which is shot in Normandy. The film makes use of hand-held camera for a large number of scenes. The shots at the beginning of the film, in the classroom are shot by a hand-held camera. In fact, the length of these shots is also comparatively longer than most, as a result of which the classroom becomes much more real to the audience than an alien setting in an artificial time and space. By moving the camera between the rows of desks in the classroom, the filmmaker establishes a close proximity between the students and the audience. Furthermore, the scene where a group of students are jogging behind an instructor, along a street in Paris, and their number keeps decreasing, is a top angle shot, which lasts for almost a minute. It is very well choreographed.

The editing in the film, in accordance with the key feature of the French New Wave, is also at times very unconventional. One notices the “Rule of 180˚” breached quite often, as in the case of many other New Wave films. However, there is an absence of jump-cuts, like those found in Godard’s “Breathless”.

The last scene of the film shows Antoine running away from the reform school. This scene consists of three shots, the first of which lasts for a minute and twenty seconds. Antoine seizes the opportunity to run when the monitor is not looking in his direction at a football match. From then onwards the camera moves along with him, mostly at an angle of 90˚, for almost three minutes, till he reaches the sea, all the while giving the audience a glimpse of the background landscape. The second shot of this scene is very carefully planned and executed. The camera moves ahead of Antoine for the first time in the scene, and pans slightly more than 180˚ to show the sea and after half a rotation comes back to focus on Antoine, running towards the sea, again. The final shot of the film ends with the freeze-frame showing the protagonist, in front of the sea, which he has never seen before, not as a victorious, happy person who has just run away to freedom, but catches him in his moment of anxiety regarding his future.

This film was a huge success, winning numerous awards, including the Best Director award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the Critics Award of the 1959 New York Film Critics’ Circle and the Best European Film Award at 1960’s Bodil Award. It was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1959 Academy Awards. Truffaut would go on to make four more films with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine over the two decades following the release of this film.

Vipul Ralph Shah


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