Hailed as one of the most successful and iconic films of the French New wave, The 400 Blows is a drama film starring Jean-Piere Léaud and directed by François Truffaut. Historically, this film was the first great popular success of the French New Wave and is intrinsically tied to the stylistic innovations of the movement itself. For the director, the film was a semi-autobiography and many agree that it was his best work. The film follows the life of a misunderstood adolescent as he descends toward a lifestyle full of vices, propelled and/or justified by the series of unfortunate events.
In the beginning of the film, Antoine is portrayed as the average mischievous child, sitting in a class with his peers, passing around a pinup. What sets him apart is his bad luck, he is the one caught with it and not allowed to have recess. From this, he is evoked by this to write a verse on the wall, which leads to him being revoked by the teacher with ” erase those insanities, or I’ll make you lick it off!”.
At home, more of Antoine’s character is revealed. Antoine is shown doing chores and he sets the table for dinner. He seems to be more well behaved at home; Antoine behaves differently depending on his relationship with the person and he has a desire to please his parents.
The many reflections of Antoine show that he has many different aspects to his personality, showing his complex character. This shot has a strong aesthetic value, and shows Truffaut’s mastery of storytelling through camerawork.
The fake black out shot of Antoine emptying the garbage. In the next shot, Antoine is seen turning the light on again – a realistic presentation of what living in France was like in the 50’s – grim, dingy and crowded. Truffaut wanted to capture France from the perspective of a native, unlike the films romanticizing France as a tourist destination.
Antoine in a graviton, a spinning contraption that acts on the basis of centrifugal force. A point of view shot of Rene, Antoine’s best friend. The camera fixes on Antoine in this scene, showing his fight against the centrifugal force but failing. This scene is significant for the film; it can be inferred that Antoine’s fight against the gravitational forces represents his fight against life itself. Though Antoine shows that he feels pain, he enjoys the ride and has fun in the process. Antoine’s attitude towards life can be seen clearly in action. The spinning action ends at the same spot where it starts, leaving Antoine in the same place, hints the result of Antoine’s struggle – no matter how hard he tries, Antoine’s actions lead him back to square one.
One of the truly happy scenes in the film, Antoine and his parents link arms as they exit the theater. The scene builds to the bittersweet ending very well, Antoine’s laughter throughout the scene shows that he enjoys his parents company when they get along well. The happy scene is later juxtaposed to a serious one when Antoine is called out in class for plagiarizing, showing that Antoine’s happiness never really lasts.
An emotion evoking shot, a juvenile lights up a cigarette before Antoine lets his tears fall. The brief appearance and disappearance of the flame seemed to symbolize the times Antoine feels optimistic about his future, the thought is taken away quickly. The shaky camera movement shows us the turbulence of the coach and that the emotional state of Antoine is less than stable. The bars of the window add to the feeling of imprisonment.
Earlier in the film, Antoine mentions that he has never seen the sea and wishes to visit it to Rene. Despite the many times the film hints that Gilberte does not like her son, her enthusiastic response shows her motherly affections for Antoine. Even though she isn’t the best mother a child could have, she longs for Antoine to be happy and understands what he wants.
Antoine looks at the camera directly, and the movie ends. It is not explained and the audience is left to conclude the ending for themselves. Some speculations say that it is Antoine looking at his chaser, who has caught up with him, at a distance. There does not seem to be a definite answer, but it certainly has become quite the cliffhanger for Truffaut’s next films, which Jean-Pierre acts as the character Antoine in his later life.
Most of the witty and humorous lines are dedicated to the father character due to his characterization and partly to that the movie was dedicated to André Bazin, Truffaut’s mentor. Julien’s character may be loosely based on Bazin. André Bazin died when the film just assumed shooting, which may have strengthened the direction to portray the character of Antoine’s father as humorous and likable.
The story contains elements of sadness, regret, family, warmth, happiness, humor, values, and choices. Just like life itself.
Though there are many long takes in the film, the pacing is still quick due to the music and dialogue. There are many casual compositions and zoom shots, cut together with choppy editing. Close ups are filmed with long lens as to standard for a French New Wave film. Furthermore, as the French New Wave was greatly influenced by Italian Neorealism, New Wave directors such as François Truffaut shot on location. This allowed him greater creativity, freedom and invoked a hint of realism. In the movie, Antoine and his friend Rene run through the streets of Paris with real passersby, enabling Truffaiut to capture the spirit of the city while encapsulating the boys freedom and happiness. Passersby are also alerted to the actors’ presence, seen when the two boys steal an alarm clock from a ladies’ room. Real Parisians who were walking by stopped and stared.
400 Blows itself is self-reflexive where there are in-jokes and references to film. French New Wave stars and directors appear on-screen such as Truffaut himself and Jeanne Moreau. The boys make a direct reference to another film, Summer with Monika, about youths running away to have a good time by stealing a picture of Harriet Andersson. Additionally, “Antoine gets on a spinning ride that is strongly reminiscent of a zoetrope, a cylindrical device used in early motion pictures.” (Reference: http://browland.hubpages.com/hub/The-400-Blows-Antoine-Doinels-Place-in-the-French-New-Wave)
Bernice Lam is an aspiring writer-film maker, chorale trained singer, web comic enthusiast, and amateur twitterer. For more details, visit https://twitter.com/be_dramarie
En.wikipedia.org. 1959. The 400 Blows – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_400_Blows [Accessed: 19 Jun 2013].
IMDb. 1960. The 400 Blows (1959). [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053198/?ref_=ttqt_qt_tt [Accessed: 19 Jun 2013].
Rottentomatoes.com. n.d.. The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups). [online] Available at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/400_blows/ [Accessed: 19 Jun 2013].