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The 400 Blows  
Francois Truffaut
1959 || 90 mins

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a 13-year-old boy who keeps getting into trouble at school. His parents do their best to keep him in line but lack understanding. After being found out and punished for skipping classes, he runs away from home and spends a night on the streets. Reconciliation with his parents seems to offer hope, until he’s caught red-handed in the act of stealing a typewriter. His mother hands him over to the authorities who send him to a reform school. From here he makes another break for freedom, but, standing on the shore, looking out to sea, he finds himself alone with nowhere left to run to.

400 blows get this poster

Truffaut’s first feature is one of the defining films of the Nouvelle Vague. Based substantially on events from his own childhood, it marked his transition from controversial critic to world famous film director. In his portrayal of a troubled adolescent looking for an escape route from an unhappy life, Truffaut made the kind of film he had been calling for others to make and, by doing so, vindicated his claims to be an auteur in his own right. Fittingly the film is dedicated to his mentor Andre Bazin who died just as cameras were rolling on the first day of filming.

In planning Les Quatre Cents Coups, Truffaut knew that the success or failure of the project depended largely on finding the right child actor to play young Antoine Doinel. After an extensive search he chose Jean-Pierre Leaud who bore a striking resemblance to director himself at the age of 14. Leaud’s naturalistic, spontaneous performance is as true to life as acting gets; without at all trying, he ellicits great sympathy from the viewer. In the years to come, Leaud would play Doinel in five more films, becoming in the process the director’s screen alter ego.

Several sequences in the film have been much talked about in analysis of both Truffaut’s work and the originality of the New Wave. In the detention centre, Antoine answers questions from a psychologist about his life. Truffaut had hired an actress to play the role, but she was not available yet, so he decided to shoot the scene with Leaud and simple add the reverse shots of the psychologist asking the questions later. Truffaut asked the questions himself, giving Leaud complete freedom to answer as he wished. Later when he saw the rushes, he decided to retain the images of the boy alone and simply dub in the questions with the actresses voice. The film’s most famous shot is the closing freeze-frame, in which the boy is caught with his back to the sea. Simultaneously both sad and defiant, it remains one of the most famous endings in film history.

Throughout the film Truffaut’s directorial eye is attuned to telling details that provide emotional nuance to scenes of everyday life. In this, he is greatly assisted by cinematographer Henri Decae, whose experience working in documentaries gave his work a sense of realism that is well suited to the tone of this film. Decae’s camera work, much of it handheld and shot in long takes, shows a Paris that can appear both romantic and gritty, depending on the circumstances. The visuals are complemented to great effect by Jean Constantin’s musical score with its sometimes jaunty, sometimes wistful air, reflecting Antoine’s changing fortunes.

Les Quatre Cents Coups was widely acclaimed on its release, winning numerous awards, including the Best Director Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Luminaries such as Jean Cocteau praised the film highly and journalists were quick to associate it with the New Wave of films coming out of France. Today, it remains as moving and eloquent as ever, and is considered by many to be one of the best films ever made.

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