Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows
François Truffaut’s first feature is also one of his most personal, and most deeply felt, and agave young Jean-Pierre Léaud his signature role as perpetual adolescent Antoine Doinel. Loosely based on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, the film now looks like a valentine to a lost era, both in terms of cultural values and social mores.
Antoine’s infractions are minor, but he is punished severely, and in the end of the film, as he escapes from a reform school, Truffaut offers a superb tracking shot, in which Antoine runs and runs, seemingly forever, only to arrive at the edge of the sea, unable to run any further. The film won the Best Director Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival; Truffaut promptly turned around and used the money that went with the prize to partially finance Jean Cocteau’s last film, The Testament of Orpheus.
This was only fitting, actually, since Cocteau had masterfully campaigned for the film to win, but as usual, his energy was put behind the right cause — The 400 Blows is one of the best films ever made about the joys and difficulties of childhood, especially a childhood in a broken home.
“François Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups), was more than a semi-autobiographical film; it was also an elaboration of what the French New Wave directors would embrace as the caméra-stylo (camera-as-pen) whose écriture (writing style) could express the filmmaker as personally as a novelist’s pen. It is one of the supreme examples of “cinema in the first person singular.” In telling the story of the young outcast Antoine Doinel, Truffaut was moving both backward and forward in time—recalling his own experience while forging a filmic language that would grow more sophisticated throughout the ‘60s.
The 400 Blows (whose French title comes from the idiom, faire les quatre cents coups—“to raise hell”) is rooted in Truffaut’s childhood. Born in Paris in 1932, he spent his first years with a wet nurse and then his grandmother, as his parents had little to do with him. When his grandmother died, he returned home at the age of eight. An only child whose mother insisted that he make himself silent and invisible, he took refuge in reading and later in the cinema.”