For the uninitiated, The 400 Blows was one of the first films of what is labelled the French ‘New Wave’, a loose group of filmmakers who in the 1950s and 60s rewrote the language of cinema, rejecting classical studio-based formulas in favour of more energetic, iconoclastic pictures. One such director was François Truffaut, and his debut film The 400 Blows is, for me, the heart and soul of the movement, as well as the pinnacle of his oeuvre; challenging, energetic, innovative, yet hugely moving in its potrayal of the harsh realities of a troubled adolescence.
The New Wave centred on a group of film critics at the influential Cahiers du cinéma, a film magazine founded by renowned theorist André Bazin, regarded by many as the originator of ‘film studies’ as a serious subject of study. Among these young critics were Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol, all of whom would go on to become noted filmmakers in their own right. Their common attitude was a shared love of what they termed as the auteur filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Cocteau and Renoir, directors who placed their unique authorial vision into their films. Bazin had helped nuture one young writer, crucial in the development of this theory, past his adolescent personal problems and into the senior staff at Cahiers: François Truffaut.
Truffaut’s childhood was spent rarely in the company of his parents, and he was frequently in trouble at the various schools which he would be quickly expelled from. His chief passion, though, was the cinema, often playing truant in order to sneak off to the movies. At the age of 16, he founded his own film club, and it was through this that he met Bazin, who became a mentor and father-like figure to the young man. When Truffaut was arrested attempting to desert the Army, Bazin aided his release, giving him a plum job at his new publication. Soon, like his peers, he would turn to filmmaking; he made two short films before embarking on his first major work, The 400 Blows.
It is said that every author’s first novel is autobiographical, so it seems fitting that the originator of the auteur theory of filmmaking would turn to his own life for inspiration for his first film. The 400 Blows traces a troubled adolescence, that of Antoine Doinel, a boy seemingly unloved by his parents and schoolteachers alike. His home life is seen to be extremely unhappy; his mother fell pregnant with him at a young age, and seems to resent him for being such a burden on her life. She has married a much older man who she does not love, and the ‘family’ live together in a cramped Parisian apartment, Antoine without a proper room of his own, poorly fed and dressed. His school life is no better; his uninspiring teacher, played remorselessly by Guy Decomble, is a bully who frequently lets his temper get the better of him. The misbehaving Antoine is to suffer his wrath, both verbal and physical, on several occasions.
The unhappy urban existence of the young boy does not bring to mind typical mainstream filmmaking of the period, but instead betrays a debt to the Italian neorealism movement which emerged after the Second World War. Filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti sought to illustrate the social problems of their country post-war by focusing in on the lives of ordinary people, using naturalistic settings and largely non-professional actors. This, in turn, was influenced heavily by one of Cahiers‘ most esteemed heroes, Jean Renoir, whose Toni (1935) is generally regarded as the key proto-neorealist film (Visconti himself worked as an assistant on that film). The 400 Blows, in its unromanticized portrayal of childhood, can be seen as being directly influenced by these.
It has to be said, though, that Truffaut was not trying to make a neorealist film, which frequently were dour, sober affairs. The 400 Blows, while unflinching in its portrayal of one child’s difficult upbringing, is also at times light-hearted; in one particularly bright moment, a teacher taking a group of schoolboys out for a jog around the streets of Paris fails to notice as two-by-two the boys begin to peel away into sidestreets, until the teacher is eventually left childless. When the young Antoine manages to free himself from the clutches of authority, we see that he is actually a bright, lively child with an active imagination; we see him getting lost in Balzac, humorously lighting a candle to him in a makeshift miniature shrine to the novelist, with predictably flammable results. Like the young Truffaut, he loves the cinema, and his frequent trips there are a joyful escape from reality.
It is these moments of lightness that make the more harrowing scenes all the more powerful. Antoine, labelled as a troublemaker, is being failed by both the educational system and his family, both unable to see him as the creative, if mischevious, child that he is. Unlike Bazin did for Truffaut, he does not have a figure to help him out of the trouble he gets into, and this results in his plunging into the world of petty crime, his incarceration by the police, and eventual internment by the social services in a juvenile detention home. How easily this could have been how the director’s life had panned out.
There are perhaps more famous and more groundbreaking works associated with the French New Wave than this; Jean-Luc Godard’s flashy À bout de souffle (1960), co-authored with Truffaut, is usually referred to in revered hushed tones as the most revolutionary film of its time, a monolithic reputation which serves the film few favours when viewing it in retrospect. Watching that film now is something akin to a much-needed deep intake of fresh air – a vibrant, energetic work which teems with youthful exuberance. The 400 Blows is ultimately less of a technical masterpiece than Godard’s film; but À bout de souffle, for all of its verve, is ultimately a film for filmmakers and critics to admire, while Truffaut’s is more universal in its themes. À bout de souffle can leave the viewer a little cold, but The 400 Blows is unforgettable.