Naturally, one of the most esteemed "classic" films of the French New Wave would be one whose title is obscure and apparently meaningless, even to someone who has seen the movie. The 400 Blows? The hell? But never mind the title. What's the big deal with the movie itself? Let me steal a typewriter from my dad's office and assemble my thoughts.
The praise: The 400 Blows earned François Truffaut the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival -- doubly impressive when you consider that a) it was his first movie, and b) the award came only a year after Trauffaut's mercilessness as a film critic had gotten him booted from Cannes' invite list altogether. That's like being thrown out of a comedy club for heckling one weekend, then winning the open-mic competition the next. Upon its release in the United States a few months later, the New York Times' Bosley Crowther said it "brilliantly and strikingly reveals the explosion of a fresh creative talent in the directorial field" and called it "a small masterpiece." The film went on to be nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay. It's the kind of movie that other filmmakers name as one of their favorites, and it appears regularly on "best foreign films" lists (including #29 on Empire Magazine's countdown).
The context: We wrote about François Truffaut and the French New Wave in our treatment of Truffaut's Jules and Jim, which came three years after The 400 Blows. We probably should have used 400 Blows as our intro to New Wave, not Jules and Jim, but oh well. We cannot change the past.
Actually, Jules and Jim is a better representation of many of the New Wave's stylistic touches: freeze-frames, zooms, jump cuts, breaking the fourth wall, and so forth. The 400 Blows doesn't have much of that. What makes it New Wave-y is that it's so deeply personal. Annette Insdorf writes:
Like the protagonist of his film, Truffaut was born to an unwed mother, adopted but never particularly loved by his stepfather, and generally neglected throughout his youth. He regularly skipped school and found comfort in the cinema.
As a teen, he found a mentor in the critic Andre Bazin, and later dedicated The 400 Blows to him. Together, Bazin and Truffaut originated the "auteur theory," which held that, while dozens of people are involved in producing a film, it is ultimately the director and the director alone whose creative vision is reflected in it. (Screenwriters are not big fans of the auteur theory.) The 400 Blows certainly fits with this theory, and it paved the way for other directors to make similarly personal movies.
"The 400 Blows" is a literal translation of the film's French title, Les Quatre Cents Coups, which comes from the idiom "faire les quatre cents coups," which basically means to raise hell. An early U.S. edition of Les Quatre Cents Coups had the more apt title Wild Oats, but this was discarded in favor of the literal but meaningless 400 Blows. That is how these things go.
The movie: Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a mischievous 12-year-old French boy who has been pegged as a troublemaker even though he's not much more rambunctious than the average 12-year-old boy is. His mother and stepfather fight a lot, the three of them cooped up in a small apartment and apparently very poor. Antoine longs for freedom. Then he gets it! Sort of!
What it influenced: The film's final image -- a freeze-frame of Antoine's face, then a zoom in on it -- is iconic, and has often been referenced or parodied. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Thirteen -- also about troubled youth -- end in a very similar way. In the 2008 Simpsons episode where the family goes to the Sundance Film Festival, Nelson Muntz's movie also has an homage. Once Upon a Time in America has a young man arrested and carted away in a paddywagon, peering through the bars just as Antoine does.
Truffaut revisited the Antoine character four more times, in a short and three features, always with the same actor playing his alter ego. The last one, Love on the Run, was made 20 years after The 400 Blows, with Antoine still running around looking for happiness.
As mentioned, The 400 Blows appeared when the auteur theory was just gaining traction, and served as a prime example of it. In the '60s, this theory would get a foothold in America, too. The Hollywood studio system was losing its power, and young directors were increasingly able to make films that really did reflect their personal visions -- to actually be auteurs, in other words. Most of the big directors of the '70s -- Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg -- credited Truffaut, the New Wave, and the auteur theory for inspiring them; Spielberg even cast Truffaut as an actor in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Norman Jewison, Richard Lester, and Akira Kurosawa all named The 400 Blows as one of their favorite movies.
What to look for: Bosley Crowther's review captured what might be the film's most critical accomplishment:
The striking distinctions of it are the clarity and honesty with which it presents a moving story of the troubles of a 12-year-old boy. Where previous films on similar subjects have been fatted and fictionalized with all sorts of adult misconceptions and sentimentalities, this is a smashingly convincing demonstration on the level of the boy—cool, firm and realistic, without a false note or a trace of goo.
What's the big deal: The elaborate process of making a film, with profit-minded studio executives and producers involved, often limits how "personal" a movie can be. It may be based on the writer or director's life, but how intimate can it feel when it's the product of endless revisions, compromises, and interference? The 400 Blows was among the first movies made without studio backing to show cinema's potential for telling personal stories. Half a century later, it's rarely been matched for its unsentimental and poignant view of childhood.
Further reading: You'll probably get more out of the film if you don't know in advance how it turns out. So avoid these until after you've seen it.
Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay.
Bosley Crowther's original review in the New York Times.
Fellow New Waver Jean-Luc Godard's glowing assessment of the film.
Annette Insdorf's succinct essay for Criterion.
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Eric D. Snider (website) considers 300 blows sufficient, thank you.