The Best 400 Blows

Advances in the language of cinema in a film of the French Nouvelle Vague.
An examination of the contribution to the film canon by one of the nouvelle vague’s main protagonists, Francois Truffaut, particularly through his seminal work, The 400 Blows.
There are few truly recognisable film movements in film history. Soviet and Weimar cinema of the 1920s and Italian neorealism of the post-WWII periods are accepted as definable advances in the language of the medium. While, at the time it was hotly debated, modern film criticism accepts that the 1950s generation of French filmmakers make up a singular and recognisable movement (Sklar, p334). The main characteristics of the nouvelle vague have been reduced as “camera, montage and storyline” (Hammond, p359). This is too narrow a descriptive to satisfactorily frame the advances of such diverse auteurs as Truffaut, Godard, Resnais or Varda. However it does give us some criteria under which we can explore Truffaut’s first notable film of the movement, The 400 BlowsThroughout this effective debut, Truffaut’s camerawork is fluid and assured. While the former critic is clearly delighted at this opportunity to mix cinematic styles (Mast, 347), never once does the movie falter or cease to flow. Extensive use is made of location shots, hand-held camera, and travelling shots (Smyth, p2), with deep-focus shots peppering the work at significant moments.
Like most of the new wave directors, Truffaut admired the Italian neorealists. Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1947) with its “lyrical poetic realism”, is a particular influence on The 400 Blows (Conomos, p5). Like his Italian mentors, Truffaut makes considerable use of real locations, outdoors and interiors, with no visible sign of studio sets to distract us from the ‘real life’ the director has let us observe. The film memorably opens with one of cinemas most defining views of Paris. This montage of travelling shots gives us a streets-eye shot of the city’s architecture, from the ordinary to the sublime, the imperial to the industrial. The Eiffel Tower looms over these shots, never quite coming into postcard view. Unlike films of Paris before (and since), Truffaut resists the temptation to give us the obligatory overhead pan shot of the capitol’s ‘classic’ skyline. Instead we see the everyday Paris as its residents do, emphasising the living humanity of the place. In the daytime exterior shots, we see the streetwise city-kid Antoine. Against the dazzling ubermonde of Paris at night, as his isolation and ennui increases, we see a different Antoine, pensive, enigmatic. The real locations, either peopled with unsuspecting extras, or depopulated by traffic and darkness, add to the emotional realism (Smyth, p2) of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s extraordinary performance as the central character.

There are two important travelling shots in the film; both are inventive and expertly exploit their exterior location; both are very different in intent and effect. The first, 44 minutes into the movie, follows a pompous P.E. teacher jogging his charges through the streets to a football game. Shot from high above, the teacher is obliviously leading a rapidly diminishing team, as, bit-by-bit, the boys peel off in unauthorised directions (Watson, p217 & 227). We are delighted by the simple joy-de-vivre of this nose-thumbing act of spontaneous rebellion. After the joyless troupe of callous, selfish adults we experience up to now, this simple scene mocks their inertia with Spartan disdain. Truffaut vaunts his technical brilliance here, though with such élan that we are not distracted from the film’s body. The second travelling shot defines and concludes the film. For four minutes, after escaping from the Observation Centre where he is incarcerated (Watson, p228), the camera tracks Antoine through the countryside, running towards the sea and an “unknown future” (Conomos, p5).  In contrast with the exercise scene, this shot is hypnotic, tense, impulsive. Antoine is temporarily free, but we still struggle to read through the childish enigma. As he runs with grim purposeful determination, is he in hopeless flight or triumphant delight? Truffaut shows us that he is in neither, the scene’s most lasting, elucidating effect. The scene is heightened by its musical accompaniment. Over the determined rhythm of his foot pads on the country road, Truffaut reprises the “achingly
unforgettable...percussive” film score we first encountered in the opening credit shots (Conomos, p5). Truffaut breaks this shot, preparing for the film’s apex, with a fixed pan shot of the rugged beach, as Antoine faces the distant sea. The shot is loaded with exhilarating pathos, suggesting “the underlying, co-existing sadness and beauty” (Conomos, p5) in this misunderstood boy’s melancholic life. Running to the shoreline, Truffaut stunningly hits us with a metaphorical 400 blows in one dramatic moment. An unprecedented technical innovation at the time (Mast, p348), the film ends with a stop motion zoom of Antoine frozen in a moment, “at a proverbial crossroads, unable to keep running away, looking back at a familiar, hopeless fate” (Acquarello). The advancement of the language of film in this shot alone is immense. Harkening back to Eisenstein and Soviet cinema’s application of dialectical montage to create a new meaning from filmic contrasts (Watson, p87), Truffaut captures and animates Antoine while his camera freezes the still. The “paradoxical tension” between this and the kinetic nature of the film medium forces a moral reaction in the viewer (Conomos, p6) much the same effect the Soviets strove for, though for different intentional outcomes. All-in-all, whether in the indifferent city or bleak countryside, Truffaut uses his exterior locations with an intense spontaneity lacking in many films of the time (Mast, p347).
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His interior shots are equally fresh, and no less diverse. The early classroom scenes are full of fluid movement. Truffaut shows his debt to early Renoir in long takes and deep-focus shots (Watson, p170). The camera moves through the class with little montage. Six minutes into the film, the camera steps to the back of the class, sharply framing everything from front to back, while the teacher writes, kids mess, and we glimpse mischievous movement from Antoine, hidden in the dunces corner behind a blackboard. The interiors of Antoine’s ‘home’ are shot as closely and near-claustrophobically as the storyline suggests. His bedroom is barely that, a fetid bed in a dingy corridor. Shot in darkness, it’s a place of furtiveness and betrayal. Its where he overhears his parents damning him, its where we see his mothers stockinged legs sneak in after a day of infidelity. Every shot in the flat suggests indifference, dishonesty, failure. Every shot unfolds with “dispassionate objectivity”, a comment on Antoine’s neglected life and the director’s own troubled childhood (Acquarello). For these apartment shots mark some of the great moments of modern autobiographical cinema (Conomos, p4). What they lack in immediate spectacle, they make up for in measured, morally ambiguous profundity. Without knowing Truffaut’s own story, we know that someone intimately acquainted with life in that apartment is orchestrating the shots. Thirteen minutes in, his mother comes home, sits on a bed and takes off her suspender stockings. The shot has mother framed voyeuristically in a doorway, the boy’s face a blurred silhouette in the fore/right. While she takes off the stockings, a more Oedipal carnality is implied than seems proper before a son. There’s also an uneasiness, tension in the shot that hints at thoughts only the auteurwould understand. The later scene of the mother conducting a wheedling, ingratiating game of interrogation and bribery after bathing him is oppressive and disturbing. Truffaut shoots a confused, vulnerable boy who still wants to be loved, subtly menaced by his inveigling mother. In many ways this is something of a horror film, Antoine Doinel’s mother being one of the prototype, dysfunctional domestic monsters of modern film.
An unexpected influence pops up in an inventive and little discussed scene. When Antoine and his friend Rene skip school they visit a fairground and Antoine has a go on the spinning wall. The resultant scene takes a leaf out of Cocteau’s advice to young French film-makers about breaking the accepted rules of camera motion and angles (Hammond, p359-60). While the camera seemingly spins 360°, blurring and dehumanising Antoine’s audience, the boy crawls dislocatedly around the wall until the scene morphs into a homage to William Horner’s 19th Century Zoetrope (Watson SG1, p27), the figures dancing cartoons in some early Victorian lantern show.
The influence of American film noir pops up throughout the film; the scene where the boy is caught by the watchman in his father’s office feels straight out of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, even down to the raffish hat he wears, snatched off the head of a 1940s screen heavy.
Like many of the nouvelle vague auteurs in practice, and certainly one of the best known in print, Truffaut railed against the “ornately staged, heavily plotted, unspontaneous” films of the post-war French film establishment (Mast, p346). In his infamous 1954 article “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” Truffaut attacked the literary adaptations that were the overt staple of the film industry of the time. He felt that, restrained by a “faithful adaptation” screenplay, these movies were wordy, studio-bound affairs, long on dialogue, short on film technique and mise-en-scene (Sklar, p334). Once on film, Truffaut’s riposte was startling. Linear time in The 400 Blows is treated as an inconsequence. The film omits large “transitional sections of time and emotional development” (Mast, p347) cutting in montage and storyline at the auteurs pace. Striking editing is used in some scenes. Just over an hour in, Antoine and Rene hustle into a Punch and Judy show. Montage shots of the innocent, entranced children watching the show contrast with long-shots of the lounging, scheming older boys (Acquarello). Almost documentary-style, the camera picks out the real wonder on the children’s faces, expressive, awed, entranced. His ability to stealthily capture those faces is the mark of a director of great sensitivity. In another stand-out passage, Truffaut uses jump-shots and dissolves in a cinema verite interview with Antoine and his borstal psychologist. Originally shot as Leaud’s screen test (Mast, p348) the scene is frank and intimate (Watson, p228), the boy happily discussing rejection, abortion, prostitutes with the probing shrink. While the camera jumps, almost happily, we sense that Antoine is enjoying the attention of the first adult we meet who’s asking him about his feelings.
The nouvelle vague was never about storyline in the conventional Hollywood sense of a linear script with a distinct beginning-middle-end. The new French directors applied everyday realism to their films’ aesthetics, experimented with the language of cinema and, by resolutely insisting on the freedom to choose the themes, content and form of their films, reinvigorated the cinematic form (Gonzalez, p6). Cocteau strove for artistic immortality through the creative work, filling the screen from his personal and symbolic world (Mast, p338). Truffaut used the screenplay to create a modern cinema that took place “in the streets and apartments of one’s life”, a cinema that reflected ordinary situations, emotions, behaviour and language. This would be a highly personal cinema of human sensibility (Conomos, p3). The casting of Jean-Pierre Leaud was fortune. An “unstable and bad” 14 year old student (Gonzalez, p5), Leaud and Truffaut created an alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, a mixture of two real people. The 400 Blows is a vignette, a more or less true story without an ending or beginning (Hammond, p361). Antoine’s ‘story’ only becomes apparent through the conversations of his parents with each other and the figures of authority. Even then it’s not so much a story as a circumstance unfolding through a mischievous boy’s inability to stay out of trouble. Dialogue is sparse, often callous and unsentimental, and used only when necessary. Early in the film, as he lays the family table alone, the boy is silent. Truffaut resists any urge to place dialogue where it’s not needed and not natural. Characters lie. His father tells the Police Inspector that they never hit the boy, yet we remember the brutal slaps he inflicts on the boy in front of his class mates earlier in the film. Yet, despite the obvious sympathy for Antoine, Truffaut’s innovation is to forego the Hollywood path of retribution and redemption. We never feel that Truffaut is passing judgement on his characters, all of them ambiguous, poly-dimentional.
The 400 Blows advances the language of film in many technical ways. More importantly though, Truffaut advances the emotional language of the medium. In this film, a troubled child turned auteur focuses on his own childhood to give us the definitive word on the turbulent, confusing, inequities we all encounter growing up (Conomos, p5). 
Acquarello, (2000), Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959, [on line], 12.05.2004.
Conomos, John, (2000), Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, or the Sea, Antoine, the Sea. [on line], 12.05.2004.
Hammond, Robert M. (1973), “The New Wave Washes the American Screen”, in The American Cinema, Voice Of America Forum Series, Washington.
Gonzalez A., Juan Carlos, (2003), Francois Truffaut, [on line], 12.05.2004.
Mast, Gerald & Bruce F. Kawin, (2000), A Short History of the Movies, Allyn and Bacon, London.
Sklar, Robert, (2002), A World History of Film, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.
Smyth, Eileen, (2004), Biography of Francois Truffaut, [on line], 21.05.2004.
Watson, Chris, (2001), Topics in Film History: The Prehistory of Film, Massey University, Palmerston North.
Watson, Chris, (2001), Topics in Film History: France The Golden Age, Massey University, Palmerston North.
Watson, Chris, (2001), Topics in Film History: France and the New Wave, Massey University, Palmerston North.

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