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The 400 Blows

by Peter Bogdanovich
June 29, 2011 10:56 AM
5 Comments
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One could date the start of the American independent film movement with the release in France in 1959 of a picture that heralded the beginning of the French New Wave: François Truffaut’s first feature--made when he was 27--and one of the classics of humanist cinema, THE 400 BLOWS (available on DVD). The original French title is Les Quatre Cents Coups, which literally translated means “the 400 dirty tricks,” but is understood idiomatically as “raising hell,” which is quite a different thought than the English understanding of it as being “the 400 blows one endures in life.” Either meaning can represent the film, since the leading character both plays dirty tricks and receives 400 blows.

Entirely autobiographical, the movie poignantly tells about 12-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud’s beautifully played debut) and his sad travail as a neglected, misunderstood and troubled boy who runs wild, commits petty crimes, is sent to reform school, finds temporary solace only in movie theatres (one night stealing poster and stills of Citizen Kane). After the kid’s escape from the reformatory, the picture ends with his running on a beach into a closeup which becomes an ambiguous freeze-frame--original then--but probably the most imitated conclusion in modern filmmaking.

The international success of The 400 Blows opened the floodgates to the Nouvelle Vague--the young critics and writer-directors who wrestled French films away from the old-fashioned “cinema de papa” with a movement that reverberated around the world. The picture also set up Truffaut for an illustrious, productive career that flourished right up to his tragic death from a brain tumor only 25 years later, in 1984, at the age of 52. His writings as a young critic, which preceded his directing, and continued afterward, had an overwhelming influence on movies everywhere, essentially fathering the then controversial politique des auteurs, mistranslated here as “the auteur theory,” which would finally dominate most film criticism.

For Francois, and his cohorts at the Cahiers du Cinema magazine---Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, etc.---this was no “theory,” it was a political statement: The best films were those on which the director had a personal vision which connected, because of this and his inherent personality, through all the pictures he made, no matter who the writers, actors, or photographers were; he was the true author of the picture. The well-made, objective, professional works were dead, the personal films remained alive.

Truffaut also was to make four other works chronicling the further adventures of Antoine Doinel, his alter ego, always played by Léaud: the “France” episode of the omnibus film, Love at Twenty (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). All of these, like The 400 Blows, were deeply influenced by Truffaut’s spiritual father, the great poet-picturemaker Jean Renoir, whom he adored and who loved him, as Renoir would tell me, “like a son.”

The passionate young filmmaker’s stepfather, so to speak, in terms of influence and admiration, was Alfred Hitchcock, whose technique and style had a noticeable impact on Truffaut’s other kind of movies, like The Bride Wore Black (1968), or Mississippi Mermaid (1969). His Hitchcock interview book (Hitchcock/Truffaut in the U.S., but the better, downright Biblical original French title in translation was The Cinema According to Hitchcock) became a standard text and ironically helped to give the Master of Suspense at the end of his career a respectability in the U.S. he had never enjoyed previously.

I knew François a little. He was shy, modest yet vital, and especially charming with women. At some big foreign festival dinner in the 1970’s, my partner was Cybill Shepherd, and Francois flirted with her openly all through the meal. (Of course, Cybill used to be a reflexive flirt.) Another time he invited me to lunch at his attractive Paris apartment, prepared a delicious salade Nicoise (my first of that lovely traditional recipe from Nice), proudly showed off his vast collection of Eiffel Towers--not that you could miss it--he had them all over the place in every conceivable size. Because my French was even worse than his English, our conversations were necessarily somewhat limited, but I could always see that his passion for film as both liberation and tonic was total and totally real, as real as his love of Renoir and Hitchcock, who died just a year apart, in 1979 and 1980.

Strangely, François only outlived their loss by four years. When he went, an incandescent light that showed the way of movies for so many was extinguished, and is now more sorely missed than ever. Despite his vast success, Truffaut could not avoid life’s "400 blows" and his first film eloquently conveys how cruel and traumatic these can be for a child. Yet his own life became an inspiration for overcoming them.

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5 Comments

  • Gloria McMillan | July 14, 2011 5:27 AMReply

    I think that Ray Bradbury's _Farhenheit 451_ is a great mid-1960s example of Truffaut's art.

    Although I believe that it was his first color film and not his choice to make it in color, he used color brilliantly.

    The DVD of the film has an excellent Truffaut biography explaining the choices made and much about the making of that film. There is even a bit of story about Oskar Werner, comparing his personality in _Jules et Jim_ and his more star-style of behavior by the time he co-starred in _Fahrenheit 451_.

    The homage to Hitchcock that Truffaut set up in _F451_ is also detailed in the documentary on the DVD.

  • Casey | July 5, 2011 8:28 AMReply

    Thanks for the nice piece on The 400 Blows. I get the sense that Truffaut's reputation has faded in the US, and it seems like a terrible loss. It's rare these days that I hear people talk about him, and I get the sense that a lot of younger filmgoers don't even know who he is. The early films are wonderful, and I wish people would also look at later works like The Story of Adele H. and The Green Room. As good as Truffaut's early pictures are, I think his work got richer and more rigorous later on in life.

  • george kaplan | June 30, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    One of those movies which keeps getting better every year is " Mask" (1985), which has always struck me as very reminiscent of Renoir, in its poetic realism and sense of community of the biker folk, and very like Truffaut in the sweetness of its presentation of the aspirations and limitations of the young people. It has become one of my favorite pictures and the climactic scene, and Cher's performance in it, is one of the best scenes ever shot, and very indicative of the classical grace and power of its director. If i were interviewing the guy who made it, I'd ask about the possible family resemblances.

  • Jochen | June 30, 2011 5:44 AMReply

    Thanks for this great reminder. Godard's Breathless, and Truffaut's "Jules and Jim", together with a little small French film called "Theorem de Archmedes" made really experience the power of films (in my late teens - when "Theorem" came out). Only fairly recently have I experienced the same kind of inspirational jolt again watching movies.
    Watching "Killer of Sheep" by Charles Burnett during it's brief theatrical release as well as "Mississippi Damned" by Tina Mabry. Unfortunately "Killer of Sheep" disappeared after a couple of weeks even in LA. Mississippi Damned, after winning multiple festivals, never got theatrical release.
    Still it is those moments that keep me wanting to make movies, watch movies, enjoy movies.

  • Ron Merk | June 30, 2011 4:46 AMReply

    Peter,
    There's no question that the New Wave was more of a cultural tsunami that anyone would ever have imagined when it first hit the shores of the U.S. It would seem to me that today we do not have anything like the "enfant terribles" that emerged from the original wave. While we have lots of technology, we seem to have lost "the heart" that accompanied those great films of the early 60s. I think that so many filmmakers have to get back to the basics of storytelling, with something compelling to say, or some new view of an old theme. That is what the New Wave filmmakers did. Maybe we need to go back to the future to improve film viewing for the audience. I find that most films try my patience with unending exposition, and after I see them whole film, I ask myself, "What was this film about?" or more often a comment about the filmmaker, "What they hell were they thinking?" I miss Truffaut and his fellow travellers. It's so sad that the tsunami has turned into a trickle of thoughtless high tech self-indulgence. It would be nice to see a simple good flow of stories and ideas again. Sorry for all the water metaphors! Best wishes, Ron Merk

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