The 400 Blows (1959): Classic Review

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‘Your parents say you’re always lying.’
‘Oh, I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.’

The 400 Blows, or Les Quatres cents coups if you want to refer to it by its French title, is widely regarded as one of the cornerstones of the French new wave, and as something of a new wave novice, it’s been high on my watchlist for a long time. In more ways than one it remains Truffaut’s magnum opus, in part due to its resounding influence throughout western cinema, but also because of its semi-autobiographical premise, which elevates its charm even further. Our protagonist, unfocused and unruly Parisian schoolboy Antoine Doinel, can’t seem to spend a single day without landing himself in some kind of trouble with the intolerant adults who surround him, be they his parents or his teachers. Its plot very minimal, the film essentially follows one unfortunate event after another, as Antoine embarks on a series of escapades alongside his best friend Rene, avoiding the wrath of his mother and father, the latter threatening to send him to a military school if his behaviour doesn’t improve.

The glimpses we are given into Truffaut’s own childhood are endlessly intriguing, yet the film’s appeal extends beyond that. Several scenes are devoted to the struggles of intransigent school teachers attempting to control the small-scale rebellion taking place at classroom level, with schoolmaster Guy Decomble at one point angrily demanding to know ‘What will France be like in 10 years from now?!’. This line has been deemed prognostic by many, preceding a time of enormous social unrest during late 1960s France, which makes the soul-crushing regimentation of Antoine and his fellow classmates all the more noteworthy from a socio-political standpoint. It is this undertone of bourgeoisie oppression against which the film’s otherwise whimsical feel provides such levity. Jean-Pierre Leaud is simply perfect as Antoine, channeling an endearing sweetness in spite of his midemeanours. The conversation which takes place between Antoine and his psychiatrist is arguably his standout moment, with the camera focusing on Antoine and the psychiatrist’s disembodied voice perhaps standing in for the rest of the world, which seems intent on giving Antoine a hard time. This never seems to quell his energy however, and the film’s relentless pace captures this effortlessly, with a beautiful score creating a continually joyful and heart-warming feel.

It’s hard not to smile uncontrollably when listening to the wonderful score, and even harder when hearing it coupled with the beguiling cinematography of the film, be that in the form of richly textured aerial shots or the infamous freeze frame upon which the film bids us farewell. Countless films pay homage to The 400 Blows in some way or another, two recent examples which spring to mind being Noah Baumbach’s 2012 offbeat mumblecore comedy, Frances Ha, or Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2014 Sundance Grand Jury-winning adaptation of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, both of which give a new lease of life to particular elements of the score. Indeed, it is clear that The 400 Blows has left an irrevocable impression upon the works of many present day directors.

François Truffaut’s sparkling debut is astonishingly timeless and endlessly rewatchable, delivering a vibrant portrayal of childhood and the fleeting hopefulness of youth. There is little to say about it which hasn’t already been said, but I will happily join the long line of people who adore this film for all its quaintness and idiosyncrasy. Hugely moving and creative in its almost documentary-like approach to delivering Antoine’s story, The 400 Blows is simply brimming with life and truly celebrates filmmaking in its purest, most uncomplicated form.

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