Injustice, oppression and disregard fill the life of a young ‘Truffaut’ in this marvellous coming-of-age story
Director: François Truffaut
Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Albert Rémy (Antoine’s father), Claire Maurier (Antoine’s mother), Guy Decomble (“Sourpuss”, the teacher), Patrick Auffay (René Bigey), Georges Flamant (Monsieur Bigey), Pierre Repp (English teacher), Daniel Couturier (Betrand Mauricet), Luc Andrieux (Gym teacher), Robert Beauvais (School director)
Truffaut’s first film, shot when he was just 26 years old, is not only one of the finest debuts ever, it’s also one of the films most in touch with being a child. Heavily based on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, it’s a beautifully told exploration of how much children can be misunderstood by adults and what a cage, of circumstances outside of your control, childhood can become.
Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a 12-year-old living in a cramped apartment with his parents, who have a tempestuous relationship and alternate between half-interested mateyness and exasperation with their son. Antoine is marked at school as the class trouble-maker and constantly finds himself in scrapes, only increasing the perception of him as a tearaway and lost cause. Eventually packed off to a reform school (basically a borstal), only his imagination and love of books and film (qualities no one sees in him but us) give him any hope.
What’s with that title? In French it’s Les Quatre Cents Coups in reference to the expression “faire les quatre cent coups” which roughly translates as “raising hell”. The alternative English title of Wild Oats (which to be honest isn’t much better) was rejected. But perhaps it’s for the best. The 400 Blows has a poetic gorgeousness about it: it reminds us of Waugh’s powerful quote from Brideshead Revisited about the destructive impact of circumstances and misguided interventions on the tragic Sebastian: “a blow, expected, repeated, falling upon a bruise”. And what is Antonie’s life but 400 blows hammering down, repeatedly and expectedly on the same bruise?
This is a kid who never catches a break. From the opening scene, as the kids pass around a page torn from a naughty calendar, it’s him who gets caught with it – because he starts doodling artistically around her eyes. He’s distracted from his punishment homework by one of his father’s (brief) bursts of friendly interest. Worried, he skips school the next day then invents a ridiculous lie of his mother dying to cover it, cementing the impression he is a habitual liar. When he quotes his beloved Balzac in a school essay competition, he is thrown out of the class for plagiarism. After stealing a typewriter, he’s caught when he tries to return it. The kid cannot get a break.
It’s a hugely sympathetic and moving insight into Truffaut’s own childhood. He too was raised, largely in indifference, by two parents who seemed uncertain they wanted him. Like Antoine, he discovers the man he thinks is his father actually isn’t. He also he spent eight years living with his grandmother, because his mother wanted an abortion not a child, and witnessed his mother’s extramarital romances. Truffaut to spent much of his time with his closest friend Robert Lauchney (here appearing as René Bigey – Lauchney worked on the film’s crew).
But, also like Antoine, Truffaut was passionate about imagination and the arts. Antoine reads Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (smoking an illicit cigarette – after all he’s French) and it makes such a powerful impression he can quote large chunks of it from memory in a school essay and builds a candle-lit shrine at home to the author (with his usual luck, the candle nearly burns down the cramped flat). The cinema is his other big escape. He takes every opportunity to visit, staring at the screen with wonder, stealing film posters (he swipes an image of Harriet Andersson in Summer with Monika) and finding an outlet for his imagination and intelligence that the real world never offers.
This is a child who requires attention, focus and encouragement to bring out his vibrancy and creativity. What he gets are orders to take the bins out and stupefyingly boring lessons of endless repetition mixed with abuse at school. Home life has only flashes of happiness: Antonie’s childish, giggling joy when his parents take him to the film, and laughing in the car as they remember the film on the way home, is the only time he seems to smile in their presence. At others, his mother mixes irritation with sudden bursts of affection that are really bribes for good behaviour.
He is bought to life in an extraordinary performance from Jean-Pierre Léaud. Found from a pool of 200 applicants from a newspaper advert, Léaud transformed Truffaut’s idea of Doinel. Truffaut saw him as more overtly fragile, timid and artistic. Léaud has all of that – but matches it with a defiance, a bravery and a slight resentment that makes his vulnerability all the more affecting. He is the sort of kid you see as a tearaway but, look closer, you’d see the soul of an artist.
Léaud’s performance is guided with a great deal of delicacy and skill by Truffaut – so successfully that he and Truffaut would collaborate five more times on films about Antoine’s future life. His part was largely unscripted, Truffaut outlining the plot and scene and then encouraging him to use his own words. It’s gloriously effective in a beautifully naturalistic late scene, when Antoine (the camera focused solely on him), responds to a series of questions from an unseen psychiatrist about his past, including an abashed cheeky giggle when asked about his sexual experience.
The 400 Blows also helped to kickstart what would become the French New Wave. Truffaut – and cinematographer Henri Decaë – shot the film with an on-the-streets naturalism that gave a large dollop of documentary realism to a narrative film. Decaë’s roving camera, moving easily and naturally through the streets, tracking the movement of the children, is also reminiscent of the very act of being a child, where life is often one of wild drifting and aimless but purposeful running through streets. The wide angles capture the everyday details of the Paris in a way that feels intimate and real, and also manage to hammer home the cramped apartment the Doinels live in (Antonine’s bedroom, Harry Potter like, is basically a cupboard under the stairs next to the bin).
It all builds towards the film’s extraordinary ending. Thrown into a reform school, essentially told by his mother she doesn’t want him to come home, barred from seeing his friend René, asked to choose which hand he wants to be slapped with by the teachers and forbidden access to the books and films he loves, Antoine does what he has done all his life. He runs.
Running from a football match, evading a pursuing teacher, Truffaut gives us two long tracking shots of extraordinary beauty but also profoundly openly to interpretation. Antoine runs through the countryside, the camera keeping pace with him, his feet pounding on the grass and pavement. We are joining him in his flight, running free alongside him. Then he arrives at his destination – and the camera tracks him as he walks across the beach until finally he sees the sea. He wades – and then turns to look directly at us, Truffaut freeze-framing and zooming in.
Are we being challenged? After all, perhaps we are all complicit in the wretched judgement Antonine has faced. Or is this him welcoming us, accepting us, acknowledging us as his co-conspirator and escapee? Who quite knows. What we do know is that The Four Hundred Blows set Truffaut on the path to being one of the world’s leading directors – and is a stunning, sympathetic and heart-breaking insight into the struggles and injustice that childhood can consist of.