Saturday, September 18, 2010

Movie Meme #1: The 400 Blows (1959)

Movie Meme#1 The 400 Blows (1959) - Francois Truffaut quote describing the film as quite pessimistic

About the Movie Meme

Les Quatre Cents Coups, to give the film its original French title, is the first entry in my movie meme for 'films I can happily watch over and over again', and which I'll be revealing one film at a time over the next 31 days. You can find photographic 'clues' to all 31 of the films I've selected in my introductory post about the meme here

The Film

Jean-Pierre Léaud (left) plays Antoine Donel, who becomes the class clown and frequently plays truant from school with his best friend René (centre)

The 400 Blows takes its name from the French expression meaning "To sow wild oats" or "to raise hell". A semi-autobiographical film, made in black and white to save costs, by famed New Wave film director Francois Truffaut 400 Blows is an astonishing free-form account of young adolescent Antoine Doinel's experiences as circumstances conspire against him, told very much from the boy's point of view. The film follows Antoine as, neglected by his parents, he plays truant from school, sneaks into movies and to the funfair, steals a typewriter and then, with disasterous results, tries to return it.

Background to Why It's On My Meme List

I first saw this film, like several others on this meme list, when I was in my late teens. I guess that's probably the most impressionable period for most movie fanatics. I saw it on late-night Friday/Sunday night TV, rather than at the Southampton cinema that I used to attend most Sunday afternoons, having become obsessed with cinema after being given a Super-8 camera for my birthday. Like the other films on this list which I saw for the first time around the same period, I caught it more by accident than design, intrigued by a rave review in The Radio Times I read just before intending to head for bed, and found myself incredibly moved by it.

On paper it sounded like the sort of pretentious French nonsense ('Is there not a proper story?') I would usually avoid but I was gripped from the start, despite the 'loose', apparently largely improvised, dialogue and the obvious disadvantages of a foreign language film that was transmitted in black and white with sub-titles. Thanks to the advent of DVD and then Blu-Ray I've rewatched the film many times, and it still moves me as much on subsequent viewings as it did on the first.

Antoine's parents argue frequently, with his mother having no love for the child she bore out of wedlock, and his step-father being more interested in his weekend rallies than parenting

A large part of the reason the film has the reputation and longevity it has is due to the incredible performance from the lead actor, a very young Jean- Pierre Léaud. As Antoine Doinel, Léaud gives a performance that is significantly enhanced by the free-form 'natural' New Wave filming style which favoured location work over studio sets. Unlike many of the other films on my meme 'comfort' list this film is widely acknowledged as a true movie classic, and was key to the success of the originel French 'La Nouvelle Vague' (New Wave) film-making movement.

A rare moment of joy, on 'The Rotor' ride at the fun fair. This scene has special memories for me as I have a similar, rather vague, memory of enjoying the exact same centrifugal forces ride on a rare trip to Battersea Fun Fair in London as a young kid

More than 30 years (and multiple viewings) after first seeing it Leaud's performance still astounds. It's the actor's completely natural performance, combined with stunning writing and directorial work, that mean the film is the first choice on my list.

For a simple example of what I mean by 'natural performance', take the relatively simple scene mid-way through the film where Antoine's mother shows her first and only act of kindness towards the boy she never wanted and is incapable of loving, as she tucks him up in bed one evening. There is nothing at all in the dialogue to indicate her treatment of the boy is in any way fake. The idea that she is being manipulative to keep Antoine quiet about the infidelity he has witnessed whilst playing truant from school is ALL in Léaud's eyes and facial performance.

What's really astonishing is to discover, many viewings later, that the actor's dialogue, like everyone else's, was entirely dubbed in post-production because the film-makers couldn't afford the higher costs of filming sound on location.

Worried that her son will tell his step-father about seeing his mother kissing a stranger whilst playing truant from school his mother fakes affection to keep him on-side

I challenge anybody not to be moved by the young actor's tearful but under-stated reaction when he is pushed into a police van to be sent away to a remand school, or by that final, crushing freeze-frame shot at the end of the film as Antoine realises that although he has achieved his dream of reaching the sea he has no idea where to go or what to do next. There is no Hollywood treacly sentimentality here, and the film is all the more moving for it.

Truffaut's real-life story is apparently much bleaker than portrayed here, in a film which is surprisingly upbeat, given the sadness of the central storyline. It's not hard to guess why the film's co-writer/director decided to change the story to reflect the more optimistic, 'young scallywag' real-life personality of its lead actor. In a 'life imitating art' scenario Léaud apparently played truant from school to attend the auditions in Paris, when he saw them advertised in a local paper.

Despite Truffaut's initial impressions that the boy was better looking and less skinny than he'd envisaged for a part intended to tell his own life story, the director quickly recognised that Léaud really was the embodiment of the spirit of the central character he'd based his script on. His decision to adjust the tone of the film and the personality of its central character so that the film became a true collaboration between the director/writer and the young actor who, astonishingly, had never made a film or even acted before, was clearly the right one.

Antoine is interviewed by a psychologist at the boy's remand home where he is sent for stealing a typewriter. The quick-cut editing of the interview, deliberately emulating TV documentaries of the time, was considered controversial when the film was initially released.

Whilst the conclusion of the film, and its overall tale of a child let down by every adult he encounters, is a sad one the film has many joyous moments and celebrations of youth: the pranks at school, the 'Pied Piper in reverse' scenes with the P.E. teacher, a trip to the fun fair and a puppet show, as well as the genuine loyalty of the schoolfriend from a much wealthier middle-class family who comes to be the Leaud character's only real friend are all highlight moments, enhanced by an excellent music score from composer Jean Constantin. That these moments are all achieved without even a hint of false sentimentality is no mean achievement.

The film is technically a real tour-de-force too, with some wonderful framing in its unusual (at the time) cinemascope format, as well as some very clever, genuinely innovative directorial tricks, which include clever whip-pans, the staccato 'TV style bad-edit' of the scenes showing the character's interview with a psychologist that so shocked critics when the film was originally released, and that crushing, final scene where Leaud's character achieves his previously stated wish of making it to the sea, only to then realise he has no idea where to go next. This final moment, captured so perfectly in a sudden, abrupt freeze-frame followed by an optical zoom, is one that would be copied by many other film-makers in the years after the film first debuted (perhaps most notably at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The ending is as powerful today, as it was audacious when originally released.

Truffaut and Leaud went on to make several more films that explored what happened to the Doinel character, but none were as perfect as this astonishing first film. More than 50 years after its original release, and after multiple viewings, it still astonishes and reveals new subtleties on each re-viewing. It is a quite astonishing piece of work from both lead actor and director, and one I never tire of re-visiting.

The film's final shot - an optical zoom and then freeze-frame on the face of Antoine as he realises he does not know where to go next, was considered audacious at the time of release. It is an effect that has been much copied since.

Shiny Disc Release

You can buy the film on UK DVD for a bargain £6.99 online, but if you want an HD version you'll need to pay around £21 for the US import Blu-Ray from Criterion (as well as a region-free Blu-Ray player to play it on as it's locked to Region A). In truth the film doesn't really shine in High Definition owing to the quality of the source material, but what you do get on the US import is a superb English-language commentary, packed full of research and interview quotes in the English language, as well as the French language commentary 'interview' that is the only real extra on the UK release. Despite having seen the film many times over the last 30+ years, the Blu-Ray commentary track revealed new insights and depths to the film which I hadn't picked up on before, even after multiple viewings. So, even at the premium import price (which includes all import duties if ordered from MovieTyme the Blu-Ray is my recommended version!

The region-locked US Blu-Ray from Criterion is the best version available of the film costing £21 including delivery from, but the British DVD is currently available at a bargain price of £7 from and, having initially retailed for £13.99.

1 comment:

Steve Langton said...

Very nice review, Ian. Very much hope this classic gets a release over here in the not-too-distant.