Faire les quatre cents coups!

The 400 Blows (1959), original poster

A defining film of the French New Wave movement (late 1950s, 1960s), Les Quatre Cents Coups – literally translated into English as The 400 Blows (Amazon, Netflix) – is especially remembered for its unusual last scene. We find Antoine Doinel, the young protagonist, running and running from the land towards the sea – then, upon reaching the shore, suddenly looking towards the camera till a freeze-frame mundanely yet rather smartly announces the end of the movie.

The French title comes from phrase “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell”. The 400 Blows (1959), ranked 39th in the Critics’ Top 100 list (2012) of Sight & Sound magazine, was François Truffaut‘s (1932-1984) debut feature. And the character of the adolescent Antoine Doinel – his alter ego, whose story the filmmaker would follow in four subsequent films: Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). 

The 400 Blows (1959), Criterion Collection Poster

The Parisian kid Antoine, who maintains a shrine to Honoré de Balzac in his room, is misunderstood at both home and school. He decides to quit school and leave home. To finance his escape and move, he steals his stepfather’s typewriter but is caught and turned over to the police. After he has spent a night in a cell with thieves and prostitutes, Antoine is moved to a juvenile correctional facility, where he is questioned at length.

Regarding the end scene – Antoine journeying towards the beach from the reform school – Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian has written:

The end sequence, culminating in his arrival at a vast lonely shore, is mysterious. Antoine runs away from his correctional facility, and his escape seems to morph into something else; without an immediate pursuer, it becomes an intuition, or premonition, of the lonely long-distance run he has endured and will continue to endure.

The 400 Blows is an exquisite film that unsentimentally looks at the irritations that emerge when a tender, growing soul is left unheard and unloved – and the ways in which such a soul may strive to acquire a sense of maturity and identity. Unsentimental, yes, but also a lot of fun. Several scenes are devoted to exploring the cuteness and silliness of childhood in all their glory – little ones screaming with joy and dizziness when spun around in the Wheel of Death at the fair, pupils sneaking away in twos from behind their PE teacher when he takes them jogging through the streets of Paris in a single file, the cardboard of Antoine’s shrine to Balzac being set on fire due to a candle. Overall, the movie remains timeless and deeply touching.

Watch the trailer for The 400 Blows from the British Film Institute:

 

A clip from the Criterion Collection in which Antoine is questioned at the reform school:

 

The book François Truffaut: Interviews (2008, edited by Ronald Bergen) mentions Truffaut’s thoughts on Jean-Pierre Léaud (born 1944) – the actor who played Antoine Doinel:

Some actors are able to change my conception of the characters I want them to play, like Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows. I picked him from 60 children I interviewed. He wanted the part so badly; he had such vitality. I was thinking of a more introverted child, and I kept adapting the screenplay to suit him. In one scene, where the psychologist questions questions Antoine, I told him to answer what he wanted; it was improvised, and he even brought in a grandmother who was not in the rest of the film. People said we looked alike, and it may be true. And then, because we saw so much of each other, there was a mimetic thing.

 

Also, his life was a little like my own, he had an unstable childhood. When we were shooting The 400 Blows, he was living with his parents, and his mother came to see me, weeping, and said, “It’s not possible, he wants to fight his father,” and then he would show up on the set with his face bruised.

 

Clip of the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud’s audition for the role of Antoine from the Criterion Collection:

 

In an essay for the Criterion Collection, Annette Insdorf, professor at Columbia University, writes on the film’s stylistic texture:

François Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups), was more than a semi-autobiographical film; it was also an elaboration of what the French New Wave directors would embrace as the camérastylo (camera-as-pen) whose écriture (writing style) could express the filmmaker as personally as a novelist’s pen. It is one of the supreme examples of “cinema in the first person singular.” In telling the story of the young outcast Antoine Doinel, Truffaut was moving both backward and forward in time—recalling his own experience while forging a filmic language that would grow more sophisticated throughout the ‘60s.

Lewis Bond (@lewis_criswell), a British filmmaker who runs “Channel Criswell” on YouTube, has made an entertaining and informative video on the French New Wave. Check it out:

 

Finally, a lecture on The 400 Blows by Professor David Thorburn of MIT, for those who might want to go deeper:

 

Further Reading:

French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present (2015) by Rémi Fournier Lanzoni

The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (2009) by Ginette Vincendeau and Peter Graham (editors)

 

Image Credit:

Featured still from The 400 Blows is property of Les Films du Carrosse/Cocinor. Used for illustrative purposes only. No copyright infringement intended.

 

 


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