Cinematic Coup: Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) – Blu-ray review
Not even a half-century of pale imitators has sullied the charm of Truffaut’s debut; imagine how it must have felt to have seen it back then.
The 400 Blows
(François Truffaut, 1959)
If there’s a downside to the brilliance of The 400 Blows, it’s that this film is responsible for a lot of very bad movies. That’s true of any breakthrough (think of what followed in the immediate wake of, for example, Star Wars, Reservoir Dogs or The Blair Witch Project) but the influence of Truffaut’s debut trumps them all because it fundamentally changed the rules. Suddenly, anybody (even a critic!) could pick up a lightweight, mobile camera, hit the streets and tell the story of their life. Truffaut made it look easy; the trouble is, few directors have his ease. The title may as well refer to the heavy-handed touch of his descendants.
But Truffaut can be forgiven, because it’s worth the all of the pale imitators to witness the joy of the real thing. This is cinema as critics imagine it to be, with the camera replacing the pen, conveying mood and thought not through words but movement and performance and light. The abandon that Antoine Doinel feels when he’s racing around Paris – or away from borstal – is mirrored in the freewheeling nature of Truffaut’s camera, unshackled from the niceties of bourgeois cinema so that it can duck and dive along with its hero.
But here’s the crucial thing: Truffaut is wise enough not to drown in his own delight. By the standards of most show-offs, Truffaut is remarkably reserved. Yes, he moves with Doinel, but also at a distance, replacing potential solipsism with real empathy. Much as Truffaut wants us to side with Antoine (of course he does, for Antoine is François by another name) he knows that the boy is culpable in his own downfall, and never once descends to self-pity. It’s a tough point of view – but also one in love with life beyond the view in front of Antoine’s nose. Truffaut is happy to bask in the beauty and boundless possibility of Paris, or to simply enjoy life: the film’s most entrancing moment looks back at row upon row of awestruck children as they watch a Punch and Judy show.
That scene is a smart metaphor for the film as a whole, balanced precariously at the point where children first realise the darker shades to life. Antoine is a few years on from them, but has grown up alarmingly fast; it’s no wonder he prefers the abandon of being carefree given that he has been largely abandoned by life. Even Truffaut’s humanism is tested by the indifference and selfishness of parents and teachers, to the point where he allows a double-standard in celebrating the reckless tomfoolery of Antoine and his classmates (especially the gleeful choreography of a school trip in which a line of kids rapidly disintegrates as they do a runner), while judging Antoine’s parents for preferring hobbies (car racing, adultery) to raising their son.
Yet this isn’t hypocrisy but honesty, for this is a child’s eye view of life. The most remarkable thing about The 400 Blows‘ sense of autobiography is that Truffaut has made a film that is properly set in his own personal past – emotionally, if not chronologically. There isn’t a whiff of contrivance in portraying the life of a 13-year-old troublemaker, nor any hint of the near-thirtysomething behind the camera. The shape of the film is defined by Doinel, to the point where Truffaut lets the camera spin around the inside of a fairground ride for longer than is necessary. Why? Because the boy is having fun – and that’s like gold-dust to Doinel.
So successful is Truffaut in subsuming authorship to his character that there’s a case to be made that Jean-Pierre Leaud is the film’s real auteur. The actor would become increasingly mannered in later life but there’s an affectless, gauche charm about him here – he is properly rough and ready, with just an insolent gaze and his checked jacket as armour against the world. But the spontaneity is unfakeable, especially in his interactions with best pal René (Patrick Auffay, as good as Leaud but unlucky never to have his co-star’s career). The message in their sublime playtime is simple: seize the moment, especially because it won’t be long before everybody thinks they can make movies this glorious and carefree.