WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
thoughtsoncinema.net | Nolan Lampson
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Has any adolescent actor or actress given a more touching, heartbreaking, or poignant performance than Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut's 1959 debut feature The 400 Blows (1959)? He plays a role in which he must have had a similar life as his character, someone who at a young age has been involved in enough trauma, trouble and misery to last an entire lifetime, when in fact he is only a boy. This has been seen as Truffaut’s semi-autobiography, and even those who aren’t familiar with Truffaut or had no idea of this fact can speculate when Doinel ditches school one day with a friend to see a movie. Truffaut claims that the movies saved him many times, and the same can be said about Doinel. I find that sometimes the greatest films are the personal ones—the ones that directors care about deeply and somehow reflect on their own life, like Scorsese’s Raging Bull or Fellini’s 8 ½. The saying for writers is, “write what you know”—directors who follow this oftentimes make a very powerful impact on cinema. Scorsese certainly did, Fellini certainly did, and when Truffaut first attempted to, he created one of the most haunting films ever with The 400 Blows.
The film had an astronomical effect on the evolution of cinema, as it was arguably the opening film of the French New Wave, a collection of cinema-crazy filmmakers in the late-fifties to late-sixties, which included Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer (all three from the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema), Jacques Demy, Georges Franju, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, 400 Blows cinematographer Henri Decae, etc. The French New Wave introduced the famed “auteur” theory to cinema (stating that some directors were authors of their films and left a irretrievable mark on them with a particular directing style) and included many influential pieces that were to become staples of film and prime examples of modern cinema (such as Godard’s Breathless, (1960)). Truffaut dedicated the film to French film critic Andre Bazin, a mentor of Truffaut’s at Cahiers du Cinema. Here at Cahiers, Truffaut devised the auteur theory mentioned above, and wrote a piece entitled Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français (“A Certain Trend of French Cinema”), a controversial bashing of the then-popular French cinematic style. Truffaut was seen as “The Gravedigger of French Cinema” and was widely dismissed from festivals and critic gatherings. Then, inspired by the 1958 Orson Welles film noir Touch of Evil, Truffaut set out to shoot 400 Blows.
In the film, Antoine’s peers (the adults at least) are affected by his troublesome manner and frequent mishaps, particularly his targeting schoolteacher, not hesitant to punish Antoine at all. He is portrayed as a misunderstood individual, yet still a difficult young boy and indeed somewhat of a troublemaker, almost as if Truffaut was both apologetic and defensive about his own childhood. We see how he is not a truly rotten brute, and Leaud’s honest look at the character makes the audience entirely sympathetic. We can remember times when we were completely misjudged as a child, as Doinel is, and all viewers will have a very special memory of these occurences as they are watching. However, this film isn’t a gimmick. It doesn’t rely on overused, platitudinous nostalgia or “Hey! You were once a child so we force you to be sympathetic! Now!” It truly is a masterpiece of genius acting and direction. Such films are certainly misguided and poorly-directed, but The 400 Blows is certainly not.
The score for this film, composed by Jean Constantin, is perfectly paired with the action. It is at times whimsical, wondrous, beckoning—and yet also very resistant and uncertain, like Doinel in the film, and these melodies seem to rotate throughout the hundred-minute runtime. It is a dramatic soundtrack but it has joy; when Doinel is alone in his room and we experience quieter moments with him, where we lights candles to shrines and is caught up in the work of Honore de Balzac, or when he goes to the amusement park with his friend—the soundtrack is joyful and youthful—and this is what Doinel seeks. He wants joy, and these subtle moments in the film grant him this. These are quiet moments, and some of the best moments in the film, where we can see Doinel’s life at home, by himself, when no one’s looking. He is, by any means, just a child here.
The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the international festival located in Truffaut’s home country, who also received a Best Director honor. When at Cannes, Jean-Pierre Leaud was asked about a particular scene in which Antoine is questioned and interrogated, confessing to his crimes, almost like an adult criminal. The reporter asked him, “Did you have a feeling, while filming that scene, the confession of a 14-year-old, that you were doing something wrong?” Leaud replied, “No, not at all—on the contrary. I felt people needed to know what it’s like to be 14. It was portrayed well in the film. All children are like that at that age.” Leaud also claimed Truffaut gave him an entire month to prepare for the scene, telling him it had to be the most important and best sequence in the movie. This scene reflects the character of Antoine perfectly; he knows what he’s doing is wrong, and still deserves punishment, but he is still in many ways just a child, who’s being treated like an animal in a cage. This is also seen, quite literally, when he is thrown into prison with prostitutes and thieves, all ranging different stages in adulthood.
The final shot is among the most captivating in cinema—Doinel is playing soccer with all the other boys at the detention center, and he escapes through the surrounding wire. He runs to the sea, a sight he’s never laid eyes on before. Once he gets there, he seems happy—for a moment. He lets the water rise above his feet, and the film ends on a freeze-frame of his uncertain, prolonging face—where will he go? What will he do for the rest of his life? Truffaut leaves the boy’s life at the credits at the point where he is most vulnerable. The boy seems to have no future, so cutting it from the film is a very smart move. The 400 Blows receives its name from an idiom meaning “to raise hell.” Doinel has raised plenty of hell, but now he must decide his future, and how to live under the circumstances he has put himself in. It’s crime, punishment, redemption. And it is one of the greatest cinematic endings ever.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.