When The 400 Blows came out in 1959, it launched François Truffaut (1932-84), only 27, into the movie stratosphere. It was his first film and he won the award for Best Director at Cannes. By Harry Mount
When The 400 Blows came out in 1959, it launched François Truffaut (1932-84), only 27, into the movie stratosphere. It was his first film and he won the award for Best Director at Cannes.
Now a newly restored version of The 400 Blows is being shown across the country (from 7th January). And Truffaut’s masterpiece, Jules et Jim (1962), will be released nationwide from 4th February.
Over 60 years on from that staggering debut, the French New Wave is looking a little old hat, I’m afraid.
You can see why The 400 Blows was revolutionary at the time, in its gritty approach to real life and realistic acting – which still looks realistic today.
‘The 400 blows’ is a French expression, meaning ‘raising hell’ or ‘going for broke’. In the film, it’s 14-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who’s raising hell. Doinel is like a French Just William – wild at his Montmartre school; wild with his glamorous mother and Jack-the-lad stepfather.
Léaud (b. 1944), who went on to work with Truffaut in four more films, is a complete natural: half-scamp, half mini-James Dean. Even as his crimes get worse – bunking off school, smoking and drinking before graduating to stealing a typewriter and going to jail and a French borstal – you can’t help being charmed by his scruffy good looks and cheeky, ironic dismissal of authority.
The qualities of the French New Wave are all here, even at this early stage. There are the long tracking shots of Doinel fleeing his borstal through the French countryside. There’s the palpable feeling of existential despair. As Truffaut said in 1961, ‘The New Wave is neither a movement, nor a school, nor a group – it’s a quality.’
You do get a completely natural feel for late-1950s Paris. The streets of Montmartre, where Doinel does his bunking off, look straight out of a documentary: grimy and austere but still sublimely beautiful under the grey skies.
The greatest scene is when Doinel goes to a puppet show and Truffaut films a group of Parisian schoolchildren at length – transfixed, sometimes laughing, sometimes open-mouthed with excitement. At this moment, it’s more a gripping historical document than a feature film.
In 1959, it was a real achievement to represent real life so convincingly. But most real life isn’t that interesting, particularly with such a basic plot: naughty boy bunks off school; naughty boy goes to prison; naughty boy escapes.
The conversations, like most real-life conversations, are pretty boring and transactional, salvaged only by Léaud’s powerful charm. The little flashes of comedy – such as the PE teacher who leads his schoolboys through Paris, blowing his whistle, doing physical jerks, while they all bunk off behind him and hide in doorways, as he remains oblivious – show the French love for simplistic, not very funny slapstick. Benny Hill did it better.
You can see how the most excruciatingly boring art films – British and American, as well as French – grew out of the New Wave. They have that confidence in not having much of a plot or any interesting dialogue; the self-indulgent shots that go on far too long.
The 400 Blows is too original to be boring. Do go along to watch the birth of a movement – and to see how well the French dressed then: perky bras, battered trenchcoats, tailored suits.
Just don’t expect many laughs or to be that interested.