Weekend Movie Picks is a segment at Shoton35.com, where every 2 weeks on Friday I will pick a movie that’s shot on 35mm film and tell you something about it.
| Moving story of a young boy who, left without attention, delves into a life of petty crime.
François Truffaut began his career with an autobiographical piece based on his unhappy childhood. Sometimes these works are just self-indulgent ways for their creators to exorcise their personal demons—and sometimes, like Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” they go far beyond that. This movie allows those of us who were never young hellraisers like Truffaut or his protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to understand him and discover the universality of his story. The way that Antoine’s family alternates between loudly arguing and pretending that everything is happy is very recognizable. So is the way that Antoine is stuck somewhere between childhood and adolescence and expected to take responsibility for his actions, even though the adults’ rules don’t make sense.
As the pioneer in Cinema Verite, “The 400 Blows” is remarkable in its most original approach (at that time, at least). The ordinary life of a low-income family in a small apartment is portrayed with an almost documentary feel. I have seen a few other Truffaut films, and one of the things I like best about his style is his skillful use of long wordless sequences, often set to music. “The 400 Blows” is full of these, conveying everything from the joy of skipping school and going to the movies, to the panic and exhilaration of a spinning carnival ride, to the poignancy of riding through late-night Paris in a police van. The famous, marvelously ambiguous ending tops them all. This innovative style was groundbreaking in its time and started what became known as the “French New Wave”.
” I still retain from my childhood a great anxiety, and the movies are bound up with an anxiety, with an idea of something clandestine.”
– François Truffaut
There are a few instants where you find yourself laughing in quite the same way you would during a Billy Wilder movie. One moment in particular, which you might go as far as to call a sight gag, shot from above the street, shows a physical education teacher leading the boys on a routine run around a few blocks in town. Two by two they scramble into truancy, until the teacher is the leader of a rank and file of only two or three boys. There is a wonderful mostly wordless runaway bout with Antoine and his delinquent friend, who’s afforded such freewheeling freedom that he has a daily life that thrives on impulsive chaos and spontaneous theft, which of course infatuates our angry young hero.
“I lie now and then, I suppose. Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.”
Much of the praise must go to Jean-Pierre Léaud, who never even seems to be acting. His every movement, thought, expression come across as completely natural. Truly, one of the most remarkable performances of such a young actor I’ve ever seen. Watching this over 57 years after it was made, it all looks deceptively simple, with Truffaut’s perfect integration of music and image, location shooting on the streets of Paris and the naturalistic performances.
Truffaut used many innovations but they are not easily noticeable as in Godard’s work. This was for instance the first French film to be shot in widescreen (aspect ratio 2.35:1), which required much planning on Truffaut’s part, with some surprising results. In many scenes we don’t see the other person Antoine is talking to, which gives the viewer the illusion as if Antoine is almost talking directly to the camera. Jean-Pierre Léaud would continue his role as Antoine in four more films by Truffaut, “Love at Twenty” (1962), “Stolen Kisses” (1968), “Bed and Board” (1970) and “Love on the Run” (1979).
Truffaut’s primary idea, after making his short “Les Mistons”, wanted to make a short film for this story, which was to be titled “Antoine Runs Away”. When asked by the “New Yorker” on why he made the story longer;
“It was because I was disappointed by “Les Mistons,” or at least by its brevity. You see, I had come to reject the sort of film made up of several skits or sketches. So I preferred to leave “Les Mistons” as a short and to take my chances with a full-length film by spinning out the story of “Antoine Runs Away.” Of the five or six stories I had already outlined, this was my favorite, and it became ‘The 400 Blows’.
“Antoine Runs Away” was a twenty-minute sketch about a boy who plays hooky and, having no note to hand in as an excuse, makes up the story that his mother has died. His lie having been discovered, he does not dare go home and spends the night outdoors. I decided to develop this story with the help of Marcel Moussy, at the time a television writer whose shows for a program called “If It Was You” were very realistic and very successful. They always dealt with family or social problems. Moussy and I added to the beginning and the end of Antoine’s story until it became a kind of chronicle of a boy’s thirteenth year—of the awkward early teenaged years.
In fact, “The 400 Blows” became a rather pessimistic film. I can’t really say what the theme is—there is none, perhaps—but one central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about “the good old days,” the salad days of youth. Because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories. Now, when I feel blue, I tell myself, “I’m an adult. I do as I please,” and that cheers me up right away. But then, childhood seemed like such a hard phase of life; you’re not allowed to make any mistakes. Making a mistake is a crime: you break a plate by mistake and it’s a real offense. That was my approach in “The 400 Blows,” using a relatively flexible script to leave room for improvisation, mostly provided by the actors. I was very happy in this respect with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, who was quite different from the original character I had imagined. And as we improvised more, the film became more pessimistic, then—in brief spurts, as a contrary reaction—so high-spirited that it almost became optimistic.
– François Truffaut
The filmmaking team had to experiment a lot with this movie. For instance, all spoken lines in the film are dubbed over again by the actors themselves, save for a few minor and trivial parts. During the last scene, the sound of Antoine’s footsteps was added during editing – the truck that the camera rested upon produced too much noise. Shooting on the streets of Paris, as many films of the French New Wave did, was often hectic and re-dubbing everything allowed François Truffaut to not have to worry about lugging bulky and expensive sound equipment around, and more importantly he would not have to worry about a street scene having too much background noise. This made shooting faster and easier.
The 400 Blows was a big winner at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and is a landmark piece of International Cinema, and by many critics’ accounts ranks among the finest films ever made. A true classic and one of François Truffaut best films.