If there was any place to start a dive into the French New Wave, any key figure to visit first, it would have to be the spearhead of the cinematic movement — the ever-prolific Francois Truffaut. Truffaut’s name is difficult to avoid wherever the history of cinema is brought up. Even for me, someone without any proper film theory education, his name is the first to pop up in any internet search, the first mentioned in any academic reading, the first slid into any conversation — and after watching “The 400 Blows” this week, I can’t say I’m surprised.
The autobiographical “The 400 Blows” follows young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an emotionally abandoned Parisian boy with a propensity for mischief that stems from troubled childhood years. Doinel never seems like a particularly bad kid, he thieves and he lies and he skips class to go to the cinema, but the child never acts malicious or vindictive in any way.
All things considered, the treatment that he receives from his parents and from his teacher feels unwarranted, as though there’s something else we cannot see. The film gives its answer in the form of a great scene just before the end where Doinel explains the trials of his early life to a child psychiatrist at a delinquents detention center. He speaks candidly about his mother’s contempt for him, and of her wish for an abortion.
As the veil is lifted on Doinel’s past, the poor boy’s reality on screen begin to make unfortunate sense. The “Blows” in the title is apparently a poor translation for a french idiom; a more accurate translation of the meaning of the title would be “The 400 Practical Jokes.”
The film’s honesty is its greatest strength. Much praise can be given to Truffaut’s writing and his directing, but Léaud stole the show. He is resigned, and far too mature for his age, as he relays to the doctor the truths of his life. Throughout the film he is happy, interested and engaged in his life, emotions which seem more important once its known what is going on under the surface.
In terms of the script, Truffaut is careful with his honesty. He doesn’t toss the pain of his protagonist out in front of the audience up front, he waits and lets Léaud build up his own reputation before throwing it on its head. The partnership between the real Antoine Doinel and the one that appears on screen is masterful, and I think it has a lot to do with how close Truffaut was personally to the subject matter at hand.
Throughout his career, Truffaut was outspoken on his belief that there should be a personal connection between the filmmaker and their film, much in the way an author’s specific and individual voice shapes their novel. This idea became the foundation for Truffuat’s well documented “auteur theory,” which first appeared in his 1954 essay “Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français,” and built upon the concepts introduced by Astruc a decade before.
The bulk of the essay is criticism against the status-quo French cinema of the time. Many of the films receiving critical acclaim in the middle of the century were adaptations of great works of literature for the screen. While Truffaut doesn’t argue against the craftsmanship, he calls for a shift in the types of stories told: Away from recycled goods to narratives written for the screen, declaring an adaptation only of value when written by “a man of the cinema.”
One other thing that interested me in “Certaine Tendance” was Truffaut’s description of a specific story archetype that he didn’t want to see anymore. As he writes, “It is not exaggerating to say that the hundred-odd french films made each year tell the same story: It’s always a question of a victim… the knavery of his kin and the hatred among the members of his family lead the ‘hero’ to his doom… the principal character, normally constituted when the curtain rises on him, finds himself crippled at the end of the play.” Truffaut stands firmly against helpless protagonists or protagonists who don’t have enough moral substance to resist temptation that would pull them away from their principles. I guess Truffaut wouldn’t like “Boogie Nights.”
Truffaut’s legacy stretches much further than “Certaine Tendance” and “The 400 Blows.” He became obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock and greater America as a whole in the 1960s and his films likewise took a bit more of a commercial turn. “The 400 Blows” lives up to its legacy seventy years later, it’s subject matter and the great performance by Léaud up front making it accessible to anyone.
The film benefits from its focus on childhood. More than any other narrative type, I find coming of age stories and stories with young protagonists in general are oftentimes easier to sympathize with. They lose less over time as the sorts of difficulties the characters face seem to be relatively universal. “The 400 Blows” takes this familiar narrative and elevates it. And after my two watches for this column, it has quickly become my favorite foreign film I’ve seen to date.
“The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first persona and will relate what has happened to them. It may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service… and it will be enjoyable because it will be true, and new… The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.”
— François Truffaut, May 1957 for Arts Magazine