Beginning his career as a critic for the revered French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, François Truffaut saw writing as a way to think about film, the ultimate goal being to make his own. The same principle fuelled his Cahiers colleagues Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette amongst others, and the group would come to be known as the French New Wave, although they were never as united as the phrase might suggest. These filmmakers, who came into their own in the 1960s, single-handedly rejuvenated French cinema and Truffaut’s debut feature The 400 Blows, arguably the defining film of the movement, remains as fresh and modern as ever.
The film follows a young boy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who lives in Paris and is perpetually up to no good. The rebellious Antoine takes every opportunity he can to skip school and hang out with best friend. While Antoine seems quite unlikeable at first, always cracking jokes and interrupting his classes, Truffaut’s perceptive and compassionate camera sticks with him, helping us to learn the incredible amount of pressure the boy is under.
At home his parents ignore him, too engaged in problems of their own. Antoine catches his mother with her lover, whilst his father regularly beats him. At school, none of the adults try to understand why he cannot focus, punishing him instead for his behaviour. His minor acts of delinquency, at first amusing in their absurdity, are soon tainted by Antoine’s muted sadness. As they draw him into a downward spiral with the law, the boy becomes more and more isolated. Ultimately, it is we the audience who are the last people he can turn to, and the film’s bravura ending and final shot is testament to this plea for compassion.
This intensely humane film is largely autobiographical, replicating the circumstances the director found himself in as a child. Rejected by his parents, Truffaut was supported by Andre Bazin, an older film critic who would write the seminal book ‘What is Cinema?’ and wind up being the spiritual father of the Nouvelle Vague. However, far from simply telling his story, The 400 Blows was also the first full realisation of the core Nouvelle Vague principles, emblematic of the turning point in French cinema.
In a seminal text called ‘A Certain Tendency of French Cinema’, Truffaut explicitly deplored the dominant style and subject matters of what was then popular French cinema, namely uninventive imagery, something equivalent to filmed theatre, and straightforward book adaptations which never took into consideration the possibilities of the film medium or the director’s personality. Truffaut’s film is the very opposite of the impersonal ‘Cinema du Papa’ that he describes. The use of hand-held camera, fluid editing and intensely subjective sound and music design bring a sense of vividness and immediacy – the polar opposite of the static cinema he deplored – an aesthetic that remains incredibly gripping.
Doubling as a document of Paris at the beginning of the 1960s, The 400 Blows’ combination of visceral realism and heartbreaking humanism is as engrossing today as it was 56 years ago.
The film screens at Picturehouse Central on Sunday 20 Nov, 3PM.