The 400 Blows

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(1959, directed by Francois Truffaut)

- inducted 2014 –

“Two years before The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut directed Les Mistons; a short following a group of young boys obsessed with an older teenage girl. While stalking her at a tennis court one of the boys steps on the groundskeeper’s hose, cutting off the water supply. When the groundskeeper looks into the hose, the boy steps off of it and a burst of water sprays the groundskeeper in the face. The moment is a direct homage to Louis Lumiere’s 1895 film The Sprinkler Sprinkled, only in the original the boy is manhandled and severely spanked for his practical joke. The Lumiere short can be read as The 400 Blows concentrate, encapsulating in 30 seconds the mischievous nature of Antoine Doinel and the overly cruel reactions of the adults in his world.

“Truffaut weaves in moments of film history within The 400 Blows as well. We are first introduced to Antoine in a classroom where boys pass around a picture of a pinup girl, just as Professor Rath’s students did in The Blue Angel. In one of the The 400 Blows most delightful scenes, a group of students follow a gym instructor as he leads them through the streets and the kids duck out of line, hiding behind cars or escaping at crossroads. The sequence, including the bird’s eye view camera placement, is lifted from Jean Vigo’s similarly themed masterpiece, Zero for Conduct.

“When Truffaut, the adult auteur, aptly uses references to inform our understanding of his film by knowingly nodding to classics, he is rightfully praised. When Antoine, the adolescent author, uses a reference to Balzac’s The Quest of the Absolute to inform an essay about the death of his grandfather, he is accused of plagiarism and expelled from school. Antoine gets spanked even when he doesn’t spray the sprinkler. The lack of proportionate justice informs Antoine’s behavior. While never naively portrayed as purely innocent - see the Michelin Guide incident - Antoine often attempts to be good, only to be unfairly punished at the slightest slip up by adults who behaved no better than he did.

“’As I saw it, the life of a child was made up of guilt bearing malfeasances, whereas adult offenses were regarded as simple accidents.’ Truffaut writes in his 1971 essay ‘Who Is Antoine Doinel?’ When Antoine skips school, he catches his mother kissing a stranger in public. The mother’s indiscretion is slightly hinted at during an argument with his father, but is otherwise unpunished. A simple accident. Antoine’s truancy leads to him telling the teacher that his mother has died, so that he won’t have to produce a note. The teacher, dubbed ‘Sourpuss,’ is kind to Antoine for the first time in the film. Antoine though, feels more guilt for this lie than usual. He isn’t even able to admit his crime to his best friend, Rene. The lie unravels when his parents come to the school. The camera zooms in to a close-up of Antoine as the weight of his malfeasance crashes in on him.

“The zoom informs The 400 Blows’ iconic final shot. After stealing and then attempting to return his father’s typewriter, Antoine is placed in a home for troubled youth. After relinquishing custody of Antoine, his mother requests a place ‘near the seashore.’ After spending a few nights, and being slapped for taking a bite of bread too early, Antoine escapes and runs to the nearby beach. Earlier in the film Antoine mentioned to Rene that he has never seen the ocean. During an English lesson, a teacher prompted the students to answer the question, ‘Where is the girl?’ with ‘The beach.’ Their broken English makes beach sound like bitch; while in French the word for sea, ‘la mer,’ is a homophone for ‘la mere,’ mother. After escaping, running to the sea that could represent a substitute for maternal love, Antoine turns and faces the camera directly. The frame freezes and zooms in to a close-up of his ambiguous expression. The moment is shocking for its formal brazenness; but its weight also comes from the rhyme it creates with the earlier zoom in/close-up suggesting Antoine is aware that he has created his troubles and feels just as trapped in the openness of the sea as he did in the interior of the classroom.

“My French film professor, the incomparable Judith Mayne, pointed out the French connection between the words for sea and mother. She also suggested that Antoine’s gravity defying ride on the Rotor, a ride Truffaut shares in a cameo, was meant to evoke a zoetrope; linking the joy Antoine expresses on the ride to Truffaut’s reeling movie love. Since I’ve restrained up to this point, I wanted to end by expressing the absolute joy upon first seeing The 400 Blows. My 16 year old self connected profoundly to Antoine’s sense of societal injustice and adult hypocrisy. When the final freeze frame/close-up/zoom in happened I literally gasped. It felt like looking in a mirror. I, along with most people my age, felt just as lost and confused as Antoine. I realize now how lucky I was to see this as an adolescent. Though my days of relating directly to the young Antoine are long gone, I can still appreciate The 400 Blows as a masterpiece of classic French cinema. I just hope young kids are still finding it outside of academia, and appreciating it as a badass, fuck-the-man, punk rock film too.”

~ Kevin Cecil

Original title: Les quatre cents coups
Principal cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flamant, Patrick Auffay, Daniel Couturier, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jeanne Moreau, with uncredited appearances by Philippe De Broca, Jacques Demy, and Francois Truffaut
Screenplay by Francois Truffaut (scenario), Marcel Moussy & Francois Truffaut (adaptation), Marcel Moussy (dialogue)
Director of photography: Henri Decaë
Set decoration by Bernard Evein
Film editing by Marie Josèphe-Yoyotte
Original music by Jean Constantin
Sound by Jean-Claude Marchetti (sound), Jean Labussière (sound assistant)
Produced by Francois Truffaut (uncredited)
Dedicated to André Bazin

Duration: 99 minutes
Languages: French, English
Filmed in black and white
Sound mix: Mono
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Dyaliscope)

Produced by Les Films du Carosse, Sédif Productions
Released in USA by Zenith International Films
Premiered at the Cannes Film Fesitval on 4 May 1959
USA release date: 16 November 1959

Awards and honors:
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 8 August 1999
- Cannes Film Festival, 1959: Best Director, Francois Truffaut (won)
- Cannes Film Festival, 1959: OCIC Award, Francois Truffaut (won)
- NYFCC Award, New York Film Critics Circle, 1959: Best Foreign Language Film (won)
- Cannes Film Festival, 1959: Palme d’Or (nominated)
- Academy Awards (USA), 1959: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (nominated)
- BAFTA Awards, 1959: Best Film From Any Source (nominated)
- BAFTA Awards, 1959: Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles, Jean-Pierre Léaud (nominated)