What is the most important movie ever made? Everyone has a different answer to this conundrum. Is it Battleship Potemkin? Is it Man with a Movie Camera? Is it Nanook of the North? Is it 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is it Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow? For me, however, the answer is The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s directorial debut. The 400 Blows is responsible for the likes of Godard, Coppola, Spielberg and Scorsese. It sparked the French New Wave, shaped the New Hollywood movement, and influenced the rise of independent filmmaking in the 90s. Every one of its 100 minutes is ground-breaking, momentous and influential. It is one of the first films where realism and style coexist in perfect harmony, and is frequently cited as being one of the most flawless films ever made. And it does what all my favourite movies do: its surface storyline is specific and focused, but acts as a metaphor for some universal human concern.
Indeed, all my favourite films uphold an appropriate balance between the universal and the personal, but The 400 Blows balances the two better than any other film I’ve seen. It is entirely focused on the actions, reactions, adventures and misadventures of one Parisian boy, Antoine Doinel. However it transcends being merely the story of one boy’s rebellious inclinations. It is an allegory for the loss of youthful innocence; for the totalising power of institutional ideologies; for the tragedy of being misunderstood by society; and for the consequences of sedition.
Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Antoine, a 12-year-old boy who becomes gradually marginalised, and marginalises himself, from Parisian society. He is despised by his school teacher, and is completely misunderstood by his mother (Claire Maurier) and his stepfather (Albert Remy). We may not like Antoine – he is a rebellious, selfish brat – but we begin to understand him in a way that none of his fellow characters do. Simply, we spend more time with him than any of the other characters do. He ceases attending school, giving the false excuse that his mother has died, and he begins to sleep rough in the underground of metropolitan Paris. All the while we are there, experiencing what he experiences, living what he lives.
The 400 Blows came at the end of the 1950s, one of the most dull movie decades ever, and revitalised the form. After a decade of stale romances and uninspiring musicals, The 400 Blows injected a fresh sense of realism into the filmmaking art, and changed the course of cinema forever. Throughout the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, auteurist directors began depicting violence, language and sex in a more gritty and realistic manner. Though The 400 Blows has no explicit violence, language or sex, the roots of New Hollywood naturalism lie in this film. For further evidence, look no further than the fact that Truffaut was originally set to direct Bonnie and Clyde – the film widely considered to be the first of the New Hollywood era.
Dialogue is not a means to an end, but is an end in and of itself. It is used to show the characters’ values and emotions, whilst possessing a consistently witty tone. You get the sense that this is how real people really speak, and as much as I love Classic Hollywood, this is a sense that I rarely get from the films that preceded The 400 Blows. You can’t really imagine Humphrey Bogart saying these lines (not merely because they’re in French). The script itself does not follow a conventional narrative, but instead follows a Neorealist ‘art narrative’. Central to the film is a character with ambiguous emotions and experiences that do not follow a convenient structure, but rather feel like feasible occurrences in his life.
Yet this emphasis of ‘substance’ never seems to be at the expense of ‘style’. There is still an element of the fantastical and grandiose in the cinematography: the opening credits expose myriad images of Paris through a variety of camera angles and kinetic movements; when Antoine misses school to visit an amusement park, Truffaut frames the rotor and carousels with a dizzying opulence; and, of course, there is that beautiful, extended high-angle shot of Antoine and his classmates following their physical education teacher through the streets and slowly breaking away from the main party. However, these scenes do not serve to propel the plot, and instead serve to substantiate the milieu and heighten Antoine’s sense of being overpowered by his surroundings. The 400 Blows is one of the first films made up predominantly of scenes that could seemingly be cut from the film without impeding the plot.
It is such a personal story, in all senses of the word. It is a personal story for Truffaut himself, and the film acts as something of a cinematic memoir of his childhood. Truffaut was a troubled, defiant youth, much like Antoine, and found an escapist, transformative solace in the cinema, much like Antoine. And this is where the film hits me most poignantly. While I cannot relate to Antoine’s struggle as a mischievous and disrespectful youth living on the streets of Paris, I can relate to the idea that cinema and cinephilia can act as a formative element of one’s childhood. Maybe you’ll relate to his loss of innocence or his sense of total isolation. We understand and sympathise with Antoine unlike any other child character portrayed on the big screen. Eventually. He is certainly precocious and slightly unlikeable, but as the film progresses, we begin to understand just how misunderstood he is – we begin to perceive him as a tragic figure, a victim of social ostracism.
The only place to end with The 400 Blows is the end itself. The final frame of the film freezes on the fixating image of Antoine’s frightened, forlorn, forsaken face. His eyes stare directly into the camera, into our eyes. To appropriate a well-worn cliché, if the eyes are the window to the soul, then we have just witnessed a soul unravel itself before our very eyes. We have been the voyeur of every detail of a young boy’s personal story: a story that can mean something personal to everyone willing to witness it.