sat 18/05/2024

Blu-ray: The 400 Blows | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The 400 Blows

Blu-ray: The 400 Blows

Truffaut’s first feature, this French New Wave classic is as fresh as ever

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel

Many groundbreaking cinema classics remain frozen in a particular zeitgeist, but François Truffaut’s first feature, from the early days of the French New Wave, is not one of them. Released in 1959, The 400 Blows (Les 400 coups) is so adventurous in style, without ever being pretentious, the coming-of age story it vividly tells so engaging, and the performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud so thrilling, that it remains fresh and relevant to this day.

Léaud, a mixture of cocksure arrogance and touching vulnerability, already evident in his impressive and touching screen test (which is among the extras on this BFI release), plays Antoine Doinel, a cinema-crazy character loosely based on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood. He is the boy who answers back in class, bunks off whenever the spirit moves him, playing adult before his time, falling foul of parental and every other kind of authority. That the film should have stood out as a clarion call for a new French cinema, rests in large part on the flavour which Léaud brings to the role.

There is a joyful anti-authoritarianism, characteristically Gallic – very different from the rebellion of Lindsay Anderson’s angry public school boys in “If…” (1968) – but with something instead of the anarchistic insouciance, insolence and folly that recalls Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933), and which will inhabit many of the lead characters in Godard’s cinema.

The 400 BlowsThe visual style reflects the main character's attempt to break loose from constraints: there are surprisingly long takes which draw the audience into the narrative, playful overhead shots that give a comic aspect to ordinary life, and a brilliant session with a police psychologist, with a fixed shot on the film’s hero, that dissolves rather than cuts, from one part of the interview to the next. There are lyrical tracking shots, as in the opening sequence which reveals Paris as a place of dreams, and the two shots that lead into the film’s final freeze frame: one along country lanes, following Doinel as he escapes from the French-style borstal to which his parents and the judicial system have consigned him, the next when he hits the beach running – his first sight of the sea – and courses relentlessly towards the waves. Rarely has a specific kind of shot (the tracking shot here known as un travelling in French) expressed so powerfully an essential human emotion, in this case, a young person’s resolve for emancipation.

Other disc extras include Les mistons, a charming short Truffaut made in 1957. As with Les 400 coups, the film includes several entrancing tracking shots – with a very sensual Bernadette Lafont riding a bicycle to the delight of a group of mischievous boys – a device that re-appeared, with the same irresistible magic in Truffaut’s classic Jules et Jim (1962). The delight displayed in these freewheeling rides, magnificently captured by the camera, is central to the appeal of a cinema that found new freedom, just as Antoine Doinel’s quest for emancipation continues to call for the constant questioning of received values and authority. Translating the film’s title as The 400 Blows misses the point, as the French original is about sowing wild oats and breaking free, not about the school of hard knocks.

The visual style reflects the main character's attempt to break loose from constraints


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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