The late Roger Ebert continues my film education (via his book, The Great Movies) with The 400 Blows – François Truffaut’s first film, and one of the earliest and most influential installments in the French new wave canon.
Much like with Kubrick, I am not at a complete loss when it comes to Truffaut; I have seen (and enjoyed) Shoot the Piano Player, Day for Night, and most of Jules and Jim (not sure why I never finished that one). But The 400 Blows is supposed to be one of Truffaut’s best, so it is high time I gave it watch.
The film follows Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young Parisian boy, as he tries to get by in the world. The deck is stacked against him though, as no one gives him the benefit of the doubt in any situation. His teachers expect the worst, while his mother legitimately seems to despise him at times, treating him well only when it serves her. Despite all of these factors, Antoine has an infectious charisma (a less-restrained writer might call it a “joie de vivre”) that makes his personal journey compelling, even in its smaller moments.
There are several quiet bits of “reality” sprinkled throughout the movie. It is at these times that one comes to realize what a personal project this must be for Truffaut. The writer/director was in his mid-20s during production, just 12 years older than his young star. It had not been so long since Truffaut himself had been a misunderstood youth on the streets of Paris. Truffaut was so satisfied with Léaud’s performance that he continued to work with the actor throughout his career, including three more features and one short featuring the Doinel character. It is easy to see why, as Léaud brings a lot of emotion to the young Doinel, without being off-putting – a major victory for a child actor.
The 400 Blows is definitely an integral piece of Truffaut’s oeuvre, but it is the preamble to the impressive career that would follow. It is rough at times, ultimately serving as a glimpse at the man who would help alter French cinema (and cinema in general) moving forward. I look forward to checking out the rest of the Antoine Doinel series (an interesting companion to Michael Apted’s Up Series and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy), but it may have to wait until Professor Ebert’s syllabus lets up a little; there is a lot of film history left to uncover.