“I lie… but only once in a while. At times, if I told the truth they wouldn’t believe me. So I tell lies.”
– Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Les Quatre cents coups
In the first scenes of François Truffaut’s Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), a harassed schoolmaster (Guy Decomble) is trying – and failing – to control a class of rowdy boys. Fed up with the catcalls, the graffiti on the walls, the passing of nude photos from desk to desk, he explodes at his pupils in a fury: “What will France be like 10 years from now?!” It’s one of the great prophetic lines in the history of film. Almost a decade after this scene was shot, France was in the grip of its greatest political and social upheaval since the Liberation and the end of World War II. In May of 1968, rioting students took to the streets and demanded that everything in society had to change. They were, for the most part, disaffected sons of the bourgeoisie – the very children depicted so vividly in this film.
Watching The 400 Blows today, it’s hard not to feel as if “the events” of 1968 began in that onscreen classroom ten years before. Unlike, say, the orphans in a Dickens novel, the boys in this film are not malnourished or materially deprived. They are subject, instead, to a constant and soulless regimentation – designed to turn them into model citizens of a society they do not (and have no wish to) understand. The film’s hero, 13-year-old Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), is by no means the only child who rebels. He is, rather, the scapegoat – the child whose rebellion is caught out and punished, forcing him into ever more drastic acts of defiance and, finally, into all-out flight. As Arlene Croce wrote on the film’s triumphant American release, “The 400 Blows is a film about freedom” (1).
The film’s characters and incidents were based on the early life of it director. Like Doinel, Truffaut was raised in a petit bourgeois milieu, with a distant mother and a father who was not his real father. A rebellious teen, he played truant from school and spent his days at the movies. He was locked up in a reformatory in 1948 and incarcerated in a military prison in 1951, after deserting from the army. It was the film critic André Bazin who secured his release – and set him on his path first as a critic and then as a director. The 400 Blows is tinged, inevitably, with love and bitterness towards his family. As Truffaut wrote in 1962: “I have always loved my father and my mother; I have not always loved my parents” (2).
Seeking a young actor to play the autobiographical hero in The 400 Blows – his first feature after three short films – Truffaut placed an ad in the newspaper France-Soir. Of the nearly 400 boys who answered, it was 14-year-old Léaud who stood out. Son of a screenwriter and an actress, Léaud was also a troubled youth whose school career was shaping up as disastrously as Truffaut’s had. “Sloppiness, arrogance, permanent defiance, indiscipline in all its forms” (3), the head teacher wrote, in a vain effort to dissuade Truffaut from giving him the job. In a word, the young Léaud was perfect casting. He would play Truffaut’s onscreen alter ego in four more Antoine Doinel films: L’Amour á vingt ans (Love at Twenty, 1962), Baisers voles (Stolen Kisses, 1968), Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board, 1970) and l’Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979). Becoming the key actor of the nouvelle vague, he was an alter ego not just for Truffaut but also for the whole Generation of ’68. These young student radicals (known as soixante-huitards) would outgrow their youthful rebellion and become – like their parents – unwillingly middle-aged and middle class.
Yet Léaud did more than simply play Antoine Doinel. He also played a key role in shaping the character. In writing his initial script, Truffaut recalled: “I saw Antoine as more fragile, wilder, less aggressive; Jean-Pierre gave him health, aggressiveness, courage” (4). This boy actor improvised much of the famous scene where Antoine, now locked in a reformatory, is grilled by a child psychiatrist. The camera is focused constantly on Antoine in a series of time-lapses – with no reaction shots or questions in voiceover. (Allegedly, an actress signed to play the psychiatrist but failed to show up on the day.) Antoine reveals how his mother first planned to abort him and relented only when his grandmother intervened. As Richard Neupert describes it,
Antoine is obviously troubled by the circumstances of his birth and his mother’s selfishness. Yet, soon afterward he mentions that he robbed his grandmother occasionally since she was old and did not need much money. Suddenly, the audience is faced with recalibrating their opinion of this thankless little boy who robs the older woman to whom he owes his life. (5)
Allowing a victimised child to be less than wholly sympathetic – in ways that only a real-life child could ever be – Truffaut consolidates The 400 Blows as an act of rebellion. It is not just Antoine who is a rebel, or Truffaut on whose early life the film is based. The film, in its conception and mise en scène, constituted an all-out rebellion against the established tenets of French cinema.
As a young critic for Arts and Cahiers du cinéma, Truffaut had railed savagely against films in the “Tradition of Quality” – those glacially elegant literary adaptations that dominated French production in the ’40s and ’50s. His most brutal and notorious review had been of Chiens perdus sans collier (Lost Dogs without Collars, Jean Delannoy, 1955), which had tackled the problem of delinquent minors: “Chiens perdus sans collier is not a failure. It is a crime, perpetrated according to certain rules… [and] set to images by a man who lacks the intelligence to be a cynic, who is too corrupt to be sincere, too pretentious and solemn to be simple, Jean Delannoy.” (6)
This particular piece of journalism had earned Truffaut a solicitor’s letter from the director – one of the most prominent and successful figures in the French cinema of the day. Never a man to grovel or eat his words, Truffaut further ridiculed the film in his 1957 short Les Mistons (The Brats). Spotting a poster that advertises Chiens perdus sans collier, the anarchic and half-wild urchins of the title gleefully tear it from the wall.
To anyone who has actually seen Delannoy’s film, Truffaut’s attacks may seem groundless and needlessly cruel. Chiens perdus sans collier is a humane and intelligent piece of work – splendidly acted, skilfully written and exquisitely shot. Its opening scene, in which a boy inadvertently sets fire to a barn, is a particular stylistic tour de force. A parallel scene in The 400 Blows – where Antoine lights a candle in front of a portrait of Balzac, and all but burns down the family home – is alarmingly similar in its content, but far less inventive in its editing and camerawork. We may wonder, at moments, if Truffaut was jealous of men more talented than he was.
Yet for all its many virtues, Chiens perdus sans collier commits the one crime The 400 Blows does not. Sentimentalising its child delinquents and victims, it portrays them as pathetic, almost Dickensian figures. It tells the story, not just of one troubled child, but of a number of different children in separate narratives, relating them (if at all) through the star presence of Jean Gabin as a kindly judge – a consummate figure of benign bourgeois authority. All this, of course, was anathema to Truffaut and his cohorts in the nouvelle vague. Chiens perdus sans collier is a filmmaking in the third person, albeit of a very high order. The 400 Blows is first-person cinema par excellence.
More than 50 years on from the critical bloodbath that launched the nouvelle vague, it should be possible to watch films by both Truffaut and Delannoy, and to assess both on their own merits. While they make unpleasant reading today, Truffaut’s diatribes against gifted filmmakers in the “Tradition of Quality” were not simply an end in themselves. They were a necessary step, perhaps, in the formation of his style. The 400 Blows may lack the sheer professionalism and technical polish of many of the films that came before it. As Robert Benayoun wrote in 1962: “The Nouvelle Vague is a school of critics who dare each other actually to try their hand at film-making. It is film-making to see if one is capable of film-making.” (7) Yet as Truffaut grapples for new ways of filming – and Antoine for some way of living – the film like the character “becomes impressively complex and alive” (8).
In May of 1959, The 400 Blows won the Grand Prize for Direction at the Cannes Film Festival, an event from which Truffaut (as a critic) had been barred the year before. This triumph effectively launched Truffaut, Léaud and the nouvelle vague onto the world stage. In May 1968, Truffaut was instrumental in shutting down that same festival – an act of solidarity with the poetic yet doomed student uprising:
“I can see him,” wrote his friend Georges Kiejman, “in the Avenue Albert-de-Mun, running like a rabbit and dashing through the cars, to be up in front with those who got beaten by the police. When I saw him race in front of me, he was the teenage boy from The 400 Blows. At that moment I knew that, whatever age he might live to, that man would always be a child.” (9)
Has any critic summed up The 400 Blows in quite that way?
The 400 Blows will screen at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) as part of a program stream on Jean-Pierre Léaud, co-curated with Philippa Hawker. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. Arlene Croce, “A Review”, The 400 Blows – A Film by François Truffaut, ed. David Denby, Grove Press, New York, 1969, p. 252.
2. Letter quoted in Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, François Truffaut, Gallimard, Paris, 1996, p. 211. Translation from French by author.
3. De Baecque and Toubiana, p. 192.
4. Truffaut quoted in Naomi Greene, The French New Wave – A New Look, Wallflower Press, London and New York, 2007, p. 73.
5. Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema, 2nd ed., University of Wisconsin Press, Madison and London, 2007, p. 184.
6. Truffaut quoted in De Baecque and Toubiana, p. 150.
7. Robert Benayoun, “The King is Naked”, The New Wave, ed. Peter Graham, Cinema World Series, Doubleday, New York, 1968, p. 163.
8. Neupert, p. 184.
9. De Baecque and Toubiana, pp. 353-354.