“The 400 Blows” is legendary French filmmaker François Truffaut’s feature film debut. Released in 1959 as part of the French New Wave, it has since become recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time. The film’s original title, “Les Quatre Cents Coups,” is a saying that roughly translates to “raising hell.” It follows 14-year-old Antoine Doinel, an aimless, neglected, and detached Parisian boy who, after a series of unfortunate events and poor choices, turns to petty crime.
Truffaut created one of cinema’s most relatable and deeply layered characters in Antoine. He doesn’t really fit into any social group or have any clear goals/passions in life. He wanders aimlessly, focusing on the present rather than the future. There’s a lot of disconnection and apathy to his character, although he cares for his friend to a certain extent. While he steals a typewriter late in the film, it doesn’t come from a place of great passion. In fact, the character is quite stoic and straight-faced throughout.
Everyone in life has moments of doubt or rebelliousness where they feel misunderstood or unsatisfied. Antoine isn’t just a “bad boy” who wants to go against the system because society. His actions come from a place of poor parenting, poverty, and plain bad luck. For instance, in the opening scene where the students in Antoine’s class are passing around a note, the teacher discovers it exactly when it’s passed to Antoine, and then punishes him accordingly. Later, when he returns the typewriter he stole (out of both a guilty conscience and uncertainty as to what to do with it), he gets caught and punished for attempting to steal it. While Antoine definitely makes poor choices in the film, his motivations are always understandable and well developed.
The fact that this is Truffaut’s first ever feature film is incredible. His script is absolutely immaculate; not a scene, line of dialogue, or action is wasted. The film is packed full of heart throughout. It’s clear that this was a personal story to him, as “The 400 Blows” is based on Truffaut’s own childhood. If today’s filmmakers were to make an autobiographical film, they would write themselves as noble, flawless, and altruistic heroes – basically obnoxious. Truffaut did the opposite. Of course, Antoine is a lovable protagonist, but he’s definitely imperfect. There’s plenty of times over the course of the film where he has the opportunity to do the right thing but takes the easier, riskier route instead. He is a thief and a pathological liar. Such characterization signifies a self-aware and mature director.
Building on the brilliant screenplay and journey of Antoine, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance as the lead character is possibly the greatest ever given by a child actor. He plays Antoine with a soft nuance, expressing the character’s emotions with his eyes. Léaud never goes for flashiness. He remains subtle and precise in his performance. His restraint matches the detachment and confusion of Antoine impeccably.
While the writing, direction, and acting are what’s most remarkable about “The 400 Blows,” its technical aspects are just as impressive for the time it was made in. The score by Jean Constantin is beautiful, methodic, and melancholy while also having a youthful, slightly hopeful energy to it. This was also one of the first French films to be shot in the 16:9 ratio, which has become the norm for movies since the 1990s. The movie is still gorgeous to this day and its cinematography was way ahead of its time.
“The 400 Blows” is a deeply personal and intimate study of youth and life’s uncertainties. Truffaut proved himself to be one of the greats right out of the gate with this magnum opus. This film is one of the greatest character studies of all time, and if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it immediately. It’s my favorite non-English language film for a reason.