The 400 Blows: Antoine Doinel's Place in the French New Wave
In 1959, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows won him the award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival. The 400 Blows remains a prime example of the stylistic innovations of the French New Wave. Largely autobiographical, it recounts the story of an adolescent boy “raising hell” (which explains the idiomatic French title Les Quatre Cents Coups) (Fabe 125). Not only is The 400 Blows deeply personal for Truffaut, a common element of many New Wave films, but it also displays many of the cinematic qualities of the film movement, such as the mix of realistic and artistic and the self-reflexivity.
The French New Wave flourished between 1959 and 1963, “when certain historical, technological, and economic factors combined to give considerable influence to a number of young French filmmakers who had started out as film critics, theorists, and historians” (Fabe 120). Well-known New Wave directors like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer wrote for film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, founded and edited by André Bazin (Fabe 120). Even as they began directing films, they continued writing as critics. They were not merely writing movie reviews, but instead revolutionizing film criticism by treating film like an art form and directors as the artists (Wiegand 11).
The "Auteur" and His Camera Stylo
New Wave developed from the theory that film could be as expressive an art form as poetry or literature. With film critic Alexandre Astruc’s idea of the “Camera Stylo” (Camera Pen), New Wave directors developed the auteur theory. A director became the “author” of a film, using the camera as a “pen” to tell the story. In order for film to qualify as art, “there had to be an artist, a central consciousness whose vision is inscribed in the work” (Fabe 121). New Wave directors rejected the traditional notion that the screenwriter is the author of the film. Instead, it is the director who is responsible for overseeing all the decisions that create the images of the film—the sets, editing, cinematography, acting, etc. (Fabe 121).
Furthermore, auteurs leave their prints on their work, their “individual themes, psychological preoccupations, and stylistic practices” (Fabe 122). With The 400 Blows, Truffaut creates a cinema that “speaks of ordinary experiences and situations, fragile individuals, daily recognizable language and emotions where the director displays a non-superior relationship to his characters” (Conomos). Truffaut captures the realities of childhood, both his and ours. As Jacques Rivette wrote in his review of The 400 Blows for Cahiers du Cinéma: “‘in speaking of himself, he seems to be speaking of us’” (Conomos).
An important influence on the French New Wave was Italian Neorealism. New Wave directors learned from Italian directors who shot on location, not in the studio, for practical and financial reasons. Some actors were non-professionals who improvised their lines. Not only did shooting outside of a studio save money, but it allowed directors greater creativity, freedom, and a degree of realism (Wiegand 15). In The 400 Blows, Antoine and his friend René run through the streets of Paris with real Parisians walking by. Truffaut captures the spirit of the city as it provides the boys complete freedom and carefree happiness; they “run down endless tiers of steps, their arms extended, almost as if they were flying” (Fabe 127-8).
After they steal an alarm clock from a ladies’ room, it starts ringing as they take off down the street. Real passers-by stop and stare at the commotion. Such instances add an element of realism to The 400 Blows, as if a documentary camera happened to catch ordinary people in everyday situations. Jean-Pierre Léaud, an ordinary boy with a background similar to Truffaut’s, became Truffaut’s film alter-ego. Asked to improvise his responses to the psychiatrist’s questions, Léaud speaks with language characteristic of a thirteen-year-old boy, even squirming and fidgeting with his hands in a realistic manner.
Another important element of the French New Wave is the idea of art narrative. Art narrative (used in Neorealism and New Wave) abandons the conventional Hollywood narrative mode, and “especially against the cause-effect linkage of events. These linkages become looser, more tenuous in the art film” (Bordwell 775). Characters in art films are psychologically realistic, and unlike Hollywood characters, they may be ambiguous and have unclear motives for their decisions. While the “Hollywood protagonist speeds directly toward the target; lacking a goal, the art-film character slides passively from one situation to another” (Bordwell 776). This statement certainly applies to Antoine, who seems to have no clear goal other than to react against the confining and oppressive adult forces in his life.
Art narrative films are concerned more with reaction than action (Bordwell 776). Certain scenes in The 400 Blows seem to have no other purpose than to show characters as they really are. The scene of Antoine coming home to his apartment, for instance, does little to advance the plot of the story other than to reveal what kind of home life Antoine has. A “latch-key kid,” he arrives at his empty home, starts his homework, explores his mother’s vanity, and sets the table. Another delightful scene occurs with a high-angle overhead shot of the schoolchildren following their gym teacher down the Paris streets. Children break away in small groups until there are only two students following the oblivious jogging instructor. By including this “extended sight gag,” Truffaut does his own breaking away from “the conventions of the tightly constructed plot-driven films of the conventional cinema” (Fabe 129). Again, the scene has no bearing on the overall plot, but instead it “functions thematically as a visual riff on the subject of childhood rebellion against adult regimentation” (Fabe 129).
Antoine makes another bid for freedom in the famous final sequence; escaping from the reform school, he runs tirelessly down the road, all the way to the edge of a beach, where he can run no farther. While a traditional Hollywood chase scene would have quick cuts between the escapee and the pursuer, Truffaut has a long uninterrupted shot of Antoine running (lasting seventy-five seconds), which demonstrates André Bazin’s notion that “some actions need to be represented in real time in order to be dramatically effective” (Fabe 130-1). With Antoine trapped between the land and the sea with nowhere to go, The 400 Blows leaves the audience with an ambiguous ending. There is no clear-cut resolution—does Antoine make it out on his own, or is he brought back to the detention center like the other teenage escapee?
Self-reflexivity in New Wave films
Self-reflexivity is another quality of French New Wave films. New Wave directors “were never afraid to remind their audiences they were watching a film” (Wiegand 22). Camera effects constantly bring the audience back to the realization that The 400 Blows is a film. As mentioned earlier, the scene of the schoolboys escaping from gym class is a high aerial shot; the audience feels as if they too are in the helicopter looking down on the Paris streets. With Antoine’s psychiatric interview, the interviewer is never seen. Antoine seems to speak directly to the camera, and there are several quick jump cuts, as if segments of the interview have been edited out.
Again, there is a documentary style in some of these scenes, as in the opening credits where a camera in a car makes tracking shots of the sights of Paris. Of course, the final freeze-frame and zoom in on Antoine’s face shocked audiences, for such a camera effect was unusual at the time, especially for the very end of the film. With traditional Hollywood films, directors “conceal the traces of the cinematic apparatus so as not to interfere with the spectator’s immersion in the fiction.” Truffaut takes a risk by exposing the artifice of the film medium, and the final shot still has the power to unsettle viewers (Fabe 131).
Other elements of self-reflexive film are in-jokes and references to film. As Chris Wiegand explains, "The pictures of the Cahiers critics became films about films, full of the sorts of in-jokes and cinematic references that you would expect from a school of critics/film-makers who scoured their favourite films like magpies" (22). New Wave stars and directors make cameo appearances in The 400 Blows, such as Truffaut himself in the funfair ride and Jeanne Moreau as the woman chasing her dog. Just as Truffaut and his friends did as children, Antoine and René play hooky to go to the movies. The boys steal a picture of Harriet Andersson from Summer with Monika, another film about youths running away to have a good time. Antoine and his parents go to see Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient (Paris Belongs To Us) (Wiegand 59-60). Thus, Truffaut tips his hat to another New Wave director. Besides these in-jokes and cameos, The 400 Blows calls attention to elements of filmmaking. Antoine gets on a spinning ride that is strongly reminiscent of a zoetrope, a cylindrical device used in early motion pictures.
A Unique Form of Storytelling
An important aspect of film is storytelling. It is no accident that Antoine gets in trouble for stealing a typewriter (an unusual object for someone to steal in the first place). New Wave directors were as concerned with literature as they were film. Balzac was Truffaut’s favorite author, and he is Antoine’s as well (Wiegand 23). However, Antoine’s admiration for Balzac only gets him in trouble. His shrine to the author with a lit candle almost burns down his apartment. When Antoine lovingly recalls his favorite passage from Balzac for a school essay, he is expelled for plagiarism. Truffaut seems to make a point about New Wave directors’ penchant for borrowing from past directors they admire (Wiegand 22). It is not plagiarism but a tribute. Unfortunately for Antoine, all his attempts to express himself in some literary fashion or another (with the shrine, the essay, and the typewriter) only lead to punishment.
The inability to communicate is yet another feature of art films (Bordwell 776). This theme is highlighted in Antoine’s interactions with his parents. When Antoine helps his stepfather make dinner, for example, the bumbling man tries to connect with Antoine by asking him about school. However, the two stand back to back, unable to see each other’s expressions or truly connect. The strongest reaction the stepfather gets from Antoine is a burst of laughter when he swears. When Antoine leaves a farewell letter explaining why he ran away, his parents crossly point out his spelling mistakes. The adults in Antoine’s life—his parents, teachers, the authorities—make little attempt to know or understand him, only control him.
John Conomos remarks that The 400 Blows “is one of the rare few films that represents childhood and its turbulent knife-edge ambiguous emotions and situations in a searching, intimate and tender way communicating to us collective emotional truths.” The 400 Blows stands as a model of the New Wave’s blending of realistic and artistic. The ambiguity of the style, characters, and the plot of the film highlights its status as an art narrative film. Truffaut’s debut film readied the world for the French New Wave and established him as an auteur with a stylistic signature on film.
Bordwell, David. “The ArtCinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 774-782.
Conomos, John. “Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, or the Sea, Antoine, the Sea.” Senses of Cinema. 19 Nov. 2007. <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/6/blows.html>.
Fabe, Marilyn. “Auteur Theory and the French New Wave: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.” Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.
Truffaut, François, dir. The 400 Blows. Perf. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Claire Maurier. 1959. DVD. Fox Lorber 1999.
Wiegand, Chris. French New Wave. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2005.