Synopsis: The place is 1950’s Paris, France and the protagonist Antoine is a boy who has difficulty at school and at home. His teacher is seemingly unfair and harsh, while his mother is cold and demanding. After skipping school with his friend Rene, and lying about it, he runs away and begins a downward spiral as a petty thief.
Title: 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)
Directed by François Truffaut
Length: 99 minutes
Jean-Pierre Léaud ............ Antoine Doinel
Claire Maurier ...................Gilberte Doinel (Mother)
Albert Rémy .......................Julien Doinel (Father)
Guy Decomble ...................'Petite Feuille' (French teacher)
Georges Flamant .............. Mr. Bigey
Patrick Auffay .................... René
Long Take: A shot that continues for an unusually lengthy time before the transition to the next shot.
During the 1950’s in France a Film Theorist, Andre Bazin, suggested that the camera should try to show everything in the shot for as long as possible and let the viewer decide the meaning of the scene or film. He believed too many editing choices manipulated reality and the film became untrue to life.
Montage: A quick series of shots cut together to create a relationship between all of the shots.
In the 1920’s a Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, began to write about and use montage in his films. He believed that by putting different shots together could create a new and more important meaning that the individual shots could not produce on their own. This style of editing went on to become the norm for studio films in the 30’s and 40’s.
Mise-en-scene: All the visual elements that are placed in a scene for the camera; this involves the set, set decoration, props, costumes, lighting. Mise-En-Scene means "putting in the scene"
Whip Pan: A camera movement that swiftly pivots horizontally side to side, creating a blurring effect
Dubbing: a post-production process in which additional or supplementary recordings are "mixed" with original production sound to create the finished soundtrack.
POINT OF VIEW SHOT (POV Shot): A shot taken with the camera placed approximately where the character’s eyes would be, illustrating how the scene looks from the character's perspective.
During the late 1950’s and early 60’s in France a new style of film-making emerged, influenced by Italian neo-realism, and fueled by young filmmakers.
These young critics were dissatisfied with the mainstream films, in particular French mainstream films, as they observed that the narratives were not expressing “human life, thought, and emotion in a genuine way” and totally out of touch with the lives of post-war French youth. http://www.newwavefilm.com/new-wave-cinema-guide/nouvelle-vague-where-to-start.shtml
The movement is characterized by emphasizing the Mise-se-scene of the film (long takes, deep focus and a rejection of montage editing), a feeling that the director is the creative author or Auteur of the film and low-cost production techniques (portable equipment that required little or no set-up, filming on location, handheld camera, natural light, black and white footage, non-professional actors and dubbing in sound). Characters in their films were often young loners and seen as anti-authoritarian and rebellious, searching for free will. These production techniques lend themselves to narratives full of questions that go unanswered.
Who were they?
Many of the French New Wave directors were former film critics and theorist that wanted to take their ideas about cinema and life and put them into their own films. They knew a lot about film theory and history but not a lot about film production. This allowed them to experiment and try new ways to make films. They also began to break traditional rules in film-making. At first audiences were confused, but now many of the innovative conventions of the French New Wave are normal cinematic devices that we all understand today, like the jump-cut, long take, voice over and handheld location shooting.
The French New Wave filmmakers told personal stories of the individual and free will. They filmed using inventive camera movements on low budgets on location using natural light and broke from traditional editing techniques preferring long takes and jump cuts and trusted the viewer to be able to follow. Most importantly, they believed in celebrating the mise-en-scene of the film and the director as the Auteur.
"The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure."
"I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between." ~ Francois Truffaut
• Francois Truffaut had a very similar life as the character, Antoine, in 400 Blows as a child who lived with his mother after his grandmother died, was moving from family member to family member, didn’t know his real father, and dabbled in petty crime as a kid.
• In 1948, Truffaut met and became close with film critic Andrew Bazin, who helped him out of various financial and criminal situations. For example in 1950, helping Truffaut to be released by the army and setting him up with a job at his film magazine.
• Truffuat became known as a notorious film critic for his brutal and unforgiving reviews and was the only one not invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 1958.
• Truffaut supported Andre Bazin in the development of one of the most influential theories of cinema itself, the auteur theory.
• Alexandre Astruc. In 1948 he wrote an article titled “Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera as Pen”, in which he argued for cinema, like literature, to become a more personal form, in which the camera literally became a pen in the hands of a director. The article would become something of a manifesto for the New Wave generation and a first step in the development of “auteur theory”.
• In 1954, Truffaut wrote an article called "Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français" ("A Certain Trend of French Cinema"), in which he attacked the current state of French films, lambasting certain screenwriters and producers. The article resulted in a storm of controversy. Truffaut later devised the auteur theory, which stated that the director was the "author" of his work; that great directors such as Renoir or Hitchcock have distinct styles and themes that permeate all of their films. Although his theory was not widely accepted then, it gained some support in the 1960s from American criticAndrew Sarris. In 1967, Truffaut published his book-length interview of Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut (New York: Simon and Schuster).
• After having been a critic, Truffaut decided to make films of his own. He started out with the short film Une Visite in 1955 and followed that up with Les Mistons in 1957. After seeing Orson Welles' Touch of Evil at the Expo 58, he was inspired to make his feature film debut in 1959 with Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows).
The English title is a straight translation of the French but misses its meaning, as the French title refers to the expression "faire les quatre cents coups", which means "to raise hell". On the first American prints, subtitler and dubber Noelle Gilmore gave the film the title Wild Oats, but the distributor did not like that title and reverted it to The 400 Blows, which led some to think the film covered the topic of corporal punishment.
Truffaut's 400 Blows is semi-autobiographical in so many ways. The director was raised by his grandmother and when she died, came to live with his mother at age eight. He never knew his father and was adopted by his mother's husband. Like Antoine, Truffaut ran away from home after he told a lie at school and became involved in small robberies. His step father turned him in to the police and later ended up in a reform school.
A semi-autobiographical film, reflecting events of Truffaut's and his friend's lives, its style amounts to Truffaut's personal history of French film—most notably a scene borrowed wholesale from Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite. It is dedicated to the man who became his spiritual father, André Bazin, who died just as the film was about to be shot.
Besides being a character study, the film is an exposé of the injustices of the treatment of juvenile offenders in France at the time.
Out of sixty boys who responded to an ad, the director chose the 14-year-old Léaud because “he deeply wanted that role . . . an anti-social loner on the brink of rebellion.” He encouraged the boy to use his own words rather than sticking to the script. The result fulfilled Truffaut’s avowed aim, “not to depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but . . . to show it as the painful experience that it is.”
Truffaut encouraged Jean-Piere Leaud to improvise in the film. For example, the psychiatric review that Antoine undergoes is the most naturalistic and fresh sequence of the film. Truffaut posed the questions directly to Léaud and invited him to improvise, in character, before dubbing in the female voice we hear afterwards.
Truffaut made four other films with Léaud depicting Antoine at later stages of his life. He meets his first love, Colette, in Antoine and Colette, which was Truffaut's contribution to the 1962 anthology Love at Twenty. He falls in love with Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) in Stolen Kisses. He marries Christine in Bed and Board, but the couple have separated in Love on the Run.
Filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Satyajit Ray, Jean Cocteau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Richard Lester and Norman Jewison have cited The 400 Blows as one of their favorite movies. Kurosawa called it "one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen".
The film was ranked #29 in Empire magazine's list of "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema" in 2010
Post Discussion Questions:
If last year's film Boyhood was about nothing unexpected happening in a coming of age story, 400 Blows is the antithesis. Julien, the young protagonist, can't seem to do anything right from stealing from his grandmother to lying to his teacher to stealing from his stepfather's office. With each incident, the viewer wonders how (or if) this pre-teen will put his life back on track or will he be defined by the petty crimes of his youth. Apparently, Truffaut did not think there were easy answers and we are left with an ambiguous ending.
I noticed that in the shot where Antoine is sitting at his mother’s dressing table, his reflection in one of the mirrors makes him look much older than he appears at that moment in the film. He’s engaging in a very childlike act - playing with his mother’s makeup and knick-knacks - yet is ultimately examining his place in the world. The relationship between Antoine and his mother seems fraught with all sorts of Oedipal issues. The scene after he runs away illustrates this: Antoine’s mother bathes him, tucks him into her bed (he’s still naked), and for the first time in the film speaks to him in a soothing, almost sensual tone. Antoine’s mother is giving him really confusing, mixed messages. He doesn’t feel like he belongs in his family (he literally doesn’t have a bed in his own home, and sleeps in his sleeping bag on the couch), much less in society.
At the end of 400 Blows, a tremendously tortured film by Francois Truffaut, Antoine, the protagonist, is seen running away from his confinement at a juvenile detention facility and through the gorgeous French countryside. The only problem is as he runs, we sense that he is running in place as Truffaut utilizes a single, long- in-duration tracking shot that follows Antoine so he never makes headway through the frame but seems to be running only for the sake of running. Ultimately, he ends up at the sea, confined now not only by the camera frame but by the geography of his life: his fate if you will. Though dated in some ways and distant to some viewers because of language, culture, and time, this films still speaks to us as it artistically shows the struggle of an unloved and lost soul trying to find a path, any path, that will take him home, but, because he has never had a true home, will he recognize his the place he is running to as home?
My response to the Long Take shot of the gym teacher jogging out of the school blowing the whistle. Close-up views as the camera swing around to film them running down the street was fantastic. The fading out I thought was very interesting. As the students were running down street the music was soft and I was amused watching. As you can see students disappearing from the line the switching the line to students crossing the street you no longer see the line, but, you knew it was there and getting smaller. As the line continued the students hiding, as if they were playing a game. This reminded me that they were kids as they dodge traffic. The camera angles were great close, top, and wide view. There is so much going on as the students veered from the line.
Antoine is a likable character despite his poor choices, which are reflective of the lack of love and attention he receives from the adults in his life. When he risks his life at the end of the film, the filmmaker creates a sense of uncertainty about Antoine's fate. However, the image of the sea fulfills a yearning that Antoine articulated earlier in the film and therefore provides the viewer with a sense of hope that Antoine succeeds and finds his place in the world. The symbolism of water represents a new beginning/journey, a rebirth. His facial expression of awe and wonderment in the closing "portrait" appeared to capture this feeling. The ambitious closing scene empowers the viewer to write the ending of the story as he/she sees the character, human nature, and the world.
I truly enjoyed our screening of 400 Blows and was quite taken by the end... both by the long takes of Antoine's "journey" and his ending up by the water, but more so by the breaking of the fourth wall (between character and viewer) at the very end. There are a handful of films I can recall where the character breaks the wall of spectatorship, and I find that technique quite poignant. For many of us the "conclusion" of Antoine's journey remains a mystery, but by him breaking that fourth wall at the end, we have to question our own journey (through the film/with Antoine/regarding family, childhood, education, the judicial system). Movie watching should never be a passive activity, and by eradicating "the wall" between character and viewer, we are being asked to respond/react/reflect in a more profound way. I am attaching a link to the conclusion of another film, This Is England, that bears an eerie resemblance to the end of 400 Blows. Don't look away.
- Jillian McRae, English teacher, Ossining High School
What would you do if your parents sent you to jail and then reform school for acts of teenage rebellion? Fourteen year old Antoine finds his school and home life harsh and unforgiving and is looking for ways to escape. The path he follows with his newfound friend seems fun and somewhat innocent in the beginning until he hides in shadowy places and commits a real crime. Through the hilarity and heartbreak of an adult world that betrayals him, he metamorphoses from boy to man through capture and escape. The camera portrays this gritty world through the adolescent's eyes with masterful point of view shots of his unwelcoming classroom, cramped apartment, and hiding spots, and his travels are emphasized through long takes. The mis-en-scene brings the superlative and seedy sides of Paris to life. Night shots are in the film noir style adding mystery and danger. It is up to the audience to decide if it is a triumph or tragedy at the end. This film deserves 4.5 stars.
I was easily drawn into this film with the long take of the area around the Eiffel Tower and the use of black and white filming for the entirety of the story. The apparent spontaneity of the main character in his interview with the psychologist exemplifies the simplicity juxtaposed with the complexity of the characters and their life situations. The likability of the adolescents in the film served as a contrast to many of the adults who were seen as harsh and unfeeling in their interactions with the youngsters in various places in their lives, as exemplified by the teCher, the police and jailers, and the parents, who seemed to be kind only when it suited their purpose. The story was woven to reach a symbolic ending that left much to the minds of the viewers while suggesting the finality of this you g man's journey.
This film, which is François Truffaut's semi-autobiography, is about an impulsive kid named Antoine that is constantly in trouble both at home and at school. His parents often leave him home alone and judge him based on reports from other people (i.e. his teacher) who misunderstand him. Due to the magnificent camera style of Truffaut, one feels close enough to the parents and the teacher to shout out to them the wrongs they are doing by Antoine. After Antoine gets caught stealing, his parents turn him over to the state and wash their hands of the situation. The last scene, where Antoine has escaped from a detention center and is running towards the water and then stares into the camera is a clear depiction of French New Wave cinema in the sense that the ending is left open for the viewer to decide what the final freeze frame means. Antoine is stuck between land and water and his lonely long distance run will not end here.