THE 400 BLOWS Criterion Blu-ray Review

     March 30, 2009

by Andre Dellamorte

The title for 1959’s Les Quatre cents coups (“The 400 Blows“) may seem cryptic at
first glance, but its meaning is revelatory. It comes from a French euphemism
for “sowing wild oats.” Director François Truffaut made this story of
a disaffected 12-year-old party autobiographical: Like his main character
Antoine Doinel, he was a rambunctious and fatherless youth who was saved from a
stint in prison by famous French critic Andre Bazin, who mentored Truffaut
(along with most of the critics-turned-filmmakers from the French New Wave) and
got him writing for Cahiers du Cinema. It was there that Truffaut helped define
the auteur theory — which cineastes still debate to this day — but what he
really wanted to do was direct.

At first he assisted Roberto
Rossellini on some abandoned works, which led to a short film, Les Mistons. Truffaut’s first
feature-length project was The 400 Blows,
which immediately established him as a talent to be reckoned with. With fellow
critic Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless
released the next year (Truffaut helped come up with the story), a movement was
born — the French New Wave, or Nouvelle
. But though Truffaut moved on to literary adaptations and became one
of France’s most prominent directors, throughout his career he would return to
Antoine Doinel (always played by Jean Pierre Léaud) and update his/their life.

The semi-fictional Antoine Doinel
appeared in five of François Truffaut’s films over the course of 20 years, with
The 400 Blows his introduction. The
film starts in the classroom, with Antoine as an unruly child who upsets his
priggish teacher when he’s caught looking at a pin-up girl. (In these scenes
there’s an echo of the classroom chaos of Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct, though Truffaut notes in the supplements the
influence of Rossellini’s Germany Year
for its documentary presentation.) Constantly getting in trouble at
school, Antoine’s home life is no better. His mother Gilbrete (Claire Maurier)
never wanted him, and his father Julien (Albert Remy) isn’t his real father —
he’s nice enough but dopey. With his school situation growing worse and worse,
Antoine ditches class whenever he can with best friend Rene (Patrick Auffay),
often to go to the movies. During one such absence he takes a carnival ride in
a spinning room that resembles a zoetrope, and afterwards sees his mother
carrying on with another man. This brings about a détente at home, since both
have no intention of revealing their personal secrets. But after an episode
where Antoine is punished for allegedly plagiarizing Balzac, he decides to run
away for good. However, the only way for him to make money is to steal, and
even with Rene’s help he’s not a natural criminal. Thus, Antoine is caught. And
when his family says they can’t control him any more, he’s placed into social

François Truffaut alleged that
cinema saved his life, and he often said he only wanted to see films about the
joy or agony of making movies. With The
400 Blows
, he lived up to his goal and paid in full whatever debt he owes
to filmgoing — it’s one of the cinema’s most penetrating works about adolescent
alienation. Truffaut was part of the first generation of filmmakers raised on
movies, and because he knew what he loved in film, his voice seems fully
realized straight out of the gate. He had a playful formalist streak, which was
more apparent in his follow-up efforts, such as Shoot the Piano Player and Jules
and Jim
, but Blows is, as
essayist Annette Insdorf calls it, “an exorcism of personal
experience,” which led to a very stripped down and raw production.

Truffaut used practical locations
and shot the film in a simple but elegant style that relied upon longer takes.
Such shows off the picture’s many grace notes, such as an overhead shot of a
teacher leading a class down the streets of Paris, only to have the students
stray off at each intersection, eventually leaving him with only two pupils,
and the sequence in the zoetrope, where the camera switches to Antoine’s point
of view as he shifts his body. Antoine’s fate is ambiguous at the end of the
story, but it’s no surprise that Truffaut had to return, to continually check
up on his fictional recreation, to follow his careers in work and love. Though
Antoine Doinel is a work of Truffaut’s imagination, he also was a surrogate for
both Truffaut and star Jean Pierre Léaud as well. In fact, it was such a
powerful role that when Léaud has been cast by directors like Olivier Assayas,
Bernardo Bertolucci, and Tsai Ming-liang, it’s usually as a nod to his most
famous screen persona, and to Truffaut’s influence over a new generation of

The Criterion Collection presents The 400 Blows on Blu-ray in a stunning
(2.35:1) transfer from a very good black-and-white source-print with the
original French mono soundtrack (DD 1.0) and optional English subtitles.
Comparing the DVD to the Blu-ray it’s that much better, and at the $30 price
tag (cheap for the Criterion label), it’s essential. Extras include two
commentaries, the first by cinema professor Brian Stonehill, and the second by
Truffaut’s friend Robert Lachenay, which is presented in French with optional
English subtitles. In the “Psychological profile” section there’s
audition footage of Léaud and some of the other children (6 min.) and footage
from Cannes in 1959, where Truffaut won the best director award (6 min.).
Interviews with the director can be found in “Cineastes de notre
temps” (23 min.) and in “Cinepanorama” (7 min.), while the
feature-set is rounded out by the film’s theatrical trailer. This disc is

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