The Alliance Française French Film Festival is hosting a François Truffaut retrospective, screening his classics, Finally, Sunday!, Jules and Jim and his first, and many consider his best film, The 400 Blows.
The 400 Blows follows Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), a twelve year old who doesn’t quite belong anywhere. At school, Antoine is despised by an unforgiving teacher, and a do-gooder “brown-noser” tries to keep him in check. At home, he desperately waits for the company of his parents when they arrive home from work. And at night he sleeps on a fold down bed in a sleeping bag, in pyjamas strewn with holes.
Antoine limits himself to the small, constrictive spaces he is permitted, as though he folds himself in to a box and only feels truly free when in the cinema or on the streets, in the open air of the city. The film is worth watching for the beautiful shots of 1950’s Montmartre and Pigalle alone.
When he tries to get his own through little acts of rebellion; pinching money from his parents, skipping school, writing poetry on the classroom walls, he is inevitably pulled up and the effect is more isolating on the struggling Antoine.
It seems the audience is the only witness privy to Antoine’s little graces; his idolatry of Honoré de Balzac, delicately setting the table in anticipation of his parents arrival home, his guilt over stealing, and his close friendship with school friend René.
Truffaut based the film on his own upbringing; like Antoine he was raised by his grandmother and was then foisted on his resentful mother and step-father. Like Antoine, Truffaut’s step-father became fed-up with his miscreant step-son and turned him into the police for petty theft.
Antoine and Truffaut’s only escape proves to be the movies; the agency of choosing which world to inhabit and which space to occupy for the duration of a film, and the magic of momentarily forgetting all the mundane concerns that pile up around us. Truffaut said of The 400 Blows that his aim was “not to depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but… to show it as the painful experience that it is.” Truffaut often said that cinema saved his life, and it’s not hard to see why.
Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Léaud returned the character of Doinel in several films, the short Antoine and Collette (1962), and the features, Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). In The 400 Blows, Léaud is understated and brilliant, and his ability to command his emotions throughout is compelling, especially the tears on a late night journey through Paris, cooped up in a police van with prostitutes and thieves. It isn’t any wonder why Truffaut plucked Léaud from the hundreds of responses he received when he advertised the part.
The film was Truffaut’s most successful in France, and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Truffaut winning for Best Director. Truffaut and co-writer Marcel Moussey also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Still Truffaut’s most widely seen and loved film, it holds a rare 100% fresh rating on critic’s website Rotten Tomatoes.
Catch this classic at the movies while you still can. The 400 Blows is screening this Wednesday at Chauvel Cinema, Thursday at Palace Norton Street, and Sunday at the Cremorne Orpheum. For show times, check out the French Film Festival program at afrenchfilmfestival.org/schedule.