The 400 Blows
18 Jan 2022
François Truffaut & Marcel Moussy
Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy
François Truffaut’s 1959 debut feature opens with the Eiffel Tower playing hide and seek behind apartment blocks. As the title credits roll, again and again, France’s most iconic landmark is obscured from view. All of a sudden, the three-hundred-metre tall gateway is upon us. We look up through the lattice of the structure. Then it is behind us, and all we can do is stare back at it as we drift away. The grandest visual metaphor to open an intimate and personal coming of age story.
After being caught defacing a nude calendar in class, fourteen-year-old Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud), gets trapped in a cycle of punishment that leads to him playing truant, sleeping rough, stealing a typewriter, and worse. An alter ego of Truffaut in this semi-autobiographical tale, Antoine appears to be no different than any other of his classmates. They too are children of disinterested and distracted parents. They all taunt teachers who grow frustrated with their own lack of control. Yet he always seems to be singled out, and he begins to feel the weight of these inconsistencies. He decides to fight against these conditions and seek his independence from the adults that do not respect nor care for him.
In his audition tape, Léaud describes himself as ‘mischievous’. As Antoine, he appears to be playing an alternate version of himself as much as he is an alternate of Truffaut. His performance captures the contrast between youthful innocence and necessary self-reliance. He carries himself like an adult, and his matter of fact temperament lends itself to that impression, but his face betrays the truth. He makes Antoine truly feel like the victim of misfortune.
The romantic excess of the score highlights that Antoine’s outlook is not cynical despite his circumstance. He enjoys studying Balzac and visiting the cinema. In one especially nauseating sequence, he tries out a fairground ride that replicates the experience of being trapped inside a washing machine. These joyous moments, like the orchestral swells, underpin the tragedy of Antoine’s hope for a better life that always seems just out of reach.
Truffaut’s glissando filmmaking articulates Antoine’s journey through adolescence. The use of pans, tracking shots and fades convey the energy of change. However, camera movement is also used to emulate his lack of control. At times it represents the forces of the world that appear to push and pull him at their behest. In one particularly resonant scene, he is arrested and taken away in the back of a police van. We see from his point of view; the world obscured by bars. He is trapped on a phantom ride, being dragged through his own life.
Over sixty years have passed since its original release and this centrepiece of the nouvelle vague remains a feat of visual storytelling. Truffaut’s film revels in the art of contrasts. He gives glimpses of joy to lend character to sorrow, uses camera movement to reflect both freedom and constraint, and ultimately, he represents those whose existence carries little weight in the world. No matter how much time has passed, it is impossible not to feel overwhelmed by the freeze-frame finale of this semi-autobiographical masterwork.