I wrote the following short essay on François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows for my Film History Class at Watkins.
In 1959, Francois Truffaut was only 28 when took the Best Directors award at the Cannes Film Festival for The 400 Blows. It’s a date that marked the beginning of the French New Wave, and had a profound effects on the history of cinema.
The 400 Blows is a semi-autobiographical film, based loosely on Truffaut’s life as an adolescent growing up in Paris. There are no major plot’s in the films, it follows Antoine Doinel in his daily adventures in a series of events that shows his hopes and frustration at living in a world dominated by adults. Humors, tragic, beautiful and lyrical at the same time. It is Truffaut’s first and most personal film.
Truffaut was a cinephile, a film lover, Hitchcock being his Master, he was a student of the classic French Cinema (especially Renoir and Vigo) and the Italian Neo-realism, and his admiration for Rossellini is obvious in 400 Blows more than any other director. The use of non-actors (Truffaut found Jean-Pierre Léaud after a restless search), the use of hand held camera, shooting on locations and improvisations (How much of the interview scenes with Antoine were scripted and how much of it were improvised?). Of course the advance of new technology gave the young French makers more advantages. The camera were getting smaller, later, the small sound kites made it easier to record sound on location, and the development of new and fast film stocks made it easier to shoot on location in day and night times.
A few weeks ago, I watched Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the similarities between Zero and 400 Blows, both are a description of the charming world of childhood. A world being run by the adults, they are portrayed as faceless grown up with no respect for them, which make the kids rebel against a corrupt system without a clue to what’s gonna replace it, total anarchism. Just like the ending of Zero, in which the kids claim victory after a revolution, put their new flags on top the school building, crawls from the roof toward the horizon not knowing what to do next. In 400 Blows, Antoine, run away from being a captive, with a beautiful long tracing shot, Truffaut show his escape to freedom, only to end up being stopped by the ocean, and the end with the sad look on Antoine’s face, the freeze-frame shot that had been copied over and over.
Today Truffaut is remembered as the most sound directors among the French New Wave filmmakers, he is celebrated among the classic directors, in lines with Renoir, Carné , and Vigo. He was also more opens toward changing his style and adapting to new ones, he even shot a film in Hollywood, the beautiful Fahrenheit 451. Truffaut is not known as the rule breaking rebel like Godard, or the philosopher-filmmaker like Chris Marker, or the French Hitchcock like Chabrol, he is know as Truffaut, the humorist and the poet among the New Wave directors.