François Truffaut’s first film, 1959’s The 400 Blows, may very well be his finest. Indeed, Truffaut himself wondered if he would ever devise a script that engaged him as deeply and as personally as this semi-autobiographical exploration of a clever and rambunctious schoolboy who seeks the pleasures of cinema, camaraderie, and freedom while attempting to navigate the cold neglect of his family and the bitter demands of his schoolteacher. Often mistakenly credited as the first film of the French New Wave, The 400 Blows managed to inaugurate many of the characteristics closely associated with that style.
The release of a new edition of the film on Janus Film’s “Essential Art House” series, however, reminds us that The 400 Blows is more than an example of a cinematic style; it is an evocative and lyrical meditation on the exasperations and disappointments but also the joys and aspirations of youth. It is perhaps the quintessential film on adolescence, and thus should be considered a vital constituent of any serious film collection.
Truffaut’s first film and the French New Wave in general, emerged not out of practice but rather out of theoretical speculation. Truffaut was a writer for the film journal Cahiers du cinéma and in his critical assessments of directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford, Truffaut contributed to the so-called “auteur” theory (la politique des auteurs). This was the notion that, despite the fact that film is necessarily a collaborative act, a good director ought to be considered the film’s author, inasmuch as it is the director who decides upon the specifically filmic elements of the work. In other words, the director leaves an authorial trace upon the film by implementing his/her personal style and imbuing the frames of the film with his/her vision of the subject matter.
The important thing to note concerning this theory is that the writers for the Cahiers are not claiming that the director need write the script nor are they claiming that the script is, in any strong sense, the meat of the film. Rather, the auteur theory insists that one look to the specifically filmic elements of the work (such as camera angles, the editing of shots, the use of close-ups and pans) in order to read the film qua film as opposed to reading the film qua narrative.
Indeed when proponents of the French New Wave came to direct films themselves, they emphasized precisely those elements that were under directorial control to build new filmic languages. The use of the plural here is important because, aside from an increasing interest in the shot as the building block of a filmic language, the differences among the various directors of the New Wave far outweigh their similarities. To clarify this observation, consider a comparison between Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.
Both directors are masters of the panning shot (perhaps Godard can be said to have sensationalized the technique in the extremely long panning shot in Weekend); both draw attention to the camera itself as a presence within the filmic moment (that is, neither attempt to conceal the actions of the camera in the manner of earlier French narrative film). Both directors seek to communicate with audiences through the use of filmic technique, relegating dialogue to a secondary and largely inessential source of meaning. But here the similarities largely subside.
Godard emphasizes the artificiality of film. He endeavors to make his viewers constantly aware that they are watching a contrivance. Thus characters speak directly to the camera. The camera sometimes seems to get bored with its subject and meanders off toward something else. Godard makes use of the voice-over in a manner that intrudes upon the narrative aspects of the film. In all of this, we cannot help but think of Godard’s filmic technique as a cinematic reworking of Berthold Brecht’s theatrical technique of alienation.
We are meant to understand Godard’s work as something “worked up”, something manufactured. We are meant to register our distance from the characters and events onscreen. We are meant to feel discomfort and not be allowed to invest ourselves directly in the film. We are always aware of our presence as viewers because we are aware of the camera’s presence as medium.
Truffaut also draws attention to the movements of the camera, but the effect he creates totally diverges from Godard’s overt irony or his later agitprop. If Godard can be said to employ Brecht’s alienation effect, then Truffaut reminds one of the effect of absorption that Michael Fried discerns in French painting of the early to mid-18th century (particularly the works of Chardin). In Truffaut, the camera works not to keep the viewer out of the constructed reality of the film but rather to draw the viewer into the artifice, to make the viewer complicit in its feigned reality.
As an example, take the delightful sequence from The 400 Blows in which the camera follows a group of students being led by the gym teacher in a jog through the streets of the city. While tracking the procession, the camera sweeps high into the air. We witness small groups of students peal away from the phalanx to disappear into alleys and small shops. The teacher remains oblivious and the joggers eventually amount to only two students.
The camera offers us a view that can be held by no casual passerby (except perhaps a passerby of the avian sort) but the artifice of the shot does not separate us from the scene it records. Rather, the view from above becomes part of the joke so that we seem to participate in duping the teacher right along with the students. We become absorbed into their prank by the overt manipulation of the tracking shot.
Similar examples abound within The 400 Blows. Truffaut articulates his story not through plot (relatively little happens in the film) and not through dialogue (the conversations are largely repetitive and pointless), but rather by following the protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), documenting his movements, his reactions, recording his expressions, his moments of surprise and astonishment, his increasing awareness that the structures of his life will offer him no respite, no chance for liberty.
None of this is said as such; it would be far too trite if Truffaut announced such themes openly. Our understanding of Antoine emerges from our willingness through the kind blandishments of the camera to become increasingly solicitous of his position in the world. When we first encounter him, Antoine is caught drawing a mustache on the photograph of a scantily clad woman. He is sent to the corner for engaging in the same misbehavior as the rest of the class. This scene sets the tone for the film. Antoine is hardly a saintly child. He is mischievous and given to prevarication. He prefers to wipe his dirty hands on the curtains rather than walk a few more steps to get the towel. However, in these habits, he differs little from his classmates. Antoine’s most grievous sin seems to be his penchant for getting caught.
However, as the film proceeds, we cannot help but become involved with Antoine’s concerns and tribulations. He skips school and goes to a film and a carnival. We watch him on a ride, his form spinning within the machine. He contorts his body into odd shapes, attempting to derive as much joy as possible from the fleeting moment. The world whirls by and Antoine seems so small. We see him fascinated by the writing of Balzac. He goes so far as to create a shrine to the author and nearly burns his family’s apartment down in the process. He runs away, steals milk, washes his face in nearly empty fountains, and hides in the shadows.
He steals a typewriter, only getting caught when he attempts to return it. His parents send him to a reformatory near the sea. He had never seen the sea. He escapes during a soccer game, launching one of the most memorable sequences in any film by Truffaut. The camera tracks Antoine as he runs down the dirt roads toward the beach. His feet pound a rhythm—steady, incessant, mesmerizing. He reaches the sandy beach and we follow him still. There is no fear in the child’s eyes but not much hope, either. He just runs and we follow. He escapes but not from us.
He reaches the water’s edge, turns, and gazes directly at us while Truffaut freezes the frame. It is a remarkable moment. It is an ending constructed not from narrative as such but from something essentially filmic. Perhaps that is why that particular image is not likely to be erased from the mind of anyone who truly sees it.