LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS (1959)

  • Director: Francois Truffaut
  • Writers: Francois Truffaut and Marcel Moussy
  • Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Albert Remy, Claire Maurier, Guy Decomble, and Patrick Auffay
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#39), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#58), 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming with Kanopy (library app), Stream with subscription to HBO Max or the Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Amazon Video or YouTube

Before he became a big deal director, Francois Truffaut started out as a film critic who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema and hated everything. He was so disliked within the industry that in 1958 he was the only major critic in the country not invited to the Cannes Film Festival. One mentor told him, well, if you think you can make movies than they’re doing now, maybe you should just make one. And so he did, and that debut movie became Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows). In 1959, one year after not being invited, his own movie was shown at Cannes and Truffaut received the Best Director award. He used his speech to basically yell at other directors for making terrible movies.

Les Quatre Cents Coups is heavily autobiographical, though the movie was not a period piece, and Truffaut himself had grown up around the time of World War II. It stars Jean-Pierre Leaud, who basically walked in off the street and did not have any acting training, but feels more authentic here than almost any other actor than you’ll see in any other movie, as Antoine Doinel. Antoine is a 12-year-old boy who is deeply unhappy about the strictures of school and lack of love and support at home, and ends up as the French version of a juvenile delinquent. He has a mother (Claire Maurier) who seems to care about him sometimes, but before the end of the movie tells him she’s “done” with him. Like Truffaut, he never knew his birth father, and lives with a stepfather (Albert Remy) who alternates between wanting to be his pal and not giving a crap about him. At school, he seems to be unable to not get into trouble. He’s deeply sensitive and creative (this is a kid who just wants to go to the movies, like Truffaut, of course, and has a ridiculous shrine to the author Balzac in his tiny room), but neither his school nor his parents ever have any interest in meeting him halfway. By far the most famous sequence in the movie is the last one, in which we watch Antoine run away from French Juvie in one long tracking shot, ending up on an empty beach in Normandy. He turns and looks directly at the camera, and the movie ends in a freeze-frame, basically the first time somebody did that.

Today, Truffaut is seen as a huge influence by many of the biggest directors you’ve heard of. Steven Spielberg is a particular devotee, going so far as to cast Truffaut in the role of the French scientist studying aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Les Quatre Cents Coups, in particular, is seen as a key film in the development of the “French New Wave,” which continues to occupy a prominent place in international cinema even today. The New Wave was a reaction, led by young hotheads like Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who made low-budget, “realistic” movies, rarely based on outside material. While some may have felt mainstream Hollywood filmmaking at this time had become ossified to some degree, to me the defining characteristic of the French New Wave is its feeling of being young and fresh. It is in movies like this one that many of the techniques we take for granted today, like handheld camerawork, or long tracking shots, or “jump cuts” were invented, sometimes more by necessity than through artistic innovation. This movie came out in 1959, the same year that Ben-Hur swept the Oscars. But it really doesn’t feel particularly different from a good indie drama that might come out today. 

It was Godard who said “every cut is a lie,” but in his longer shots here Truffaut really shows the virtues of that philosophy. The classroom scenes are long, and make you feel trapped in there with these kids and these humorless teachers. In a one scene, we hold for what seems like forever on Antoine’s face in the dark while his mother and step dad have a fight in the other room. And the closest thing the movie has to a “climax” is a late scene where somebody finally makes this kid go to therapy, and all the reasons he’s unhappy, none of which he’s said out loud before, just pour out of him. We never see the therapist, it’s all in what at least looks like one held shot on Antoine. 

A lot of movies are about how “that one teacher” saved a kid from going down the wrong path. This is a movie about a kid that never had “that one teacher.” He is like Lou Diamond Phillips in Stand and Deliver, if Edward James Olmos had never showed up. Things do not work out for him. The final caper that leads to his being actually arrested is an extremely badly thought-out scheme to steal a typewriter from his stepfather’s office and then haul it to a pawn shop on the Paris Metro. It feels like one of the most realistic depictions of an actual crime I’ve seen, in that we see Antoine realize, in the words of Ron Burgundy, that he “immediately regrets this decision.” If the crime seems a bizarrely specific one, well, that’s because Truffaut actually tried to steal a typewriter from his stepdad’s office, and he knew exactly how bad an idea it actually was.

Deaud went on to play this heavily autobiographical Antoine Doinel character in four more Truffaut movies over the course of the next few decades, following the character into middle age, and also appeared in movies from several other New Wave directors, but this is still probably his best known performance. I feel like, before we leave, I should address the English title you may be more familiar with, The 400 Blows, which seems to have absolutely no relation to the actual movie and has been confusing American audiences since the movie’s initial stateside release. It is a direct translation of the original French title, which is an non-translatable French idiom that translates to something like “Raising Hell.” At one point, the plan was to make the English title Wild Oats, which is actually probably a better translation than the direct one, but nobody really liked it and they changed it back. So here we are.

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