When it premiered at the 1959 Cannes International Film Festival, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows signalled several cinematic firsts: first film by then critic Francois Truffaut, first film to star Jean-Pierre Leaud, and arguably the most important, the first film in the cinema-changing French New Wave.
Truffaut was already legendary for his extremely harsh work as a film critic, so much so that he was the only French film critic not invited to the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. He was not being harsh just to attract attention or simply for the fun of it, but rather because he felt such strong frustration with the cinematic conventions that French cinema had fallen prey to. It was this frustration that propelled Truffaut from the typewriter to the director’s chair.
Being a feature debut, it is fair to expect The 400 Blows to have some shortcomings, however what is so striking about The 400 Blows is how masterfully shot it is. The film, shot in black and white, is visually stunning. The shades on screen and the use of Paris as a backdrop are beautiful. The confidence Truffaut shows behind the camera is refreshing, especially for someone who was so early in his career.
The film is undeniably revolutionary in terms of style and substance, however it never feels experimental. Both Godard and Truffaut were combating the same cinematic conventions, but they did so in very different ways. While Godard’s experimentation in Breathless is quite apparent on screen, the revolutionary techniques Truffaut used on The 400 Blows are quite seamless. It is the maturity and thought put into the techniques and shots in the film that leaves it ageless. Breathless is certainly a great film; however its age is worn on its sleeves.
Truffaut’s masterful direction and cinematography are only second to the development of the character the film follows, Antoine Doinel. Played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, Doinel is Truffaut’s alter-ego. The film stays surprisingly close to Truffaut’s real life, with Doinel’s story being almost entirely autobiographical. While the audience may not be able to directly relate to Doinel’s specific situation that is unimportant as the film captures the anger, frustration and confusion of being a child, which allows it to be universal.
When discussing this film, Leaud’s performance as Doinel is often forgotten and that is not because it is lacklustre, quite on the contrary actually. His performance seems to be forgotten as it often feels like a documentary; not in terms of the film’s style which is very cinematic but because of the realism of his performance. Strong child actors are often hard to find, and a bad performance from a young actor can often ruin a film, luckily Leaud’s strength as a actor and Truffaut’s ability to direct children leads to a perfectly acted film.
The film by itself is a true masterpiece of the coming-of-age tale, however seen in the context of the first in a series of five films; it lays the groundwork for the problems and struggles that Doinel would face later in his life.
With The 400 Blows, the world was introduced to a true cinematic talent, as well as the first instalment in the story of one of the most fascinating film characters of all time.