Directed by François Truffaut
With Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Patrick Auffay (René), Claire Maurier (Gilberte Doinel), Albert Rémy (Julien Doinel)
The French phrase “Faire les quatre cents coups” means to behave foolishly, with no consideration whatsoever for rules and decency. And this is plainly the case of Antoine Doinel, a nice Parisian boy who is an unrepentant scalawag intensely disliking his junior high school, especially a French teacher who stands as a nemesis, knowing quite a few tricks and shamelessly enjoying them (that includes smoking cigarettes), readily making goofs, and above all voicing very candid views.
Aided and abetted by fellow student René, he spends most of the film playing truant and driving mad his benevolent father, Julien Doinel, and his more jittery mother, Gilberte Doinel, who had her terrible son from a previous marriage. Antoine seems to be keen on outdoing himself in mischief, from writing graffiti on the classroom’s walls to pretending his mother has died as an excuse for truancy, from settling down at René’s bedroom, smoking the cigars and sipping the wine of his pal’s father, to trying to sell a stolen typewriter. This typewriter business would be the last straw for his parents, as the stuff belonged to Julien Doinel’s workplace; the angry father brings the adopted son to the nearest police station, and the kid ends up in a kind of reformatory standing away from his beloved and familiar Paris. In this institution, Antoine Doinel must cope with and a stern and tough staff, including an inquisitive psychologist – but he manages to escape the dreary place.
Shots, always composed with a keen sense of observation and sometimes with flair, playfully record the naughtiness of the students, stealthily and joyfully passing from one to another, one row after another in the classroom, the titillating photo of a pin-up girl, or maneuvering to skip a gym class (the incident, shot dramatically at a very high angle is a delightfully hilarious sequence, as by twos or trees the students dart away the line they made up behind the teacher, until only two pupils keep walking behind the fellow, who has never realized he was getting lost). At the center of the pleasant mess stands Antoine, quick-witted and fast-moving, ready to make big leaps but always stumbling upon his zeal or miscalculations. The incidents quietly pile up till he is evicted from his cherished milieu (the titles sequence, shot aboard a car riding around the Eiffel Tower, has firmly put Paris at the center of the film and Antoine’s life – the impish boy proves indeed to be amazingly fit to survive in the streets and to fare by himself).
For all his rebellious streak and stubborn refusal of conventional behaviors, Antoine is also a victim of the adults. Through satirical vignettes, the movie points to the brutal and conservative methods of education valued in the 1950s. Antoine’s tragedy revolves around the hypocrisy and instability of the parents; they just don’t know how to handle his moods, too busy with their own interests, which in the mother’s case extends to a fresh, extramarital, quest for love. The biggest challenge for them is that he is not a dupe: the striking series of shots and reverse shots between Antoine and Gilberte as she attempts at reconciliation after his first running away from their apartment (a first milestone in the narrative to be followed by another instance of running away, lasting longer and leading to the police station), based on a subtle choice of angles, lights, lenses and of course miens, clearly highlight the gap between the two of them, the kid not taking seriously the sugarcoated words of the adult.
The interview with the psychologist near the end of the film fully articulates and develops Antoine’s posture: he tells what he knows and thinks, leaving no doubt that he has been aware of her mother’s sentiments about him and the poignant disharmony ruling at home for quite a time. The interviewer also bluntly touches upon another essential trait of the lead. Sexuality is tugging the mind, if not the body, of Antoine; stealing pin-up pictures was not only a joke and his vision of his mother is clearly informed by her own flirts. The key point of the film is that it captures kids who are not quite in fact kids; they are leaving behind childhood and get ready to enter the complicated teenage years; Antoine and his pals are on a threshold, and that explains a lot.
He is a nascent teenager who yearns for a new sense of identity and bigger freedoms – hence his desires to be a real man, to make a living, to be on his own that the parents dismiss and society is not ready to offer (as evidenced by the prejudices and rules shaping the institutions Antoine must deal with). The final image highlights this desire of freedom and refuses to give a conclusion – but then it cannot; the frozen image of Antoine is indeed a moving question mark: we have learned to like the boy but his future is only his and fully unpredictable.
This quest for freedom is also what drives François Truffaut as he makes his debut feature. He strives to shoot astonishing, dynamic, vivid images, as the roving camera captured his lead’s face and body. It is always roving and observing, giving a fairly honest, precise portrait of Antoine that prevents the adventures of this lively and insolent character to be cast as just another innocuous story about mischievous kids. “Les quatre cents coups – The 400 Blows” is entertaining but the aim is more than entertainment; it is a heartfelt study on the first phase of adolescence, delivered in a realistic and straightforward way – the work with actors, in particular Jean-Pierre Léaud, is impressive and yields performances that feel genuine and are right on target. Those performances can bring to mind the wonderful work with younger kids achieved by the Italian neorealists (Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica) or, Japanese filmmakers like Ozu Yasujirô or Shimizu Hiroshi, or the groundbreaking film directed in 1953 by Americans Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin, “Little Fugitive” (a feature Truffaut recognized as an inspiration).
Breaking new ground mattered for Truffaut: it was about giving French cinema a new style, greater creativity and fresh dynamics, that is, to translate in pictures the ideas he had been advocated for years in various movies reviews and texts, disparaging the artistic tenets of the filmmakers of his time and hoping that a new wave would change cinema for the best (the film was dedicated to an older, more influential critic that helped change views on cinema and was like a mentor to Truffaut and his friends of the review Les Cahiers du Cinéma, André Bazin). Well, “Les quatre cents coups” was a truly worthy contribution to that change known as the Nouvelle Vague, and it still resonates today (the film was also going to resonate throughout Truffaut’s career, as he would follow through the years the fate of Antoine Doinel, and actor Léaud’s, with other films examining again this character’s sentiments, especially with women).