Paris, the 1950s. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a young boy living with his mother (Claire Maurier) and stepfather (Albert Rémy). Unhappy at home and school, Antoine frequently runs away...
Some film directors start their careers low-key. Others make an immediate impact with their first feature. François Truffaut, then aged twenty-seven, did just that with The Four Hundred Blows (Les quatres cents coup) on its release in 1959. More than that, along with Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature A bout de soufflé (Breathless) from the following year, it brought a burgeoning movement amongst younger French filmmakers, La Nouvelle Vague or New Wave, to international notice. Whatever you make of Truffaut’s later career, and whether you consider The Four Hundred Blows his best film or not, it is without doubt a defining film of his career and of French cinema.
The New Wave was a reaction against traditional filmmaking styles in France, much dominated by literary adaptations, which they found staid: “le cinéma du papa” as some of them derisively called it. The key New Wave films are marked by stylistic experiment and iconoclasm, in particular making use of lightweight cameras and faster film stock enabling shooting in the streets, and establishing the careers of like-minded cinematographers such as Raoul Coutard and Henri Decaë. The New Wave was not an especially cohesive group. Filmmakers such as Louis Malle and Claude Sautet, while not formally associated with it, made use of some of the same innovations in films like Lift to the Scaffold (L’ascenseur de l’échafaud, 1958) and Classe tous risques respectively. The New Wave itself was divided into two groups, named after one or other bank of the Seine. The “Left Bank” group were generally older filmmakers, with literary backgrounds and a liking for narrative experimentation, and often with politics reflected in the group name. The major names associated with this group were Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, also novelists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, both associated with the “nouveau roman” form, who wrote screenplays and later directed films themselves. Truffaut belonged to the “Right Bank” group, who had worked as critics for Cahiers du Cinéma: other key figures included Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. Several of Truffaut's New Wave colleagues and friends make brief appearances in The Four Hundred Blows: you can briefly glimpse Jean-Claude Brialy and Jeanne Moreau, Jacques Demy, Philippe de Broca (the film's assistant director, later to become a director in his own right) and Truffaut himself. You can also hear the voices of Godard and Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Truffaut, born 1932, was the youngest of these five men. He had had a troubled childhood, which The Four Hundred Blows drew upon, though updated to a contemporary setting rather than the wartime occupation of France when Truffaut actually was Antoine’s age. He later played this down, after objections by his parents to the content of the film. The cinema was an escape for him. In 1948 he started a film club and met the critic André Bazin, who became his mentor. (Bazin died in 1958 at the age of forty from leukaemia, one day after the start of shooting of The Four Hundred Blows. Truffaut dedicated the film to him.) After Truffaut had spent time in the French Army, Bazin used his contacts to get him a job at Cahiers du Cinéma and for most of the Fifties was a critic and later editor at that magazine. He soon began to make his own films, beginning with the short Une visite in 1955, never publicly shown and now believed lost. Another short, Les mistons followed in 1957. This has been in the past available as an extra on DVD releases of The Four Hundred Blows but in this series of Blu-ray reissues from Artificial Eye it will be found on the disc of A Gorgeous Girl Like Me. Then, in 1958 he began work on his first feature, writing the script with Marcel Moussy. The title is a French idiom, “faire les quatres cents coups”, meaning “to raise hell”, which led the film briefly to be entitled Wild Oats in English before it becoming known under the present title which directly if unidiomatically translates the French.
Truffaut auditioned several hundred young boys for the role of Antoine, before casting fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, the son of a screenwriter and an actress. The result is one of the great child performances in cinema, and the start of one of the great director-actor partnerships. Truffaut would return to Antoine, continuing to be played by a now older Léaud, in the short film Antoine et Colette (part of the portmanteau film Love at Twenty, 1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979). Léaud has had a distinguished career away from Doinel and Truffaut, but his debut performance is indelible, the final freeze-frame close-up the perfect closure to it.
Given how wide and deep the influence of this film, and the New Wave as a whole, has been, it's hard to recapture the freshness and impact it had at the time. (For a good illustration of this, I refer you to the review by “R.V.” in the April 1960 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin.) Truffaut was very much alive to the possibilities of cinema, and that's obvious from the outset as Decaë's camera moves around a classroom in between the desks. Later in the film, he keeps pace with Antoine running by shooting from a car, a practical alternative to about a mile of dolly tracks in those days before Steadicam. Truffaut's use of cinematic devices, other than that iconic freeze-frame, is more restrained, and arguably less self-conscious than it is in the features which immediately followed, Shoot the Pianist and Jules et Jim. Given how close to home the subject matter of this film was, The Four Hundred Blows is remarkable for its objectivity and lack of sentimentality. Truffaut certainly didn't always avoid the latter in later films about children.
The Four Hundred Blows won Truffaut the prize for Best Director at Cannes in 1959. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay the following year, along with North by Northwest and Bergman's Wild Strawberries. They lost to Pillow Talk, a judgement not upheld by history. You can argue if this film is Truffaut's best or not – there are other candidates in his filmography – but it's one of the cinema's most auspicious debuts, for its director and its leading actor.
The Four Hundred Blows is released by Artificial Eye on Blu-ray and DVD. The former was supplied as a checkdisc for review and affiliate links above refer to it. For those for the DVD edition, go here. It will also be included in the six-disc box set François Truffaut Collection Volume 1, due as I write this in November 2014.
The Four Hundred Blows was shot in black and white in Dyaliscope, a French anamorphic lens system, and the Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer begins with a monochrome MK2 logo. The image is clean and well-balanced, with grain natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0 and it's clear and well-balanced. The film was entirely post-synchronised, so audio synch does wander in some scenes, as Robert Lachenay points out in his commentary. English subtitles are optional for the feature and the extras.
Serge Toubiana provides a short introduction (4:15) to the film and also, in the commentary track, recorded in September 2000, interviews Robert Lachenay. Lachenay was a childhood friend of Truffaut's and the character of Antoine's friend René Bigey (played by Patrick Auffay) is based on him. He also worked as an assistant unit manager on the film as he had previously on Les mistons. He describes Truffaut's early life and the making of this film in some detail and he's always interesting to listen to. This commentary, which has been carried over from previous DVD editions, is especially valuable as Lachenay is no longer with us, having passed away in 2005. Both men speak in French, and optional English subtitles are available. To access the commentary you have to go via the disc extras menu: you can't switch soundtracks via your remote. Also, the only subtitles available to switch on and off via the remote are those for whichever soundtrack you are listening to, feature or commentary. So other combinations – commentary soundtrack with feature subtitles, or vice versa – are not possible, should you wish to watch the film that way.
Also on the disc are screen tests (6:26) for Léaud solo, Auffay with Léaud and Richard Kanayan. The last-named plays one of Antoine's fellow schoolchildren and reappears as The protagonist's younger brother in Shoot the Pianist. He ends this item with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” in heavily-accented English. Finally, there is a trailer (3:47) which is heavy on critics' quotes.