Saturday, April 4, 2009

The 400 Blows


Fifty years ago a French film critic named Francois Truffaut decided to try his hand at directing a full-length feature film. The result was Les Quatre Cents Coups, better known as The 400 Blows. Along with the release of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Truffaut's debut effort helped usher in the French New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague. While the unofficial movement and the people and films involved with it are well worth exploring, I've chosen to simply review The 400 Blows, which has been one of my all-time favorite films since first seeing it during my senior year of high school.

The 400 Blows was inspired largely by Truffaut's own troubled childhood, which, along with its revolutionary style, helps create a very realistic portrait of a young boy's struggles at home, school, and with society as a whole. Antoine Doinel (played brilliantly by a young Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a middle school boy with semi-neglectful parents who don't quite know how to deal with their only child. He has one true friend at school, but that boy also comes from a dysfunctional (albeit far more affluent) family. Antoine is an intelligent and curious boy, but even his best intentions seem to get lost in translation. As the adults in his life continue to disappoint and disapprove of him, he retreats further into his own world of playing hooky, going to the movies, and eventually resorting to petty criminal activities.

The "plot" of the film is so simple that it almost seems non-existent. What makes this film great is a combination of many elements. Few young actors have delivered a performance as true and remarkable as Leaud did here, and the rest of the cast provides admirable support. The cinematography is breathtaking today, and must have seemed rather startling at the time. It just does not feel like you're watching a film from the late 1950s, even though it is in black and white. The music by Jean Constantin is equally transcendent. If I ever get the chance to walk the streets of Paris that is the music that will be playing in my head. Julian Schnabel's recent film The Diving Bell and Butterfly paid tribute to the opening scene and opening music of The 400 Blows. With all these stellar attributes and an eternally affecting, ambiguous ending, this film is the very definition of a must-see.

Fans of the movie or first-time viewers will be glad to learn that Truffaut's classic was recently released on Blu-Ray via the Criterion Collection. Those unfamiliar with the Criterion label need only know that they offer high quality editions of a variety of significant films, and typically flesh out their releases with a bevy of extras sure to please casual moviegoers and hardcore cinephiles. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this timeless classic.

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