By Maria Gesek (Rochester)
Les Quatre Cents Coups, or 400 Blows, is a 1959 French New Wave Film directed by Francois Truffaut. The story follows Antoine, a young boy who is struggles with his parents and in school because of his delinquent behavior. He frequently runs away to escape his problems, but his parents continue to find him and try to set him on the right path again. Set in Paris, the movie mirrors and is inspired by Truffaut’s life as a child. The title roughly translates to the 400 blows a person takes in life to knock them down, as well as “to live a wild life”. While this film shows the knocking down, it also displays the resilience as Antoine continues to rebel no matter the circumstance.
The character of Antoine also struggles with a difficult family structure and home life. Early in the movie Antoine catches his mother kissing another man, resulting in a confused relationship between him and his mother. There are highs and lows in their relationship, which also occurs between the relationship with his Father. While there are a few happy moments, there is clear dysfunction in this small family. Antoine struggles in school is being reprimanded multiple times by his teacher, and ultimately decides to quit after being caught plagiarizing his homework. Sending Antoine away to the detention center, his parents concede they are unable to relate to Antoine, although they still care for him.
The film employs new and innovative production techniques, such as mis-en-scene. Truffaut frequently uses the long take, moving the characters move around the camera and precisely blocking of the actors. The movie’s final shot is a long take of Antoine running away from the detention center, ending with a zoom and freeze frame as the character looks directly into the camera. The completely improvised and unplanned shot that has become one of the most famous and unexpected. This spontaneous quality recurs throughout the film, creating a more authentic performance from the actors.
This was Truffaut’s first feature-length film and quickly became part of the French New Wave Movement. It explored a lot of long tracking shots, where the camera stayed in place while the actors moved around it. There weren’t a lot of cuts in a scene, or different angles to switch from; rather, it was as if you were watching it happen like a play in front of you without any breaks in the action. The story line is not forced but based on a loose narrative to reinforce the belief you are watching a more natural or realistic approach to storytelling. This was in contrast to French cinema at the time it was released, where it typically would follow a strong narrative style of storytelling.
While I could compare this story to a coming-of-age film, it seems as if there isn’t very much growth readily present in the characters. Antoine’s parents send him away, reinforcing the fact that they do not connect with him strongly enough to do the parenting themselves, turning to the option of sending him away for someone else to do the discipline. The film ends with Antoine running away from the detention center, indicating that he is not ready to give up his delinquent ways. This film presents Antoine as a boy who is misunderstood by the world surrounding him, as he struggles to find an answer.
Though I have heard of this film before, I never watched it until now. I have seen a clip of the final shot but never understood its context until I viewed it in its entirety. I can now appreciate it even more. Even though this film is 60 years old, the themes and stories still ring true today. The motivation of this young boy and his family are similar to families today. It is a very simple story told through beautiful cinematography and blocking, carrying the common theme of growing up and dysfunction within a family. The unplanned shot of young Antoine’s face as the final image of the movie describes this feeling of being lost and unsure of where to go in this world, a feeling I’m sure many can relate to at some point in their lives.
Overall, this film covers the struggles of growing up and the difficulties within a family through beautiful cinematography that is enjoyable to watch.