I watched The 400 Blows because Ellen Page said she likes it. I watched The 400 Blows so that if I ever met Ellen Page, we’d have something to discuss. Superficial? Ok. Stalker-ish? Sure. A little sad? Almost certainly.
But does it really matter how we discover great films? As a teenage boy, I discovered many foreign gems whilst watching late night SBS, searching for the obligatory full-frontal nudity. On other occasions, I’ve simply picked up the wrong case at Video 2000. Who knew Vera Drake wasn’t a hilarious Farrelly brothers comedy?
As it turns out, Page isn’t the only famous fan of Francois Truffaut’s debut feature. As a founder of the French New Wave (a significant period in international cinema), Truffaut’s work influenced the likes of Tarantino, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Scorcese and other directors whose last names are firmly embedded in pop culture.
The 400 Blows (or, Les Quatre cents coups, meaning “to raise hell”) tells the story of Antoine Doinel, a young French school boy, scorned by his parents and teachers, cementing at an early age his outcast status. In class, he takes the wrap for petty rule-breaking and earns the constant wrath of his teacher, known to Antoine as a “bastard” and a “sourpuss”. His home life is defined by serving his mother, sharing jokes with his father, taking out the garbage and, in the wee hours, attempting to sleep as his parent’s feud in the room next door. When Antoine decides to skip school with his similarly neglected best friend Rene, he encounters his mother on the street, who is kissing another man, confirming his father’s suspicions of adultery. After lying about his absence to both his father and teacher and plagiarising a class essay, Antoine’s life at home and school intersect and soon he finds himself on the streets, sneaking into movie theatres with Rene and stealing from his father’s office. Eventually his crimes catch up with him and Antoine faces a life away from friends and family and the death of his last remaining scrap of innocence.
While not touted as an entirely autobiographical work, in her essay on The 400 Blows, critic Annette Insdorf discusses the ways in which the film mirrors Truffaut’s own tumultuous childhood. Like Antoine, Truffaut lived with his grandmother until he was eight years old, after which he began a difficult relationship with his young mother. But, as Insdorf acknowledges, one of the most telling themes in the film is that of paternity. In one scene, Antoine’s teacher has the class recite the question “where is the father?”. It is a question relevant to both the character of Antoine and his creator – neither of whom knew their biological fathers.
In a broader sense, The 400 Blows explores not only the director’s own experiences, but the concept of boyhood. It is a subject that, prior to the film, had not been greatly explored in cinema in terms of its full emotional impact. Truffaut works to show us every facet of a boy on the verge of emotional and physical maturity. The director goes beyond the atypical portrayal of angst and rebellion, using small moments to illustrate Antione’s mental fragility, burgeoning sexuality and need for love and belonging. Since its release in 1959, directors from across the globe have attempted to put their own stamp on the true nature of boyhood, captured in films such as Ken Loach’s much-lauded Kes and, more recently, in Spike Jonze’s wildly imaginative telling of Where the Wild Things Are.
Aside from the plot, which was deeply controversial at the time of the film’s release, The 400 Blows is strikingly modern in its appearance, employing many of the filmic techniques of the French New Wave. Refusing to be bound by convention, Truffaut tells his story through long tracking shots, perfectly choreographed school scenes shot from above and innovative, rapid-paced editing. Truffaut’s ends the film with a haunting freeze frame of Antoine, staring directly into camera – an ending so memorable, it was copied in numerous television commercials and films, from indie drama Thirteen to big-budget epic Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The ending was even parodied in The Simpsons’ “Any Given Sundance” episode, by Springfield’s very own troubled youth, Nelson Muntz.
Truffaut’s unique vision was awarded with a Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and his breakthrough film was even nominated for an Academy Award. The film also received a BAFTA nomination and would later make the top ten of the British Film Institute’s “50 films you should see by the age of 14”. But please – don’t rent the film because of its accolades or its influence or because I think you should. Rent it because Ellen Page likes it.