Blog Directory CineVerse: A blow-by-blow analysis of Les Quatre Cents Coups

A blow-by-blow analysis of Les Quatre Cents Coups

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Many film critics, scholars and historians consider the French New Wave as the demarcation line between old school classic cinema and new school modern movies. One of these films that helps draw that line in the sand is Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," which celebrates a 60th anniversary in 2019. Last night at CineVerse, we threw a Cineversary birthday party of sorts for this feature and discussed the following:

Why is this movie worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time
  • It stands as one of the greatest coming of age films ever and one of the cornerstone examples of The French New Wave—a cinematic movement in France that changed the way movies were made and viewed forever.
  • The challenges that Antoine faces in this movie, despite it being 60 years old, remain relevant and timeless; every teenager has gone through growing pains, suffered emotional highs and lows, and felt rebellious, alienated and misunderstood at some point in their adolescence. This picture makes adult viewers recall their own childhoods and its ups and downs.
  • The 400 Blows feels real. That’s because director Francois Truffaut wisely cast an excellent young actor and allowed him to deliver much of his own unscripted dialogue; the film has a freewheeling, episodic feel that seems always on the move. It isn’t an exaggerated narrative; there are plenty of mundane and predictable things that happen. Yet, The 400 Blows exudes a freshness and spontaneity in its style, story and filmmaking techniques.
In what ways do you think this film was influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?
  • Truffaut, like Godard and other French New Wave directors, opted for a realistic look and feel by choosing black and white film stock, shooting on location versus in the studio, employing handheld cameras that often film in tight confines (for more intimate visuals), used interesting angles (like the bird’s eye view of the schoolchildren going in different directions), and moved the camera a lot—as evidenced by the tracking shots along Antoine’s escape run at the end and car-mounted camera shots.
  • The film harkens to the past while also embracing the future; it feels nostalgic about childhood and slightly echoes the filmmaking style of Jean Renoir (Truffaut’s influence); it’s also respectful of Italian neo-realism techniques used over a decade earlier. But it also has a kinetic energy and unencumbered nature to it that makes it appear unscripted and extemporaneous.
What’s the moral to the story here? What themes or messages are explored in The 400 Blows?
  • The importance of proper parenting. We see how neglect and abandonment of a child, failure to understand him, and lack of communication with and empathy for him can lead to acting out, anger, rebellion and delinquency.
  • Our innate desire to be free from the constraints of rules, boundaries and institutions. This is certainly true of most adolescents, who yearn to buck the system, think for themselves for the first time in their lives and form a separate identify from their parents.
  • The awkwardness that comes with sexual curiosity. Antoine is a pubescent boy who passes around pinup photos, talks about sex, is repulsed by the thought of childbirth, and pays attention to his mother’s female form and philandering.
  • The volatile and dangerous nature of a young and curious mind. Consider how Antoine lights a candle in his shrine to Balzac, and the candle starts a fire—suggesting that his passion cannot be hemmed in and is combustible. We also witness how his transgressions increasingly get worse, from lying and accidental arson to stealing and then escaping from a juvenile center.
  • Going around in circles and getting nowhere. The carnival ride Antoine takes implies that he’s caught in a vicious circle and caught in a world he can’t escape.
What elements from this movie have aged well, and what elements are showing some wrinkles?
  • From an American’s point of view, it’s hard to say what has aged, as many of us aren’t familiar with French culture, let alone what was in vogue in 1959 in that country. That makes The 400 Blows possibly more evergreen for foreigners.
  • The notion of troubled teens, unwanted pregnancies, neglected children, cheating adults, and schools as repressive factories of boredom haven’t gone out of style, either.
What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?
  • That last shot, which suggests multiple things and opposing theories. 
    • You could view it as, Antoine has finally found the elusive freedom he has long sought, and on his own terms—he can run freely to the ocean, which he’s always wanted to see.
    • On the other hand, he now appears cornered—with nowhere else to run and the ocean to his back. 
    • The final shot, which is a freeze frame zoom-in, is also poignant because it breaks the fourth wall: Antoine is looking at us, creating an intimacy and inviting the viewer into his world and his triumph or dilemma, whichever way you view the finale. No one else in the film up to this point has understood or empathized with him; that last shot is almost a question, asking the audience, “will you”?
  • Again, the verisimilitude that feels inherent in this film continues to reward viewers; it speaks honesty about childhood and coming of age. It doesn’t offer resolution by the conclusion, insinuating that we all, like Antoine, face an uncertain future.
Other films that The 400 Blows makes us think of
  • Ivan’s Childhood
  • Les Mistons
  • The Wild Child
  • Small Change
  • The Squid and the Whale
Other films directed by Francois Truffaut 
  • The autobiographical Antoine Doinel series of 4 films: The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run.
  • Shoot the Piano Player
  • Jules and Jim
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Bride Wore Black
  • Small Change
  • Day for Night
  • The Man Who Loved Women
  • The Last Metro

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