FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT’S ‘The 400 Blows’, aside from being an extraordinary feature-length debut from a director not yet 30, is heralded today for opening the floodgates of the French New Wave. The film is a semi-autobiographical portrait of Truffaut’s own troubled youth, recast in an abbreviated form. His proxy and our protagonist is Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a boy of perhaps 13 whom we follow through hardships and revelry, but mostly the former. From exile behind the chalkboard in the corner of his schoolroom to the narrow foyer of his parents’ apartment where he sleeps, Antoine is beset by the frustrations of the adult world: his teacher’s apparent loathing for life and children, his parents’ crumbling relationship and lack of trust, his own lack of direction and cherishment. Throughout it all, he looks increasingly dour—and adult. On the one hand, Antoine’s parents, consumed by petty suspicions, squabbling in the kitchen adjacent to his improvised bedroom; on the other, a sea of oversized toddlers’ eyes enraptured by a puppet show. From each setting Antoine emerges with long strides into the streets, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his checkered jacket, growing taller. Eventually, and without knowing precisely why, he rebels, as any child might—falsifying his faithless mother’s death, running away for a night, plagiarizing his sudden hero Balzac—and is lashed back each time with increasing severity. The future does not seem to exist for him. After several limp efforts his hopeless, hapless parents remand his custody to a juvenile correctional facility where his visiting mother offers only dismissal and his one good friend, turned away at the door, can only shrug in silence and bike back down the road. Surrounded by misfits and vague custodians, Antoine is afforded no more love or attention than he received at home. So he flees, just as before.
Until this point, Antoine had existed in the regulated modern world—one of businessmen, of didacts, rules, habits, and prescriptions that he cannot abide. In this brief chase all that bondage is peeled away until he slips past his pursuers by hiding out beneath a bridge, like any of cinema’s fugitives on a jailbreak. Then Antoine turns at last to the road, a straight line away after a life spent in circles. As he jogs through the countryside, the camera tracks Antoine in a tight shot from the side: the road before him is unknown, that behind him immaterial. He runs for some time, and we with him. When his steps finally take him to the ocean—a sight he has never before beheld—without pause he carries on until the water laps over the soles of his shoes. Only the does he stop, casting about briefly before turning towards the camera, almost as if in succor, and his face is suddenly frozen.
This is the film’s final frame, and it is jarring. Ocean revelations are often protracted and broadly panning episodes that leave us feeling slightly eternal. ‘And this too shall pass,’ so to say. The audience might fill in the spots between Antoine’s frustrated youth and wherever they themselves might be today. His story would be somehow theirs. But those frozen eyes—guarded, questing, irresolute—deny us this indulgence. No time passes, and the 400 blows remain fresh. It is not quite a tragedy and neither a comedy, but in any event it remains living, not bottled up for reflection or recast for the nostalgic past.
This film’s companion piece in the New Wave genesis is Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Breathless’, which is full of romantic criminals and young epicureans whose curiosity about one another is an excuse to exercise their own solipsism. The film is similarly self-absorbed—spontaneous in some ways, highly stylized in others, and ultimately as much about the presentation as its content. We recall the faces of the characters involved and the intoxicating je ne sais quoi of their environment, but their myopic worldview makes empathy difficult. Truffaut’s characterizations here are more earnest, unadorned, and memorable.
Meanwhile, another semi-autobiographical film from a revolutionary director would emerge in Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ just a few years later. Naturally it is cut from a much different cloth than ‘The 400 Blows’, where self-reflection is inherent to its very premise. But that too smacks of a preening ego that Truffaut has completely circumvented. In a pleasing change of pace, this revolution occurred without seeming too aware of its own paradigm shifting. The techniques that Truffaut adopts—long dolly shots of natural street sets, a following eye enabled by handheld cameras, unvarnished characters played by real people without hours of makeup—are natural byproducts of the story he wants to tell, and not the learned tricks into which he shoehorns a studio committee-approved script. This freshness of genesis, of free-flowing life in a new cinema verite, could never again be recreated, for each wave beyond the first is not new, but merely next.