How to raise hell, and do it well: What the 400 Blows means to film
Some of you are probably wondering why that title is on the by-line; after all, “raising hell” isn’t exactly a phrase of pure etiquette. The film, if you haven’t seen it, is a French piece from 1959. Its title directly translated to English is “The 400 Blows”, but it loses the cultural meaning of the phrase. More appropriately translated, it would mean something awfully similar to “raising hell”. It is about a young boy who causes trouble in his Paris boy’s academy, his Paris flat home, the outskirts of Paris, and just most of Paris in general. It is a story of a boy thrust into thinking like an adult when he discovers his mother’s affair and is sent to a juvenile detention academy when he makes the wrong decision. It is about filmmaking itself, albeit indirectly.
Francois Truffaut is one of the most prolific French filmmakers of all time, and unfortunately also one of its most prolific celebrity criminals. Ever since he was young, he was involved in all sorts of juvenile criminal activity. He began writing for a film criticism magazine, Cashiers Du Cinema, shortly after being released from prison for deserting the French army with the connections of his friend and Cashiers editor André Bazin. He quickly became a star writer and a brutal critic. In fact, he was the only critic not invited to the 1958 Cannes Film Festival. Putting his borrowed money where his proverbial mouth is, he decided to make his own feature. Drawing on his own experiences as a child, he molded the character Antoine Doinel as a youth experiencing everyday life in Paris, more appropriately a life slipping downhill. The film was dedicated to Bazin, who died just before shooting was to begin, and drew upon their initial concept of a theory that would change cinema forever: the auteur theory. Basically, this means that a director is the author of his or her work, and that this work has the director’s distinct personal vision. Before this there were definitely great directors, but think of such men as Victor Fleming. In 1939, he directed both The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. He is not usually considered in a list of great all time filmmakers, because although he most certainly had artistic input, he is not the primary creative vision we would associate on the films like we would Martin Scorsese with Raging Bull or Stanley Kubrick with Dr. Strangelove. This is also not to say that no director beforehand was the author behind the film. One of Truffaut’s main inspirations for the theory was Alfred Hitchcock, of which he did an extensive interview collection with. The same authorship status pre-theory can be said of Akira Kurosawa or John Ford. Speaking of Kurosawa, he called The 400 Blows “one of the most beautiful films that [he had] ever seen.” This is also not to say that every director today has authorship over their work. The auteur theory did, however, pave the way for the following new wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Roemer, who in turn influenced the New Hollywood movement of Arthur Penn, Scorsese, and Speilberg, who in turn inspired . . . well, you get the idea.
When watching the film, it is easy to see why it has garnered such acclaim. From the opening credit ride through the streets of Paris, the Eiffel tower flickering in the background, Parisian buildings looming in the foreground, to the final breathtaking zooming freeze frame on a tortured Antoine, the film is nothing short of beautiful, masterful filmmaking. The film is slow moving, yes, but if the viewer is invested, you can’t look away. The film then shows Antoine’s life spiral downhill as he begins to “raise hell” all over the city, from theft to school plagiarism, until finally being deserted by his parents in a juvenile camp. The debut lead performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud is captivating, made all the more exceptional by the fact he was 14. Meditating on themes of Truffaut and friend’s own lives and the treatment of juvenile offenders in France in the early 1950s, Truffaut definitely is the author here, controlling everything we see before us. About that final shot, my personal favorite in any film, Roger Ebert said, “[Antoine] has just run away from a house of detention, and is on the beach, caught between land and water, between past and future. It is the first time he has seen the sea.”
Truffaut would go on to write Antoine into four other films, chronicling his life with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud in every film, expressing, in a way, Truffaut’s own life. The 400 Blows is a rare film, and one of the true masterpieces among film, and one that is also rarely seen. Truffaut would make other great films, but none as breathtaking, none as praised. When the film was released in 1959 to wide critical acclaim, Truffaut traveled back to the legendary Cannes film festival, where he won the best director prize, merely a year after his critical prohibition.
Written by Phillip Bryant