Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is 12 years old. He’s neglected at home and putdown as a troublemaker at school. Only the cinema, for which he has an intense love, is his refuge. He plays truant and drifts towards petty crime and is sent to reform school…
There’s no doubt that Truffaut put a lot of himself into Antoine Doinel: this debut feature film is based on the director’s own childhood: Truffaut himself was saved from the reform school by André Bazin, to whom the film is dedicated. As Antoine, Jean-Pierre Léaud gives one of the all-time greatest child performances in cinema, always engaging despite what fate throws at him. (The title comes from a French colloquialism, faire les quatre cents coups, or to get in a lot of trouble.) Truffaut and Léaud revisited the character of Doinel in later life in the short film Antoine et Colette (one episode of the three-part film Love At Twenty) and the features Stolen Kisses, Bed And Board and Love On The Run. Director and actor made notable films apart from each other, but together they were a fine partnership, and not more so than here. The closing freeze-frame, upbeat, defiant and sad at the same time, is one of the most famous endings in film history. Incidentally the scene where Antoine is questioned by a psychiatrist was improvised, with Truffaut asking Léaud questions off camera.
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The 400 Blows won the Best Director Prize at Cannes and was one of the key films of the French New Wave. Although the two men collaborated at times, Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard couldn’t be further apart in sensibility: Godard more cerebral and endlessly experimenting with film form, Truffaut much warmer, his filmmaking style more classical. What was groundbreaking about The 400 Blows was the use of real locations, made possible by lightweight cameras: Henri Decae’s black and white scope camerawork is another standout. A film with such a place in history as this can seem weighed down by its 40-odd years of influence and imitation, but The 400 Blows still comes up fresh.
Tartan’s DVD has an anamorphic picture and a Dolby digital mono soundtrack. Disc extras: Les mistons, Truffaut’s short film from 1958, theatrical trailer, a trailer for Tartan’s Truffaut collection.