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The 400 Blows (1959)
The 1950s saw the
blossoming of what was called the New Wave of film making, referring, in particular, to
the unparalleled emergence of a stream of fresh, creative French films from a new
generation of directors. The 400 Blows, Francoise Truffaut's first film, was an
instant critical and popular success, with good reason. The techniques of the film may
seem more familiar to us these many years later, having been imitated time and again, but
the artistic vision, insight, and execution remain unsurpassed.
In the long tradition of coming of age tales, The 400 Blows introduces us to Antoine Doinel at age 12, a character Truffaut later brings back in a series of autobiographical pictures. The film is told principally from the viewpoint of the young protagonist as we meet his selfish, unloving mother, observe the less than nurturing environment of his school, and watch his defensive slips into minor delinquencies.
Truffaut's love of children, seen frequently in later films, is evident here, not only in his sympathetic and understanding portrait of Doinel, but in sequences such as a Punch and Judy show where the camera lingers deliciously over the charming, unaffected audience of children taking unspoiled pleasure in the puppetry. No shot is without purpose, however; here we contrast the innocence of these younger kids with the growing cynicism and disaffection of Doinel.
Truffaut explores the irony of a juvenile detention center that looks more like a private school - until Doinel is slapped meanly in the face by a teacher for a minor transgression. A long scene when Doinel talks to the school psychologist is particularly perceptive of how keenly observant young people are of the foibles and the feelings of their elders. The director's eye for telling detail is unrivaled and his final, utterly right freeze frame shot is a perfect conclusion, as well as an innovative film technique at the time.
Doinel's mother tells the judge how difficult her son is: "He spends hours at the movies," she complains petulantly, "ruining his eyes!"
Don't worry about your eyes. Essential viewing.
- Arthur Lazere
Bob Wake's review of Jean Douchet's book: French New Wave