Review: Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)

400blows

The film that ushered in the French New Wave and changed the coming of age story forever!

Written By: Marcel Moussy & François Truffaut
Directed By: François Truffaut

François Truffaut ushered in a new style of cinema with Les Quatre Cents Coups, the French New Wave. Placing more emphasis on the personal tale and steering as far away from convention as possible, French New Wave would influence such directors as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. It was fresh and new in 1959, but it wasn’t just a newly birthed novelty act because Truffaut gave it legs and because its roots could be traced to Italian Neorealism and also to the works of Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock to name a few. Being different wasn’t anything new, but Les Quatre Cents Coups marked a turn towards the completely different, towards a new take and the natural progression of film making.

This barrage of new ideas can be seen in every frame of Les Quatre Cents Coups. In silent moments that are held for longer than convention would allow, Truffaut is telling the audience to take a moment and breathe in all they have seen. Scenes take place that have nothing to do with a straight forward plot, but Antoine’s antics in a carnival ride tell you everything you need to know about the story. The end of the film isn’t so much an end as a reflection of the unknowing future that awaits all of us. These and so many other examples can be provided to show how Les Quatre Cents Coups is soaked with new ideas from stem to stern.

In foregoing the straight forward narrative Truffaut invites the audience to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions about the world of Les Quatre Cents Coups. It is entirely possible that someone could come away with the exact opposite viewpoint that Truffaut was going for, but as long as they came to that view of their own inkling and weren’t pushed in that direction by Truffaut then the film has accomplished its mission. Because Les Quatre Cents Coups is its main character, it is the need to escape from convention and rules that restrict and hold us back from being all that we really can be. Les Quatre Cents Coups is a proclamation about misunderstanding, a look at the disenfranchised youth and a statement on how our world is shaped not by who we truly are but by who people think we are. Without ever expressing any of these themes or ideas in the narrative directly they take over the entire picture, the plight of Antoine becomes real to us because everyone can connect with the themes flowing from Les Quatre Cents Coups like so many residual waves.

As great as the acting is in Les Quatre Cents Coups, it is very minimalist but in the perfect way, this film is truly about images, moments and what the viewer can glean from them. When Antoine says that his parents lie as much as he does we can instantly relate, if not to our parents then to some other authority figure in our life. No matter who you are or where you are from you can relate to the idea of misguided and absent authority that somehow manages to also be all intrusive and smothering. In response to the world around him Antoine seeks to escape, any way that he can. This becomes our quest as well, the film is our escape, our chance to get away from it all. The defining moment of Les Quatre Cents Coups that brings it all together is the zoom in freeze of Antoine’s face that ends the film. He has escaped, but who knows how long it will last, whether he will get caught or what the future holds for him at all? The same is true for us, the film has ended, and we are now stuck in place, with a myriad of possibilities ahead of us. The only truth is that the moment of escape has ended, what happens next depends on our actions and on whether we can navigate a world that is beyond our ability to control.

All these years later Les Quatre Cents Coups still holds up as a seminal film, a sign of all that was to come in cinema as well as a treatise on films shortcomings. It is Truffaut’s finest work, the film that ushered in a new era and allowed all of us to realize the escape that cinema can provide, whether we are taken to a light or heavy world. That sense of escape should stay with you every time you bare witness to a film, and while the great majority will not hold the same weight as Les Quatre Cents Coups, at least they will allow us to escape for the most fleeting of moments.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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