Thursday, 11 August 2011

Places: France/Films and cinema: The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut).

Sourced from the Wikipedia page 'The 400 Blows'...because I live dangerously...

The 400 Blows (French: Les Quatre Cents Coups) is a 1959 French film directed by François Truffaut. One of the defining films of the French New Wave, it displays many of the characteristic traits of the movement. The story revolves around Antoine Doinel, an ordinary adolescent in Paris, who is thought by his parents and teachers to be a trouble maker.

The English title is a straight translation of the French but misses its meaning, as the French title refers to the expression "faire les quatre cents coups", which means "to raise hell". On the first American prints, subtitler and dubber Noelle Gilmore gave the film the title Wild Oats, but the distributor did not like that title and reverted it to The 400 Blows, which led some to think the film covered the topic of corporal punishment.


Antoine Doinel is a boy growing up in France during the early 1950s. The movie opens to a group of Antoine’s classmates passing around a picture of a half-naked woman while writing their papers. When the picture comes to Antoine he defaces it and attempts to pass it forward when he is caught by his teacher who makes him stand in a corner the rest of the lesson and deprives him of recess. While alone he writes an angry poem about his teacher (whom he calls Sourpuss) on one of the classroom walls. One of the children tells and the teacher yells at him to clean up his mess only to yell at him later when it is not clean enough.
At home he acts as his mother's servant and maid, fetching her slippers and setting the table for supper. When she arrives home from work, she sends Antoine to the store for flour. On the way home he overhears a woman talking about her daughter’s difficult birth which makes him cringe. He catches up with his father on the way home who shows him a fog light he bought for the races he plans to attend that Saturday. Despite his cheery attitude, his mother appears cold and annoyed with his jokes and sense of optimism. When his mother tells his father she would prefer to stay at home on Sunday rather than go to the races he accuses her of having an affair. His mother sends Antoine to take out the trash and go to bed (which is a folding cot in the hallway with no bed-sheets, only his sleeping bag).
The next morning Antoine wakes up late for school and realizes that he didn’t do the extra assignment the teacher gave him for defacing the classroom walls. As he hurries to school, he runs into his best friend, Rene, who convinces him to skip school since it will be much easier than trying to sneak in. On their way back from the arcade, Antoine catches his mother kissing another man on a street corner. He doesn’t say a word and moves on, even though his mother saw him. After they collect their bags, Antoine realizes he’ll need a note tomorrow explaining his absence. Rene gives him an old note he never used for Antoine to copy in his mother’s handwriting. When he comes home, his father tells him his mother called to say her boss needed her for year-end inventory and wouldn’t be home until later. While cooking dinner he encourages Antoine to buy his mother a birthday present and tells him she doesn’t mean to be so hard on him and that she's just stressed working part-time and taking care of the house. Later that night, when he can’t find his Michelin Guide, Antoine’s father snaps at him and accuses him of stealing it. After Antoine is in bed, his mother arrives home. Antoine overhears her explaining to her husband that her boss dropped her off, setting off more accusations of her affair and more fighting about his poor behavior.
The next morning after Antoine leaves for school one of his classmates who had seen him skipping school goes to Antoine’s apartment and asks his father if he is feeling better since he was absent from school the previous day. His father is shocked but his mother (who had, with her lover, seen him on the street while he was supposed to be in school) remains nonchalant saying, “Nothing that boy does surprises me.” Antoine meanwhile tries to come up with a good excuse for being late since he never copied Rene’s note. Out of panic, when confronted he tells his teacher his mother died. During class, Antoine’s parents arrive at the school and when they discover Antoine’s lie his father smacks him across the face and tells him they will deal with his punishment when he comes home. After school, Antoine decides he cannot go home and that he will be better off on his own. Rene takes him to Place Pigalle (in an old printing plant) for a place to sleep. When Antoine hears voices coming closer to his hiding place, he wanders the empty streets and steals a bottle of milk.
The next day during class, Antoine’s mother arrives at the school looking for Antoine. The principal lets his mother take him home early and she spends the evening doting on him. Before tucking him into bed, she tells him she understands his stubbornness and opens up to him about her rowdy behavior as a young girl. She encourages him to talk about his problems at school and tells him that even though they teach a lot of useless things at school a few of them, like French, will always be useful to him.
He goes to school and is given an assignment to, “Describe a serious event you witnessed that involved you personally.” With Balzac’s A Sinister Affair in mind he writes an essay entitled, “My Grandfather’s Death”. When he gets home he sets up a small shrine to Balzac in a cupboard of his room. During dinner the box catches on fire from the candle inside, much to his father’s rage. His father yells and threatens him with the military academy but his mother tells him Antoine was only doing something for her and distracts them with a trip to the movies. The family go all together and have a great time. They buy him strawberry ice cream for the first time.
When the French essays are returned, it is revealed that in Antoine’s attempt to use Balzac’s story as reference he had copied down part of the story word for word. His teacher calls him a miserable plagiarist in front of the whole class and sends him to the principal’s office. Antoine manages to escape from the student escorting him to the office and Rene is thrown out in his attempt to stand up for Antoine. Antoine is suspended until after Christmas and he again worries about having to confront his parents at home, so Rene lets Antoine stay with him provided his parents don’t find out. Since both his parents are off at the country club the boys are left alone for a good portion of the night.
The boys spend the coming days scheming on how to make enough money to start up their own business, away from their parents. They ultimately decide that if Antoine can steal a typewriter from his father’s office it will provide them with enough money to start. They attempt to hawk it but the man they try to sell it to tries to cheat them. When they threaten to tell the police, he gives them the typewriter back. Feeling guilty, Antoine decides to return the typewriter to the office where he is caught by a guard who recognizes him and calls his father. His father brings him to the police station and tells the chief about the typewriter incident, saying that he is fed up with Antoine’s behavior. The chief tells the father he can place Antoine in the Observation Center, a place where he can learn a trade, provided he and his wife transfer their parental rights to the juvenile justice system. After getting his statement, Antoine spends the night in jail, sharing a cell with prostitutes and thieves. In an interview with the judge, Antoine’s mother confesses that Antoine’s father is not his biological father.
Antoine is placed in an observation center for troubled youth near the shore (as per his mother's wishes to the judge). Despite this change, he is still reprimanded for minor misbehaviors. In an interview with the psychologist Antoine says that his mother had him before she was married and that she had wanted to have an abortion but Antoine’s grandmother convinced her not to. Antoine explained he lived with a wet nurse and then later with his grandmother until he was 8 but had to live with his mother when his grandmother had become too old to care for him. Antoine’s mother comes to visit one day and informs him that she was considering letting him come home until his father received Antoine’s letter informing him of her affair. They are still together but have now decided to wash their hands of him completely, telling him he is only good for reform school or a work camp. His friend Rene had come to see him the same day but was not allowed in, so the boys could only wave to each other sadly from a distance.
One day, while playing football with the rest of the boys, Antoine escapes under the fence and runs away to the ocean, a place he has wanted to visit his entire life. He reaches the shoreline of the sea, runs into it, then turns back to the land. The film concludes with the camera zooming in and then freezing on Antoine's face, looking directly into the camera.


  • Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel
  • Claire Maurier as Gilberte Doinel, Antoine's mother
  • Albert Rémy as Julien Doinel, Antoine's father
  • Guy Decomble as School teacher (Sourpuss)
  • Patrick Auffay as René Bigey, Antoine's best friend
  • Georges Flamant as Monsieur Bigey, René's father
  • Pierre Repp as English Teacher
  • The Children: Daniel Couturier, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Michel Lesignor;
  • Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Bouchon, Christian Brocard, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux.

Awards and nominations

The film was widely acclaimed, winning numerous awards, including the Best Director Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, the Critics Award of the 1959 New York Film Critics' Circle and the Best European Film Award at 1960's Bodil Awards. It was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 32nd Academy Awards. The film currently holds a very rare 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 48 reviews.
The film is among the top ten of the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.


A semi-autobiographical film, reflecting events of Truffaut's and his friend's lives, its style amounts to Truffaut's personal history of French film—most notably a scene borrowed wholesale from Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite. It is dedicated to the man who became his spiritual father, André Bazin, who died just as the film was about to be shot.
Besides being a character study, the film is an exposé of the injustices of the treatment of juvenile offenders in France at the time.


Truffaut made four other films with Léaud depicting Antoine at later stages of his life. He meets his first love, Colette, in Antoine and Colette, which was Truffaut's contribution to the 1962 anthology Love at Twenty. He falls in love with Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) in Stolen Kisses. He marries Christine in Bed and Board, but the couple have separated in Love on the Run.
Filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Jean Cocteau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Richard Lester and Norman Jewison have cited The 400 Blows as one of their favorite movies. Kurosawa called it "one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen"
Ranked #29 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
*Sure, I may not be 14...but I really should have seen 'The 400 Blows' by now...a definate to-do before the summer is out!

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