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‘The 400 Blows,’ a Directing Debut That Still Astonishes


One of the crucial impressive debuts in film history, François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” created a sensation on the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and elsewhere. It was voted one of the best foreign film of the 12 months by Latest York film critics — a movie that “brilliantly and strikingly reveals the explosion of a fresh creative talent,” Bosley Crowther wrote in The Latest York Times.

Showing for 2 weeks at Film Forum in a recent 4K restoration, the movie isn’t only crucial to 1’s film education but well value revisiting.

“Amazingly, this vigorous effort is the primary feature film of M. Truffaut, who had previously been (of all things!) the movie critic for a French magazine,” Crowther noted. As a critic, Truffaut was particularly harsh on French “quality” movies — a lot in order that Cannes denied him accreditation in 1958. Revenge was swift when he returned the next 12 months and won the award for best director. (Marcel Camus’s “Black Orpheus” received the Palme d’Or. The third French film in competition, Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” got here up empty.)

“The 400 Blows” has two stars. One is the then-14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel, and thus began a profession because the embodiment of the French recent wave. The opposite is the town of Paris — gray, grimy and glorious — the sector for Antoine’s fleeting joys and petty crimes.

Antoine is an unwanted child, as was Truffaut. Punished by his teacher, rejected by his self-centered mother (Claire Maurier), he plays hooky, runs away from home, steals a typewriter, gets busted attempting to return it, is booked by the cops and winds up in reform school. The movie is filled with actual incidents from Truffaut’s childhood, including his fabricating his mother’s death as an excuse for truancy. Few movies have been so personal.

“The 400 Blows” is devoted to the critic André Bazin, Truffaut’s mentor, who died just because the movie began shooting. The early scenes of the boy’s classroom misadventures strongly recall “Zero de Conduite,” the 1933 sendup of French education, directed by Truffaut’s great influence, Jean Vigo. There are other, more inside references, including the unlikely notion that Antoine’s parents might see a quasi-underground work-in-progress by Truffaut’s colleague Jacques Rivette, “Paris Belongs to Us.”

“The 400 Blows” is a landmark film for several reasons. It was likely the primary openly autobiographical industrial feature, and as such caused Truffaut’s parents considerable distress. It also introduced one among the ’60s most resilient clichés — the concluding freeze-frame close-up. Truffaut got the thought from Harriet Andersson’s accusatory stare at the tip of Ingmar Bergman’s “Summer with Monika” (as noted when Antoine steals a lobby card of Andersson’s “Monika.”) But constructing on the wistful refrain that runs throughout, “The 400 Blows” ends on a note of sadness all its own.

Truffaut and Leaud returned several times to the character of Antoine Doinel. Film Forum is showing “The 400 Blows” with rotating screenings of later movies like “Stolen Kisses” and “Love on the Run.” The character survives and even thrives. Yet it’s the heartbreaking last shot of “The 400 Blows” that may fix his identity for so long as there are movies.

The 4 Hundred Blows

Sept. 23 through Oct. 6 at Film Forum in Manhattan; filmforum.org

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