The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) [DVD]
Director : François Truffaut
Screenplay : François Truffaut & Marcel Moussy (story by François Truffaut)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1959
Stars : Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Claire Maurier (Gilberte Doinel, the Mother), Albert Rémy (Julien Doinel), Guy Decomble (“Petite Feuille, ” the French teacher), Georges Flamant (Mr. Bigey), Patrick Auffray (Rene)
In the early 1950s, with the help of noted film theorist and critic André Bazin, 20-year-old François Truffaut began writing regularly for the Parisian film journal Cahiers du cinema. He quickly gained a reputation as an uncompromising and often vicious critic with a clear-cut sense of what was great about the cinema--he openly took aim on such previously untouchable French masters as Marcel Carné and René Clair. When he married Madeleine Morgenstern, the daughter of a film distributor whose films Truffaut often lambasted in his critical writings, his new father-in-law said, “If you know so much, why don’t you make a film?”
Famous last words, as they say. Truffaut took him up on his offer, and the result was The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), a film that would forever change the landscape of not only the French cinema, but cinema worldwide. It is hard to imagine that such a seemingly simple film, a loosely autobiographical portrait of youth in revolt (the title comes from the phrase “fait les quatre cents coups,” which means “to raise hell”), would have such a lasting impact, but the result is undeniable. Although not technically the first film of the vaunted French New Wave, The 400 Blows received such critical and commercial success that it empowered Truffaut, and the movement as a whole, in a way that no other film did. Films by Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette followed soon after, and the cinematic landscape would never be the same again.
The 400 Blows introduced the unforgettable character of Antoine Doinel, a romantic who would become the central figure of a quintet of films over two decades, offering an unparalleled opportunity to watch a character grow and mature on-screen. Doinel was played in all his incarnations by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who became as much a part of the character as Truffaut, on whose life Antoine was modeled. In The 400 Blows, Antoine is an irrepressible 12-year-old who lashes out against all the authorial figures bent on keeping him in line, whether it be his sadistic French teacher (Guy Decomble) or his working-class parents (Claire Maurier and Albert Rémy), who are much like Truffaut’s own parents: not bad people, just “nervous and busy,” in Truffaut’s own words.
Léaud’s performance is a marvel in the way he conveys Antoine’s frustration with the world around him and the inability of adults to understand him. More importantly, though, he conveys the sense that he doesn’t always understand his own actions. They are often the results of an impulsivity that arises from deep within his own rebellion, which in turn is born of an idealized romanticism that defines his character. Yet, he is determined to take responsibility for his actions, however impulsive and ill-thought, which gives the film a crucial existential thread that came to characterize much of Truffaut’s work, particularly the Antoine Doinel films. The famous final freeze-frame that ends The 400 Blows is a perfect summation of the film’s themes of individuality and personal responsibility.
Shot in gorgeous black and white anamorphic widescreen by Henri Decaë, who started as a documentarian in World War II and later worked with such French luminaries as Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, and Roger Vadim, The 400 Blows expertly captures the day-to-day rhythms of life in Paris in the late 1950s, strikingly foregrounding the French New Wave’s characteristic insistence on location photography. Whether the scene is taking place in the regimented classroom of Antoine’s school, the busy Parisian streets, or the cramped apartment where he lives with his parents, the film conveys a gritty sense of being there that is neither highly stylized nor flat and documentary-like; it is a unique visual achievement that made the film stand out from both previous French films that prided themselves on being “cinema of quality” and the heavily studio-bound products of U.S. producers and their Production-Code-limited subject matter. The achievement of The 400 Blows was best summed up by fellow New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard in his review of the film in Cahiers: “the proudest, stubbornest, most obstinate, in other words most free, film in the world.”
|The 400 Blows Criterion Collection DVD|
|This DVD of The 400 Blows is identical to the disc included in the box set “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” in terms of transfer and supplements, but it does not include the short film Antoine and Collette.|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 9, 2006|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The 400 Blows is presented in the same pristine high-definition anamorphic transfer that was used when it was reissued a few years ago as part of “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” DVD box set. Criterion had previously released the The 400 Blows as one of its first DVDs back in 1998 without an anamorphic transfer, and the new one, which was taken from a 35mm composite fine-grain master, is a significant improvement, with better detail and a more striking reproduction of the strong contrasts in the black-and-white photography. The audio, which is presented in Dolby Digital monaural, is also the same as the 2003 disc. It is a clean track, lacking any ambient hiss or aural artifacts, and is more than adequate|
|The Criterion DVD of The 400 Blows includes two audio commentaries. The first is by Brian Stonehill, a professor of English and cinema who taught at Pomona College from 1953 to 1997. Stonehill’s commentary was originally recorded for the Criterion laser disc of The 400 Blows back in 1992, but it hasn’t aged a bit. Stonehill’s specific, in-depth breakdown of each scene is mixed with background information about Truffaut and the French New Wave to create a deeply engaging and worthwhile analysis of the film. For those looking for a more personal reflection on the film, the disc also includes a commentary by Robert Lachenay, a lifelong friend of Truffaut’s (they met when Lachenary was 13 and Truffaut was 12). Lachenay’s commentary is particularly interesting in the way it illuminates the autobiographical aspects of the film. |
The disc includes six minutes of rare 16mm screen tests of Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick Auffay and Richard Kanayan (Léaud’s audition is particularly revealing in that he already resembles Antoine Doinel in attitude and sentiments). Léaud also appears in six minutes of newsreel footage and an interview at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, where The 400 Blows was representing France that year. (One thing of interest about this footage: Even in 1959, the editors were respectful enough to maintain the film’s widescreen aspect ratio when showing clips.)
Truffaut appears in two of the included supplements. The first is a 22-minute excerpt from the “François Truffaut ou l’esprit critique” episode of the French television program Cinéastes de nortre temps, which originally aired in December 1965 and also features Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, and collaborator Claude de Givray. In his interview (which takes place on his apartment balcony overlooking the Eiffel Tower), Truffaut talks about his youth, his critical writings, and the origins of Antoine Doinel. Truffaut appears again in a six-and-a-half minute TV interview from the French program Cinepanorama from 1960. This interview was conduced soon after The 400 Blows premiered in New York, and he talks about the American cinema he likes, his film’s reception in the U.S., and his own critical impressions of his work (although he first jokingly fields a question about Brigitte Bardot, which is apparently what the American press wanted most to ask him about).
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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