Les Quatres Cents Coups - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(The 400 Blows)

France, 1959

Director: François Truffaut

Production: Les Films du Carrosse and SEDIF; black and white, 35mm, Dyaliscope; running time: 94 minutes. Released 3 June 1959, dedicated to André Bazin.

Producer: Georges Charlot; screenplay: Marcel Moussy, from an original story by François Truffaut; photography: Henri Decaë; editor: Marie-Joseph Yoyotte; sound: Jean-Claude Marchetti; art director: Bernard Evein; music: Jean Constantin.

Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud ( Antoine Doinel ); Claire Maurier ( Gilberte Doinel ); Albert Rémy ( Julien Doinel ); Guy Decomble ( "Little Quiz" ); Georges Flamant ( Monsieur Bicey, René's Father ); Patrick Auffray ( René ); Daniel Couturier, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Michel Girard, Henri Moati, Bernard Abbou, Michael Lesignor, Jean-François Bergouignan ( the children ); special guest appearances by Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Claude Brialy.

Awards: New York Film Critics' Award, Best Foreign Film, 1959; Best Director and Catholic Film Office Awards, Cannes Film Festival, 1959.



Truffaut, François, and Marcel Moussy, Les quatre cents coups , Paris, 1959; as The 400 Blows , edited by David Denby, New York, 1969; in The Adventures of Antoine Doinel: 4 Screenplays by François Truffaut , New York, 1971.


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Rivette, Jacques, "Du côté de chez Antoine," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1959.

Corbin, Louis, in Films in Review (New York), November 1959.

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New Yorker , 20 February 1960.

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Sawyer, Paul, in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1967–68.

Jacob, Gilles, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1968.

Les Quatres Cents Coups
Les Quatres Cents Coups

Helman, A., "Czterysta batĂłw," in Kino (Warsaw), November 1973.

"Dialogue on Film: Interview with Truffaut," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1976.

Poague, Leland, "On Time and Truffaut," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), Summer 1976.

Mast, Gerald, "From 400 Blows to Small Change ," in New Republic (New York), 2 April 1977.

Thiher, Allen, "The Existential Play in Truffaut's Early Films," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Summer 1977.

Carreño, J. M., in Casablanca (Madrid), February 1984.

Turner, D., "Made in the USA: The American Child in Truffaut's 400 Blows ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), April 1984.

Schmidt, N., "Cinéma et télévision," Cin é mAction (Conde-sur-Noireau, France), no. 2, June 1992.

Neupert, R., "The Musical Score as Closure Device in The 400 Blows ," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), no. 1, 1989.

Lucas, Tim, "The 400 Blows / Jules et Jim," in Video Watchdog (Cincinnati, Ohio), no. 19, September/October, 1993.

Bjorkman, S., "En stillbild i en stillbild . . . still," Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 36, 1994.

Colville, G.M.M., "Pere perdus, peres retrouves dans l'oeuvre de François Truffaut," French Review , vol. 68, no. 2, 1994.

Söderbergh Widding, Astrid, "En stillbild ur François Truffaut's De 400 slagen ," Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 38, no. 1, 1996.

Raskin, R. "A Note on Closure in Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups ," P.O.V. (Denmark), no. 2, December 1996.

Mandolini, C., "Les quatre cents coups," Sequences (Quebec), no. 189–190, March/June 1997.

* * *

The film career of François Truffaut is marked by paradox. As the "enfant terrible" of French film criticism he was barred from attending the Cannes Film Festival of 1958. But in 1959 his first feature-length film, Les quatre cents coups , earned him honors as Best Director. Similarly, Truffaut's role as champion of the "politique des auteurs" also involved a species of paradox, in his attacking the French "tradition of quality" while praising American film noir in traditional aesthetic terms, in his praising of individual self-expression while creating a "counter tradition" of filmic reference points from sources as diverse as neorealism and Hollywood. Especially important in Truffaut—given the tensions implicit in his critical stance—is the fact of language, at once a social institution and a means of personal expression. Repeatedly it is through language that Truffaut's central characters—most of them loners of one sort or another—attempt to reconcile themselves to society, as Truffaut himself, perhaps, has used language, especially the language of cinema, to establish his position as the most consistently successful of the Cahiers du cinéma group of New Wave directors that included not only Truffaut but also Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette.

To see Les quatre cents coups against the background of the European cinema is to become especially conscious of Truffaut's indebtedness to Vigo, Rossellini, and Renoir. Vigo's short documentary A propos de Nice is a study of a city, with particular emphasis on the contrast between rich and poor. Les quatre cents coups is similarly concerned with Paris as a city, and again there is a contrast between affluence (the many shop windows against which Truffaut frames his action) and poverty (the cramped Doinel apartment; various acts of theft). Equally resonant are the oft-noted parallels between Les quatre cents coups and Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite . Though the action in Les quatre cents coups is not limited to interiors—the exterior shots of Paris connote a sense of almost lyrical freedom (partly the result of Jean Constantin's gently energetic score)—the film's action is effectively "framed" by two "institution" sequences, the first in the school where Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is constantly at odds with his teacher, the second in the "Observation Center for Delinquent Minors" to which Antoine is sent after stealing a typewriter. Both settings recall the boys' boarding school in Vigo's Zéro de conduite , as Antoine's revolt against his social and familial circumstances recalls that of Vigo's quartet of young rebels.

Truffaut's debts to Rossellini and Renoir are as much stylistic as thematic—in both cases it is a matter of camera mobility and take duration, as well as the use of real-world rather than studio sets. But the theme of rebellion against rigid social authority is common both to Rossellini's and Renoir's modes of "film realism." In this regard Les quatre cents coups recalls Renoir's Boudu sauvé des eaux especially, in setting (Paris) and in its tone of affection for the innocent self-assertiveness of its central character; Boudu polishes his shoes with a fancy bedspread, while Antoine wipes his dirty hands on the dining room drapery. It is also worth remarking that water is an important image in both films—for Boudu, who is "saved" from drowning, only to escape his bourgeois rescuers by eventually returning to the river, and also for Antoine Doinel, who speaks longingly of the sea throughout Les quatre cents coups , and who finds himself (ambiguously) at the seashore at the film's end.

Equally important to the texture and tone of Les quatre cents coups are Truffaut's references to the American cinema, especially to Hitchcock and Welles. The entire sequence of Antoine's arrest and detention, for instance, recalls in spirit and detail (right down to Antoine's hat) a similar sequence in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man ; questions are asked, fingerprints or mug shots are taken, and the prisoner is eventually led to his cell. And the sense of shock in both cases follows from the disproportion or dissonance of the accused (Manny is innocent; Antoine was returning the typewriter) and the accusation.

Far more central to Les quatre cents coups are its submerged (almost retroactive) relations to the Wellesian cinema. In La nuit américaine the childhood figure of the director played by Truffaut dreams of stealing stills of Citizen Kane through the grill work protecting the front of a local cinema (in Les quatre cents coups Antoine and René filch a still from Bergman's Sommaren med Monika ); in several respects the basic situation in Les quatre cents coups recalls that in Welles's Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons . In all three films a young boy endeavors to reconcile himself to his mother, and in each instance the father figure is weak to the point of desertion: Kane's father quickly gives in to the scheme that sends Charlie east with Thatcher, Georgie Amberson's father dies midway through the narrative, and Antoine Doinel's stepfather has neither the courage nor the insight to understand the basic honesty and earnestness of Antoine's attempts to please or to be independent.

All of which is especially important given the stylistic and thematic affinity of Truffaut to Welles. That stylistic energy of both Truffaut and Welles is evidenced by the range of their filmic devices; both are masters equally of montage and of long take. And yet in each case the energy evident in film style is set thematically against a lack of energy in the depicted world of the film. The danger is one of denial (as Antoine is eventually denied by his mother) or exhaustion (as Antoine reaches the verge of exhaustion in his long run to the seashore).

The alternative—at least for Truffaut—is to find a way of life that allows for repetition, as children "repeat" and hence "replace" their parents, without falling prey to mechanical regimentation or cynical bitterness. It is Madame Doinel's bitterness toward her own past, toward her son, which is most directly responsible for Antoine's delinquency and exile. By contrast, Truffaut always works in his films to incorporate the past creatively into the present, to sustain the past by revising and reviewing it. Hence, in Les quatre cents coups he pays homage to the history of cinema (and also literature) in the very process of renewing it, of using it again. And Les quatre cents coups is itself subsequently revised and thereby sustained in a series of films about the further adventures of Antoine Doinel, a series that culminates in L'amour en fuite in which footage from all of the earlier films in the Doinel saga ( Les quatre cents coups , Antoine et Collete , Baisers volés , and Domicile conjugal ), as well as from Les deux anglais et le continent and La nuit américaine , is recombined with new footage to demonstrate with remarkable clarity and feeling the possibilities for human renewal.

—Leland Poague

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