by Ned Depew


Photos courtesy of Les Films du Carrosse


In this unique time, a unique response. The current pandemic has closed movie theaters across the country, and in response production and distribution companies have postponed releases of completed films for anywhere from three to 12 months. Some films are being released streamed to video, to be watched on devices ranging from phones to 72-inch displays—not as “movies” in the traditional sense. In the absence of a new film that caught my interest, this month I’ve decided to revisit one of the classic films that inspired my first understandings of the true power and possibility of the medium.

I grew up in the 1950s, and spent many a Saturday afternoon nestled in a seat in the dark of The Music Hall—a converted vaudeville theater, as the name suggests—in Tarrytown, NY, watching Technicolor double features (with cartoons) for as much as four solid hours. To be honest, I remember few of those films clearly from that time, although I’ve revisited many of them as an adult. They were mostly action-adventure films and comedies, with epics and westerns thrown into the mix. Occasionally my mother would take me to the much smaller and more modern Pix Cinema in White Plains, NY, to see a film with Alec Guinness or some other “foreign” film.

It wasn’t until I was in college in the early ’60s that I encountered any of the breadth of European film. Then I was briefly and superficially introduced to Bergman, Carné, Renoir, Lang, De Sica, and others, both classic and contemporary. I was intrigued by some of what I saw, but it wasn’t until I been out of college for a year, in 1964, that I really began to understand what film could be outside of the Hollywood mainstream.

I shared an apartment with a fellow acting student who was a Swiss national and a native French speaker. Three years older than me, he had a head start on the cinematic journey for which he served as my guide. We went to the Bleecker Street Cinema, to the Thalia, and other theaters to see foreign and classic American films in the quiet of those dark caverns of big screens. Michel wanted to talk about the movies afterwards, and his insights and the questions he asked showed me a way of looking at film with the same appreciative and critical eye with which I had learned to look at literature and poetry.

The challenge of looking at films in this way, from the political, the sociological, the anthropological, the technical, the aesthetic, the ethnographic, the cultural and many other perspectives a film would represent, gave me a greater interest in the medium. It provided me with an understanding of what film scholars were saying when they called film a new branch of artistic expression, capable of combining the visceral evocations of sound, image and music with the sense of a narrative story and dialogue to create a new art form.

One of the films that opened this vista to me was Les Quatre Cent Coups, the debut feature film from young, iconoclastic critic turned filmmaker, François Truffaut. As a self-taught student, only 18, he had come under the sway of influential film theorist and critic, André Bazin (to whom the film is dedicated), and with Bazin’s encouragement, became a critic himself, eventually at Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinema, one of the first serious publications devoted to film as an art form.

In the absence of French films that embraced Bazin’s emphasis on the visual image, simplicity and realism, Truffaut and several other Cahiers contributors (including Jean-Luc Goddard, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol) eventually decided to make their own films, in a loose association that was termed “La Nouvelle Vague,” or The New Wave. Le Quatre Cent Coups was one of the first of those films.

Technically it departed from the conventions of mainstream feature film, avoiding contrivance and expensive technology, often relying on barely enhanced available lighting, ambient sound and real-life locations, rather than sets. Likewise, its subject matter was based on the same “modern” current of thought the Existentialists were pursuing: That the real meaning of life is something we project onto events, that the idea of a Divine Plan and the rituals of conventional religion are a distraction from reality, that lives—and stories about lives—are not wrapped up in neat little bundles, but leave many unraveled threads, blind alleys and unanswered questions. It concerned the banalities of everyday life among real people, rather than heroic characters.

The title, Le Quatre Cent Coups, was sloppily translated into English as The Four Hundred Blows. It’s a French idiom—“faire les quatre cent coups”—that conveys the sense of doing every last wild and foolish thing, similar to the English phrase “sow one’s wild oats,” but with a hint of something even more transgressive. The narrative follows Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an adolescent boy from an unhappy working class family, struggling to come to terms with his place in his family, his school and society in general, making one rebellious and ill-considered decision after another.

While his actions seem mild by modern standards—and even in their own period context—it’s not the outrageousness of his acts, but rather their pettiness and impotence that interests director/writer François Truffaut. The stakes for which he takes his risks are so small and the likelihood of coming to grief so obvious that his actions are clearly symbolic rather than literal. Truffaut’s own youth and young adulthood was as rebellious as Antoine’s, and their histories are similar. The film is certainly an exploration of the events of Truffaut’s own life, and his attitudes and reactions to them.

After dropping out of school for good (in the wake of multiple expulsions) at age 14, Truffaut devoted himself to movies and reading, setting his own curriculum and criteria for his education. He had many run-ins with the law, for petty offenses such as sneaking into movie theaters and shoplifting. Like Antoine, he had no money and was estranged from his parents, essentially living on the streets. The older, respectable, employed Bazin often interceded on his behalf.

But Antoine’s story ends without such an advocate. His friend, Rémy—a counterpart to a real, lifelong friend of Truffaut—does what he can, but he is in no position to offer substantial help. The film ends with Antoine escaping—almost certainly temporarily—from custody in a reform school. He stands on a beach looking at the open ocean, with the same, stoic, guarded expression with which he has faced almost all the events in the film. His future is uncertain, but also unlimited. The sense of his character and the social, familial, emotional and cultural pressures that come together in this particular moment have been movingly evoked.

Unlike most mainstream films, in France and America, there is no lesson to be learned here. The film observes and reports, but, in keeping with one of Bazin’s standards, does not force conclusions on the audience. The subject is an ordinary boy going through the ordinary struggles for identity that all teenagers face, in his own particular way. There’s no attempt to interpret or explain. That is left entirely to the viewer.

As co-screenwriter (with Marcel Moussy), Truffaut has kept the dialogue spare. Some of it seems labored and artificial, by contrast with the imagery and overall emotional tone of the film. It serves the purpose of providing some exposition and context for the images, but it’s by no means the strongest aspect of the film. The action of the narrative arc is intentionally far more random (and existentialist) than in conventional storytelling, beginning and ending in the middle.

As director, Truffaut saw himself as an auteur, or author, controlling the total impact of the film through everything from camera placement, focus and movement, to music, dialogue, editing, acting and setting. He proposed a theory of the film director as auteur—the central creator of his own body of work—that was in direct opposition to the studio system of film at the time, where studio executives selected the scripts, assigned the actors, hired the crew and post-production staff and assigned a director—all of whom were under general contract to the studio. It was Truffaut’s advocacy of directors as the actual creators of the films they produced that was one of his most influential contributions to filmmaking.

Here, he uses that unitary control to produce a work that has, in its simplicity, an unusual degree of coherence. Choosing his own cast, working with carefully selected collaborators rather than hirelings, and having the final say in how the finished project came together made this film a real departure from convention. Its success—from an artistic, critical and commercial point of view—gave concrete form to the theories he and others had expressed as critics.

The acting is fine. Léaud carries the film, and his general lack of affect, his stoicism and resignation, serve the character well. His swings between passive and aggressive rebellion invite an engagement and responsiveness the character is never able to evoke. Truffaut is wise enough to tell much of the story through reaction shots that allow Léaud’s passivity to mirror the passive point of view of the audience, watching these events unfold with a sense of detachment and ineffectuality.

Some of the supporting characters slip into cliché—the martinet schoolmaster, the pompous judge, even Antoine’s self-absorbed, narcissistic, bickering parents—but that reflects the superficial way in which Antoine views them: as characters in his story, rather than people in their own right. Only his schoolmate and ally Rémy is embodied as a fellow-struggler, but even he is subordinated to Antoine’s central story.

The use of actual locations, especially the Doinel’s cramped apartment and the shabby, visually barren schoolrooms, as well as a number of outdoor locations and the city itself, set the tone without the need for further comment. This confidence in the audience’s willingness to engage imaginatively, respect for their intelligence, and willingness to let viewers come to their own conclusions was a great departure from the highly structured nature of most films of the time, and an important influence of this film on the future of the form.

If you’ve never seen it before, it’s worth watching. If you watched it long ago, it’s worth revisiting. Fifty-six years after I first saw it, the film holds up as a successful experiment that is resonant and moving in its own right, as well as the inspiration and model of so much that has become the backbone of effective filmmaking today. It’s available now to stream on Kanopy for free through many public libraries.