Les Quatre cents coups

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #5: François Truffaut’s Les Qua­tre cents coups


This is only the sec­ond time I’ve seen The 400 Blows. It is pret­ty much con­sid­ered the ur-film of the French New Wave which means, unfor­tu­nate­ly, that its fresh­ness of tech­nique and sub­ject mat­ter are a bit lost by the vast major­i­ty of films made in a sim­i­lar vein since. Despite its now-ubiq­ui­ty as a film class sta­ple, it remains strong, main­ly because of the fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter that is Antoine Doinel.

Doinel is often con­sid­ered to be a stand-in for Truf­faut, which for me per­fect­ly exem­pli­fies the only real prob­lem I have with most French New Wave films. It shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing that the director’s pres­ence is so evi­dent, com­ing hard on the heels of Truffaut’s own devel­op­ment of auteur the­o­ry; but to me the obses­sion that FNW direc­tors have in mak­ing them­selves auteurs tends to impede the oth­er facets of the film­mak­ing, and almost seems mas­tur­ba­to­ry.

That said, The 400 Blows would not suc­ceed as well as it does with­out Truffaut’s own per­son­al expe­ri­ence to dri­ve and add nuance to the sto­ry. There is no doubt that he knew what he was doing, so steeped in the ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tion of Bazin [to whom the film is ded­i­cat­ed] as he is. If any­thing would make me like film crit­i­cism more than film-mak­ing, Cahiers du ciné­ma could do it. But I’m still talk­ing about Truf­faut, not the film, thus is the dif­fi­cul­ty of deal­ing with a work that has become more about the man mak­ing it than the work itself.


The 400 Blows is main­ly a film about ado­les­cence, but it wouldn’t be French with­out healthy dos­es of exis­ten­tial­ism and anomie as well. That’s what I find most inter­est­ing. Antoine is the unwit­ting exis­ten­tial hero, striv­ing for his auton­o­my against a soci­ety that has no place for him. His very nature belies this quest, because through­out the film he is mere­ly reac­tionary. [When he reach­es the sea and runs out of things to react against he final­ly catch­es a glimpse of the hor­ror of true free­dom]. It almost seems as if Truf­faut is mak­ing a cor­re­la­tion between exis­ten­tial auton­o­my and anomie, and here ado­les­cence enters back into the pic­ture. The teenage years are an extend­ed lim­i­nal peri­od cul­mi­nat­ing [for Antoine] in a choice between exer­cis­ing his will to pow­er or allow­ing him­self to be crushed into a sys­tem that offers all stick and no car­rot.

There is a third choice, of course, remain­ing in ado­les­cence for the rest of your life. We’ll see what hap­pens with the rest of Truffaut’s films about Antoine Doinel. I haven’t seen them, but they are part of the Cri­te­ri­on List.

Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Annette Ins­dorf
Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Kent Jones
The Cri­te­ri­on Contraption’s review.

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