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Why is Francois Truffaut's “The 400 Blows” considered as classics of world cinema?

Teo Marcelo is art geek from Ukraine. He is a passionate rock- and movie-lover since childhood and has a profound knowledge in this topics.

Why is Francois Truffaut's “The 400 Blows” considered as classics of world cinema?

Why is it still remembered? The history of this film is inextricably linked with such art film movement from 50-60’s years of 20th century as the "French New Wave". “The 400 Blows” became a film that began the period of domination of "new wave" films on the movie screen and became the embodiment of the manifesto of this art movement. But what is the innovation of this picture?

But what is the innovation of this picture?

Firstly, Truffaut himself became a director only after "The 400 Blows" and all heroes of that time, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol, were originally film critics in “Les Cahiers du cinéma”, under the auspices of a prominent cinema theorist and historian Andre Bazen. The main enemy of the "new wave" they chose was French studio cinema, which they contemptuously called "parental cinema". They branded it for lack of idea, pretentiousness and falsity. It seemed to them to be a pathetic compromise between studio and film director. Although Bazen himself, as a theorist in this field, did not make a single movie, and his students and followers, like the same Truffaut, we are talking about, began to implement the innovative and avant-garde ideas of their ideological godfather. Bazen, as a true cinephile nihilist, denied everything from the actors' acting to "editing", consistently following the same path that a Soviet-Ukrainian film director with Jewish origin Dzyga Vertov had outlined in the 1920s. After dying of leukemia at the age of 40, Andre Bazen left behind a great theoretical legacy, on the basis of which future talents created a "French New Wave".

Secondly, although all these "future talents" had very revolutionary ambitions, they were still fascinated by Hollywood studio films, albeit more authorial, concept and individual. Such artists like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks immediately became Truffaut's favourites. Francois Truffaut was particularly attracted to Hitchcock's approach to filmmaking. According to Hitchcock, the director must control the process of making movie from beginning to end. The film is not a product of a studio or a group of people, but a work of a specific director-artist – a demiurge in the world of cinema. We all know Hitchcock's authoritarian obsession with controlling editing, camera work, and acting on his own.

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But still, how did "The 400 Blows" turn the world of cinema?

Although it would be more correct to ask – due to what? Given the canons that had appeared in French cinema at the time, Truffaut was the first who broke them with his cinematic hammer.

The first thing that Truffaut eradicated from cinema in "The 400 Blows" is the theatricality of the actors' play and the playfulness of their emotions. Many scenes of the film were completely improvisations of the actors. The characters behave like real people. You believe them, so the idea that this is just a picture on the screen disappears. There is a synergy between the viewer and the film. It also follows that Truffaut didn’t use extras and sets in his film. He shot the film right on the streets of Paris, using, as a background, the bustling city life. But this required a new approach to cinematography, which was nicknamed the technique of "camera-pen", and exactly this film was chosen to be the manifesto of this technique. That is why the directors of the "new wave" have always used a hand-held camera, with which you can move much faster through the streets of a busy city. In addition, it fit well with their personal philosophy: cinema is life, and life is cinema.

Nevertheless, each time needs its own heroes and its own stories. The protagonist of "The 400 Blows", 13-year-old Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, became face of the era. The plot of "The 400 Blows" is based on the childhood of the film director personally. He himself is familiar with all these quarrels with his parents, running away from school and severe punishment for guilt. One of the themes raised in the film, namely: "Is Antoine's mother's husband the real father of the son, or stepfather?" - taken directly from the life of Francois Truffaut. For the first time, the camera's focus is on the teenager, not the adult. The film naturally shows the process of growing up and the difficult puberty period in the life of each of us. The whole plot of "The 400 Blows" consists almost entirely of guilt and punishment, which fall on little Antoine. Although, can we at least say that the film has a plot? This is another feature of "new wave" films - they either don’t have a structured plot, or it seems that it is completely absent. In addition, Truffaut gave us the character of "baseless rebel". This image will roam from film to film of "new wave" artists.


However, the main asset of "The 400 Blows" was that this film removed all restrictions. Since then, for modern artists, it has not mattered how you shoot and what you shoot. Anyone could make a movie, regardless of budget and experience. And the final frame of the film will forever remain one of the most famous movie quotes in the history of cinema.

The 400 Blows (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

© 2021 Bogdan Marchenko

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