Director : François Truffaut
This film ranked #9 in Time Out's list of the 100 greatest French films. Click here to see the full list.
Write about what you know, they say. So in 1959 François Truffaut, neglected son, passionate reader, delinquent student and cinephile, wrote and filmed one of the first glistening droplets of the French New Wave: ‘The 400 Blows’, in which Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) demonstrates – unforgettably – that a good brain and bad parents don’t necessarily turn a boy into a talented film director, although they will, one way or another, turn him into a liar.
Antoine is an inept thief who winds up incarcerated; somehow, Truffaut turned this saga into one of the most joyous experience you could ever have in the cinema. The beauty of monochrome ’50s Paris helps, but the magic is in observing the thrill even a maltreated child will snatch from a book, a film or a day truanting at a funfair, through the gaze of a former critic whose elation at getting his hands on a camera burbles through every shot.
This debut made Truffaut’s name, and that of his alter ego, Léaud. Like Fellini and Mastroianni or Scorsese and De Niro, theirs was a great collaboration: a sleight of character that conjured up a separate entity with a prettier face and a different ending. Or is it different? The famous last shot – a zoom to a freeze frame as Antoine flees reform school, truanting again but with better reason – is also a perfect depiction of Truffaut then, en route from nasty past to invisible but promising future. And isn’t that where most of us are? No wonder this film never dates: he was writing about what we all know.