Welcome to the All-Time Favourites Series. This series examines 25 of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, looking at them in depth with analyses of what makes them great, and cutting down to the most basic level, looking at plot, cinematography, writing, direction, acting and other things, to see what makes these great films tick. To learn more about the series, read this.
There is one legendary image in Francois Truffaut’s masterpiece The 400 Blows that transcends the film, the genre, the director, and even all comprehensible human emotions. It is one of the most powerful images ever committed to film. The depth in it, the meaning… is so unfathomably great that the sight of it is almost too much to bear. It’s the very last shot of the film, a frozen image of the hero Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) staring into the camera. It’s not enough to examine this image alone; it has no meaning without the rest of the film alongside it, and if there is only one reason for you to watch The 400 Blows, it is for this image, which signalled not only the end of a film, but the beginning of a historical genre for European cinema: the French New Wave.
Doinel is a teenage boy living in Paris. He’s the only child of a middle-class couple who try their best to love him but are driven to despair by their own hatred of each other. Well… perhaps not hatred, but they have reached the sometimes inevitable point in a marriage where the couple just grow tired of each other and drift apart. Their attitude toward each other rubs off on Antoine, who is also mistreated at school, but not by his fellow students. His teacher sees him as a troublemaker, and whether accidentally or purposefully, much of the shenanigans that go on when the he isn’t looking get blamed on the boy. One day Antoine skips school with a friend, and when his teacher chases him up about it, his excuse is that his mother has died. When his lie is found out, there is a terrific, memorable POV shot where the camera closes in on Antoine as he fearfully looks up at it.
There is no end to Antoine’s ugly bad luck, but there are brief intervals where things become momentarily bearable for him. The most pleasant sees him taking a trip to the cinema with his parents; the three come back laughing and in good spirits. Indeed, it is in typical New Wave fashion that the happiest moments in a film are in some way to do with a visit to the cinema or a viewing of a film. Of course, the contentment that comes with these moments is short-lived. Antoine is already burdened with the knowledge that his mother is having an affair, and that his father is oblivious. The tension rises between the parents, and they cruelly find ways to blame it on their son. Their desperation and exasperation rise to the point where he is sent away to a summer school, in the lead-up to the film’s conclusion, which sees him staging an escape from the prison-like school that is not elaborate or long-planned, but makes The Shawshank Redemption escape scene pale in comparison. Antoine escapes and runs. For a long time he does nothing but run. He runs to escape the unseen villains behind him, to escape his godawful parents and unbearable life, and when he reaches a beach and finds there is nowhere else to escape, he looks at the camera futilely, as if silently begging to be allowed escape from the film itself. It is at this moment that the camera freezes, and we see his indescribable expression for a few fleeting seconds as the film ends.
The French New Wave began with this film, and would go on to encapsulate dozens, even hundreds, of French films now regarded as classics. One of the most popular directors of the New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, arguably made the largest number of films to fit in that category, but not a single one of his pictures contains the unique genius of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Truffaut and Godard were good friends, and their two respective debut films, this one and Godard’s Breathless, came out at around the same time. As the years went on, they would both make films of astonishing artistic quality and meaning, but Godard, no matter how many acclaimed movies he made, never outshone Truffaut, who died in 1983, after making considerably few films. Godard, having more than 50 titles to his name and still making more, will never achieve what his compatriate and friend achieved. This is not at all a knock on Godard; I love the guy, and he is along with Truffaut one of my fifteen favourite directors, but there is something missing in his pictures that Truffaut always seemed to have in every one of his, even the more forgettable ones. It is this quality that makes both their brilliant debuts so different from each other. Truffaut had a knack for capturing true, unfiltered, unacted emotion that Godard never managed to find, even in his most emotional movies. No other New Wave director captured emotion like Truffaut did.
The 400 Blows was the first of three key breakthrough movies for Truffaut; I like to refer to them as his “Opening Trilogy.” The three pictures have very little in common with each other, but show Truffaut experimenting with the characters, emotions, techniques and feelings that would become prevelant later in his career with films like Day for Night. Aside from The 400 Blows, the other two members of the trilogy are Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim. The former is an experimental, hilarious, moving thriller and the latter is a beautiful, pacing romantic drama. This trilogy plus his 1973 film Day for Night are his four best films – they all capture the heart and soul of filmmaking perfectly, as well as also throwing in a generous dosage of the pure joy of the human relationship – either with others or with ourselves.
However, it does seem pointless to be comparing and ranking the films. They’re all brilliant, and ranking them isn’t necessary. I prefer my perspective to be more neutral: examining each picture individually, and finding connections between them. The 400 Blows is Truffaut’s masterpiece; that much I think I’ve made clear, and Antoine’s frantic glance at the camera could also be interpreted as him welcoming the viewer to the world of Truffaut… him extending a glance to the viewer, telling them to join him on a journey through an illustrious career of amazing motion pictures helmed by one man. Yes, not only is their sadness and desperation in that one fleeting glance, there is also a beloved and unique invitation to join Truffaut on a journey through timeless stories that they would never forget.
This image of Antoine at the end may well represent Truffaut welcoming the viewer to his own world, but there is another image my mind wanders to. Truffaut died fairly young, but when I think of him on his deathbed, I see him as the film director he himself played in the lead role of his own film Day for Night. I like to think of him as that director, standing proud over a career full of amazing pictures, nodding contently and proudly at his achievements.