It’s the story of Paris adolescent Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a hellraiser living in a crammed apartment with his mother (Claire Maurier) and her husband (Albert Rémy). At home he seems to be a part of the furniture, while at school he’s singled out by his French teacher (Guy Decomble). He’d rather be anywhere else. And so he skips school to go to the movies and the amusement park. And when he’s home, he escapes into the work of Balzac.
Every action of Antoine’s goes punished: for lying about his mother’s death (Antoine’s excuse for playing hookie), he is slapped by his stepfather in front of his classmates; for quoting Balzac in an essay, he’s labeled a plagiarist; and for returning a typewriter, which he and his buddy René (Patrick Auffay) initially stole to hock, he’s arrested and sent to a seaside reform school.
But The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coup) is not about watching a teenager lie, cheat, and steal his way through his formative years. It’s about a teenager who feels he has to lie, cheat, and steal, and won’t let himself be chastised for it. This is portrait of a youth who makes no apologies for being who he is.
The character went on to appear in four more adventures spanning nearly two decades--1962’s Antoine and Colette, ‘68’s Stolen Kisses, ‘70’s Bed & Board, ‘79’s Love on the Run, all directed by Truffaut and starring Léaud--where we find out all of the answers that the final shot, a memorable zoom into a freeze, left ambiguous in 1959.
But for the three years between The 400 Blows and the short Antoine and Colette, that haunting gaze Antoine gives in the freeze frame could have meant anything for the boy: freedom, capture, isolation…
For cinema, it meant the introduction to one of the medium’s greatest pioneers, François Truffaut, whose autobiographical debut is a defining work of the French New Wave and one of the most honest and human movies of its kind.
Commentary by Robert Lachenay: Truffaut’s lifelong friend, who served as the basis for the character René, delivers a very personal track, reminiscing about his childhood days with the late director. Comments are in French with English subtitles.
Auditions (6:24): The 16mm footage features an interview with Jeanne-Pierre Léaud, a scene between Léaud and co-star Patrick Auffay, and a screen test by Richard Kanayan (who plays one of the students).
Cannes 1959 (5:51): This “newsreel excerpt” features an interview with Léaud, who discusses The 400 Blows and how it affected him.
Cineaste de notre temps (22:27): In this 1965 episode of the French television series, Truffaut and other commentators (Léaud, star Albert Remy, and collaborator Claude de Givray) discuss the director’s childhood, influences, and craft.
Cinepanorama (6:52): This 1960 episode has Truffaut sitting down with host France Roche to discuss his recent visit to the U.S. (where, in New York, The 400 Blows saw much success) and offer self-criticism on his work.
Also included is a booklet with an essay by author and Columbia University professor Annette Insdorf titled “Close to Home.”