A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: François Truffaut, France, 1959, 94mins
Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy
It has a ring of personal myth making about it, but Harvey and Bob Weinstein tell a story about how they ducked into a screening of Les 400 Coups one day expecting to watch porn, only to emerge ninety-odd minutes later turned on in an entirely unexpected way. If it is true that Truffaut’s first feature-length film was what got the Miramax moguls into arthouse cinema, they certainly wouldn’t be the only ones to have fallen under its spell. While academics debate the accuracy of the statement, most filmmakers, MIKE LEIGH among them, view Les 400 Coups as the first film of the nouvelle vague, the French movement which trashed the directorial handbook and stressed that film should properly be regarded as being utterly distinct from literature and theatre.
Truffaut’s film, the first of four in which Jean-Pierre Léaud played the director’s alter-ego, is one of those rare total cinematic experiences which to summarise is almost entirely reductive. Put broadly, Les 400 Coups (an idiomatic phrase meaning ‘to raise hell’) charts a turbulent period in the life of Parisian teenager Antoine Doinel. With his rudeboy swagger, inability to concentrate at school and constant search for diversions, Antoine is an ASBO waiting to happen. An only child starved of affection, and for the most part even attention, by his parents (Maurier and Rémy) at home in their poky flat, Antoine gets himself into a series of progressively more serious scrapes that lead to his exasperated parents sending him to a juvenile detention centre.
What impresses most about Truffaut’s filmmaking is his passion for storytelling, as opposed to mere plotting. Les 400 Coups lies blissfully remote from theories of structured screenwriting; rather than A occurring so that B might lead to C, Truffaut’s film creates a vividly real world within which we catch brief glimpses of other lives in the course of following Antoine. Sent to buy flour he waits in a queue while two women discuss difficult pregnancies; spending the night away from home for fear of punishment a woman enlists Antoine to help her find her dog, only to be told to get lost by a passerby who clearly thinks that helping the woman might lead to some amorous reward.
That said, for all its captivating random details, Les 400 Coups is anything but directionless. The film is an exploration of freedom and the teenage testing of limits, of the necessity of youthful rebellion against authority. In its closing sequence, as Antoine flees from the detention centre and runs to the shoreline, his final challenging gaze straight into the camera obviates any need for dialogue. It is a move of breathtaking confidence, one which led the critic Arlene Croce to comment that the film could convey its message of freedom ‘to an audience of deaf illiterates in any part of the world, because its construction is very nearly as absolutely visual as that of a silent film.’ Or, to put it another way, the only way to get it is to see it.