As a young man, before he had made his first film, and before he became a fiercely passionate and justly famous critic for Cahiers du cinéma, François Truffaut wrote a letter to his childhood friend Robert Lachenay in which he announced: “I now prefer judgements of the heart to those of the intellect.”
Les quatre cents coups – commonly known in English as The 400 Blows – is a film all about the heart: that of its chief character, Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is a teenager unloved by his parents and seen as a troublemaker by his schoolteachers, but longs for love, warmth, a real home.
The film was an immediate hit on its release in 1959. Truffaut had spent much of the decade attacking what he called le cinéma de papa – grand and creakily theatrical films that placed more emphasis on storytelling than on direction. The invective he heaped on the likes of René Clément earned Truffaut the nickname “The gravedigger of French cinema”, and led to his being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
Yet, just a year later, Truffaut was welcomed back by Cannes. Les quatre cents coups, seen as an artistic breakthrough, won him the Best Director award (the film was later nominated for an Oscar), and attracted huge audiences both in France and internationally. Its success, and the revolution in cinema it helped to launch, finished the work his journalistic writings had started. The film, as in Britain with Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, was a refutation of the common charge that cinema critics lack creative imagination.
Les quatre cents coups was anything but creaky. It wasn’t a story, so much as a series of episodes that contained the rhythms of life, especially the rhythms of adolescence – a time of inexplicable longings, aching boredom, whimsical raptures – rather than those of well-made plays. The film used real locations, sounds and lighting. It seemed as improvisatory as jazz music, and felt just as modern.
As such, it fully delivered on the claim that Truffaut had made in an article just a couple of years earlier: “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary [. . .] The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.”
The idea that a film can be an expression of a director’s identity and personal vision became known as “auteur theory”, helped give space in Hollywood to directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and David Lynch, and has become sacred for independent cinema. It was also a key element of the Nouvelle Vague movement, of which Les quatre cents coups, while not the first expression (that honour goes perhaps to Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge of 1958), nor even the only example in 1959 (there was also Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour, and Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle appeared just months later in 1960), remains one of the high points.
To prize Les quatre cents coups solely for the boost it gave to the Nouvelle Vague is to do it a disservice. After all, Italian neorealists such as Vittorio de Sica (who directed The Bicycle Thieves in 1948) and Roberto Rossellini (for whom Truffaut had worked as an assistant director in 1956) had already shown the value of abandoning costly studios in favour of small budgets and local landscapes. The influence on the Frenchman of the latter’s Germany Year Zero (1948), in which a 12-year-old boy alienated from his family struggles and scams on the streets of Berlin, is not hard to detect.
It is more important, I think, to honour the film for the sensitivity and acuity with which it depicts masculinity. Truffaut’s portrait of Antoine Doinel drew heavily on his own difficult childhood: he was an unwanted pregnancy, often ran away from home, forged school notes, and was eventually sent to a juvenile detention centre. Cinema saved him: it was a cocoon – a refuge not only from his family, but from the Nazi-occupied streets of Paris; Les quatre cents coups, which shows Antoine and his best friend bunking off school to attend early-morning screenings, was his way of thanking the movies.
“I could never have made a movie with Clark Gable or John Wayne or an American-style hero,” Truffaut claimed. “The trouble in the States is that so many actors today come from television, where they’ve been hired to play G-men and spies.”
In Léaud, an untrained actor who not only looked like him but had also had difficulties with authority, he saw a kindred soul. Through him, he could create a new kind of cine-poetics based around young men who were bruised, vulnerable, fearful. I suspect it’s no coincidence that I fell in love with Truffaut’s films at the same time as I discovered the Smiths.
According to Godard, Truffaut “made one film that truly expressed him, Les quatre cents coups, and that was it”. It was a barb partly fuelled by their different attitudes towards politics: Godard was a Maoist; Truffaut, although he opposed French policy in Algeria and campaigned against the sacking of Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française (an event which played a part in the May 1968 student uprising), never voted and said that he hated “social cinema”. For him, the personal would always matter more than the political. For him, the heart was all.
“Les quatre cents coups” is at selected cinemas across the UK from 10 April. www.bfi.org.uk/releases