"The Four Hundred Blows," (1959) a drama with comic touches, was the first full-length feature film from famed French director/movie critic Francois Truffaut, and is generally considered the first "Nouvelle Vogue" film - that is, new wave. Truffaut had previously been active as a movie critic on "Cahiers du Cinema," a well-known French magazine devoted largely to American films, when, almost on a bet, he decided to try his hand at film-making. The result, "400 Blows," at 99 minutes, made when he was just 28, is, of course, world-famous. It is generally considered a pioneering film, and a triumph of movie-making. It's still fresh, interesting, closely-observed, and intense, after all these years. The filmmaker would, of course, continue to do significant work: see The Francois Truffaut Collection - 6 Disc Box Set (Exclusive to Amazon.co.uk) [DVD] . Truffaut both wrote and directed his script. It's set in dreary wintertime Paris, in the part of the city where Truffaut grew up, the working class "banlieus" of Montmartre, far from its iconic tourist attractions. Much of the film is set in an extremely cramped apartment, six flights up, typical working class housing of the time, where the young Antoine Doinel is nightly sent down with the garbage. We see Antoine, meant to be 12 years old, and instinctively played by the 15-year old Jean-Pierre Leaud, at home, with his somewhat neglectful, distracted parents. His kindly stepfather, Julian Doinel (Albert Remy), married his beautiful mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier), giving his name to her illegitimately-born son, who initially lived with his grandmother. His mother doesn't seem to much care for her boy. We also see Antoine at school, where he is definitely not a teacher's pet. We're supposed to believe that the boy's somewhat unsupportive environment causes him to run away and predisposes him to a life of petty crime. Though frankly, compared to the horrors we've seen, in the way of abusive families and dysfunctional schools, nothing about his young life seems that terrible to me. Be that as it may, Doinel does run away; with his young friend Rene, he goes to the movies a lot, and slips into petty criminality. He's found out, goes through the justice system, as his parents wash their hands of him, and is sent to reform school. Truffaut told interviewers he was strongly influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock,( see Hitchcock 14 Disc Box Set [DVD]; and, closer to home, Jean Renoir,(see Jean Renoir Collection [DVD] ), son of the famous painter Pierre Auguste. Trufffaut proudly told interviewers he believed that this first film of his was the first film to center on a child, in an unsentimental way, and to treat its material in an almost documentary style. All sources agree that the picture is strongly semi-autobiographical: Truffaut was illegitimately born, and raised by his grandparents; he started his heavy movie-going at age seven. He was a great reader but not a good pupil, and left school at 14 to get a job. He was sent to jail for desertion from the army. The movie, an accretion of wonderful interludes, endlessly rewards close attention. There's a schoolboy ripping his copybook apart, as his pen keeps blotting the pages. A punch and judy show filmed before a live audience of little children, showing their fresh, unguarded reactions, as it was done with a hidden camera. A jog, supposedly supervised by the gym teacher, taken through the streets of Paris by the schoolboys: Truffaut's camera shows the boys quietly peeling off. Antoine's shaken-up ride in a gravitron at a local amusement park. The little shrine Antoine sets up at home to famed French author Honore Balzac, whose work he loves: he lights a candle to the author, and sets the apartment on fire. And, finally, a remarkable long tracking shot of Antoine running, running, running away from the reform school towards the sea, which he's never seen. And a freeze-frame shot at the seashore that film scholars will probably argue about for a good long time.
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