Made in 1959 by François Truffaut, Les 400 Coups is one of the most significant films to come out of the French New Wave. If you’re wondering what the title means, don’t. It’s meaningless in English. In French “faire les 400 Coups” means to get into a lot of trouble, to lead a crazy life, to be a bit of a hell raiser and the title in French at least neatly summarises the plot.
The New Wave or La Nouvelle Vague refers to a group of French filmmakers who broke away from the traditional and often more literary type of films France was then producing. In fact a lot of what was then considered “new wave” is now considered “standard” such as shooting on location, films populated with younger characters and ordinary people – the working class and the underclass, hand held shots and an anti-hero as protagonist.
The protagonist of this particular film is the 12 year old schoolboy Antoine Doinel, who is constantly getting into trouble both at home and at school. Starved of love and affection by his parents and in particular his mother, bored and misunderstood at school, he starts running away and spending time with the one rock in his life, his school friend and partner in crime, René. In the end, caught returning a typewriter he had initially stolen from his father’s office, his own father hands him over to the police. He ends up spending the night in jail with prostitutes and criminals and is finally sent to an observation centre for troubled youth. How important his friendship with René is for Antoine is made clear towards the end of the film. At visitors’ day at the centre, we first see Antoine’s mum arrive. Antoine’s face lights up but it’s not for his mum as we are initially led to believe but because Antoine has seen René at the head of the queue. Unfortunately for Antoine, René is not let in and his mother, who is, wastes no time in telling Antoine and with some apparent pleasure that neither she nor her husband want anything more to do with him.
The film is worth watching for 2 scenes alone. Firstly, the scene where Antoine is answering questions from the unseen female psychologist at the observation centre for troubled youth. The camera focuses on Antoine and the scene is heartrending. Antoine explains without any self-pity and with childish innocence how he learnt he was a bastard; how as a small child he was bounced around from pillar to post by his feckless and fickle mother and that if it hadn’t been for his grandmother, he would have been aborted. In his first ever film, the then child actor Jean-Pierre Léaud gives such a realistic performance that if seen in a vacuum on youtube, you’d swear you were watching some old black and white French documentary.
The other scene which is apparently based on a scene from Jean Vigo’s fillm Zéro de Conduite is also brilliantly executed and unfailingly brings a wry smile to your face. In the scene a hapless PE teacher makes the unwise decision to take a group of boys onto the streets for some exercise. Not surprisingly, group by group the boys take any opportunity coming their way to make their escape. By the end of the scene the blissfully unaware PE teacher is still prancing down the street having now lost 99% of his charges.
The film is based on stories from Truffaut’s own childhood and those of his friends. One can only conclude that Truffaut’s childhood was not a very happy one and where going to the cinema was his one escape from the sad realities of life around him. Antoine’s mother does sometimes show affection but you’re never quite sure of her motive. Is it because her son has inadvertently seen her kiss her lover on the street and she wants him on side? She talks to him as many an exasperated mother may well do after a day at the office but it’s clear that her treatment of Antoine is much more callous than that. She sells a beloved book of his given to him by his late grandmother, pockets money the father has given her for bedding for him and has him sleep in a sleeping bag and even his nightshirt is badly ripped. His father is clearly more likeable but under the jokey persona, you wonder how much he actually feels for the son he knows not to be his. Antoine’s school friend René doesn’t seem to fare much better. Though from wealthier stock, he too is mainly ignored by his parents, a drunken mother and an often absent father, and left to his own devices.
At school, Antoine is clearly an imaginative child who is stifled by the then rigours of the French educational system. His imagination and active mind are seen as a nuisance by his teachers and he is punished accordingly.
If anyone has ever felt misunderstood as a child – which is presumably all of us – then this film will clearly resonate. It may also explain why the film garnered such praise on its release and is still considered a classic almost 45 years later.