The 400 Blows quickly became, on its release in 1959, one of the most influential films in French cinema history. Not only was it the first feature-length movie by Francois Truffaut, in his rapid emergence as one of France's leading directors, but it was a crucial part of the 'New Wave' movement of world cinema.
This was not the New Wave cinema style of Truffaut's friend Godard, of Breathless and Alphaville fame - tough, unsentimental and uncompromisingly avant-garde. Despite his allegiance to the new cinema, Truffaut made films within a relatively conventional narrative format and never lost a slightly sentimental, slightly fond and nostalgic tone in his cinematic vision.
But this was a very personal and honest sentimentality. He was from the first clear-eyed and honest in his vision, and his first feature film is a witheringly truthful account of childhood and adolescence in post-war Paris, where the nostalgia and sentimentality are in relatively short supply, compared to his later movies.
'The 400 blows' is French slang for 'raising hell', which is just what the 14-year-old hero Antoine Doinel does. Doinel is at odds with the world - with his teachers, with his mother and stepfather, with almost everybody except his best friend. Doinel is in fact a thinly-veiled young Francois Truffaut. This is an intensely autobiographical movie, recounting a difficult childhood of intense personal isolation, with stints in reform school. This is not a boy of incorrigible badness - rather, a boy who lacks love and who cannot understand the false values his elders at home and school try to impose on him.
Antoine Doinel is, for most of the movie, trapped in a society which he cannot understand, and which totally fails to understand him. There is one wonderful and extraordinarily emotional moment of freedom, at the close of the movie, as he escapes from his reform school and runs, with that special youthful fleetness, through the countryside and down to the sea.
He arrives at a long and empty beach, and beyond it lies the sea. We focus on Doinel - the close-up which closes the movie is in fact a giant question-mark. We have arrived here in life. Where can we go from here?
The acting throughout this movie, much of it by amateurs, is remarkable, but the most remarkable actor of all is the 14-year-old Jean Pierre Leaud, who ran away from home and school to audition for this movie, to play Antoine Doinel.
Leaud would go on to make many more movies for Truffaut and other New Wave directors, including four more movies in what has become known as the Antoine Doinel cycle - Leaud became in fact the celluloid alter-ego of the director. He was even at 14 a remarkable actor - watch for the reform-school scene where the camera focuses only on him as he goes through a question-and-answer session with the school's psychiatrist. No script was used - the young boy ad-libs his way through the scene in what has become a classic of unforced, natural acting.
The other movies in the cycle are the 1962 short feature Antoine et Colette, and the feature films Baisers voles of 1969, Domicile Conjugale of 1970, and L'amour en fuite of 1979. These follow Antoine through adolescence into romance, marriage, infidelity and remarriage, with anguish, sweet happiness and outright comedy.
The entire cycle is tremendously worthwhile, and there are excellent Region 2 Mk2 DVD editions of them all available from France, with English subtitles. This first title is the only title offered in Australia so far - and it is the masterpiece of the set. It is uncompromisingly tough in its depiction of adolescence - yet because this is Truffaut, it is at the same time full of magic, wry wit and great beauty.
To understand this movie is to understand an essential part of France and its people - the French on its release saw it as one of the great revelatory movies of life in post-war France, and it is still revered today.
Forget the 'colour' mislabelling on this DVD. The 400 Blows was, is and will always be a black and white movie, and is none the worse for that.
The movie was filmed in a French widescreen mode called Dyaliscope and this 1.85:1 ratio anamorphic transfer seems close to an ideal ratio for the movie. An early Criterion Region 1 release seemed formatted totally incorrectly, giving people in particular squat body-shapes; this has managed to avoid that problem.
It in fact seems identical to the version given on the French two-disc release from Mk2. The only difference seems that the subtitles are here presented in very bright yellow figuring against the black-and-white screen, while the optional English subtitles on the French release are in more muted black and white.
This does not seem to be a movie which has undergone extensive restoration. Although it is a clean print, there are not the fine tonal contrasts and detail we have come to expect from fine black and white restorations. But imperfections are quickly forgotten in the sweep of the story, the wonderful cinematography and the fine acting.