Study Guide for The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959)

the-400-blows_criterionUnderstanding the French New Wave through Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959)

Background information:

Cahiers du cinéma, an influential Paris-based French film journal, was founded in 1951. Among its young critics were François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard. According to Corrigan & White (2004), their criticism was “a rebellious gesture against commercial French filmmaking of that time, which they felt lacked vitality and currency” (pp. 426-427).

These young Cahiers critics championed filmmakers such as Renoir and Bresson; they also re-evaluated Hollywood cinema, claiming that filmmakers such as Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles were able to create their own artistry within the constraints of Hollywood’s studio system, and therefore should be called auteurs. In this critical approach known as la politique des auteurs /auteur policy, filmmakers are regarded not as craftsmen or mere technicians but as auteurs because their work is believed to be “characterized by distinctive thematic concerns and stylistics traits discernible across a number of films” (Blanford, Grant & Hillier, 2001, p. 16).

Towards the end of the 1950s the young critics of Cahiers du cinéma started making their own films, marking the emergence of the French New Wave. The year 1959 can be taken as the beginning of the new wave and all the following important films were made in the same year: Godard’s Breathless, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us and Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour.

The following quotes reveal some distinctive features of the new wave films:

“The New Wave was a freedom of expression, a new fashion of acting, and even a great reform on the level of make-up. I was part of a new generation that refused to wear the two inches of pancake base paint and hair pieces that were still standard equipment for actors. Suddenly, you saw actors who looked natural, like they had just gotten out of bed” (Brion quoted in Neupert, 2002, p. xv).

“We have to film other things, in another spirit. We’ve got to get out of the over-expensive studios. Sunshine cost less than Klieg lights and generators. We should do our shooting in the streets and even in real apartments. Instead of, like Clouzot, spreading artificial dirt over the sets” (Truffaut quoted in Neupert, 2002, p. 161).

The cinematography in the French New Wave films was influenced by the use of portable, hand-held cameras and other portable production equipment which made it possible for the filmmakers to experiment with film style and shoot their film on locations. The hand-held cameras added a “casual” and “contemporary look” to the films (Neupert, 2002, p. 40).

Some of the distinctive features of the new wave films as outlined by Bordwell & Thomson (2001) are their causal look, casual humor, cinematography, loose plot construction, lack of goal-oriented protagonists and ambiguous endings (for detailed information, please see Bordwell & Thomson, 2001, pp. 420-421).

Discussion Questions for The 400 Blows

  1. The Time magazine describes Truffaut’s The 400 Blows as “the movie that defined the French New Wave”. In relation to the background information about the French New Wave as summarized above, discuss in what ways this can be true. Provide as many examples as possible from the film to make your point.
  2. Do some search to find out in what ways The 400 Blows is regarded as a largely autobiographical film. Why is Antoine accepted as the director’s alter-ego? (Suggested reading: Neupert, 2002, pp. 161-206).
  3. Why is the film dedicated to Andre Bazin? What did Bazin mean to Truffaut?
  4. Discuss the significance of the film title. How does it help you understand the film?
  5. Discuss in what ways The 400 Blows can be considered a commentary on social issues.
  6. Make a list of the images that help convey Antoine’s confinement both at home and outside home, and discuss how each element functions.
  7. What is the significance of Balzac in the film?
  8. Discuss the following quote from the film: “If he came home, he would only run away again”.
  9. How does Truffaut represent the adult world?
  10. What is the importance of movie going in the film?
  11. What is the significance of the puppet show in the film? Why do you think Truffaut directs his camera mainly to the children watching the show?
  12. Examine the last part of the film: What does Antoine’s running symbolize? What is the symbolic significance of the last shot of the film?  What message(s) does the film convey at the end? What does the film expect its audience to do?

© Ali Nihat Eken, Istanbul, November 2008

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