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Recensies / 400 coups by Francois Truffaut: a jewel in the crown

review by Jaap Mees



In 1957 Francois Truffaut wrote: "The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession or diary.

The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate to what has happened to them: it may be the story of their first love, a sickness, their military service, their marriage or their last vacation…
…and it will be enjoyable because it will be true and new…
The film of tomorrow will be an act of love."

Two years later Francois Truffaut acknowledges his own words by making his debut feature Quatre Cents Coups (400 Blows), which conquered the film world. It's an autobiographical film, in which the young Jean Pierre Leaud plays Antoine Doinel, in one of the best child performances I have ever seen in cinema. Quatre cents coups was a very influential film together with Jean Luc Godard' A Bout de Souffle, written by Truffaut. Those films started the Nouvelle Vague. The New Wave is known for it's free narrative, personal films, usually shot on location, and made in a cinematic way as opposed to the literate and stiff 'Cinema de Papa' from those days. It's essentially about a young sensitive and imaginative boy of thirteen, who is completely misunderstood by his parents and teacher at school.

Antoine grows up in a suburb of Paris in a small house, where their is hardly space to avoid his self-absorbed parents. His mother is rather cold and hardly looks after him, she only asks him to put the rubbage out, every night. His father is a bit better, he makes Antoine laugh and defends his son, when his mother shouts at him.

At school it's almost worse: his teacher is a grumpy old school-freak without any imagination. When Antoine is so fed up with school, he pretends to be ill for a day, a class mate betrays him. His parents are furious. 

One day the teacher accuses Antoine from copying Balzac for his essay, and he is dispelled from school, together with his best friend, who tried to defend him.
Antoine dares not to go home anymore and stays with his friend. They have to steal some money from relatives to survive and Antoine nicks a typewriter in an office, so they can sell the machine to feed themselves.

They are caught, ironically just when Antoine changes his mind and wants to return the machine. It's too late he is arrested and Antoine has to stay in a police cell for some time. His father doesn't want him back and Antoine is send to an Institute for Young Delinquents. 

Truffaut's alter ego, Jean Pierre Leaud portrays Antoine Doinel in a confident, subtle and truthful way. He carries the film on his fragile shoulders.
The beautiful film Ratcatcher, by Lynne Ramsay, for me the best film of 1999, with fantastic acting from the boy William Eadie, resembles Truffaut's masterpiece.

The French artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau said after seeing 400 Blows:
''I have never been so moved at the cinema".