Right up the pantheon of French New Wave crème de la crème is this supremely made semi-autobiographical childhood tale of auteur François Truffaut himself, Les Quatre Cents Coups (which literally means “to raise hell”) or The 400 Blows, its English counterpart. His debut film, which won him Best Director at Cannes Film Festival, charters a fresh-faced yet delinquently rebellious 14-year old youth Antoine Doinel (a magnificently carved central performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud), as he meanders around Paris, lurching away from the clutch of his indifferent, adulterous mother and ham-fisted step-father, and even becomes a renegade at school. It’s a coming-of-age yarn, but unlike most of the overripe, mushy coming-of-age movies, this one’s a stand-out, glittering with unalloyed honesty, real emotion and aching heartbreak of a wretched youth at its core.
Doinel may appear like a younger, Gallic James Dean, but he is a rebel with poignancy. Writing on walls, stealing a typewriter from an office, from a disregarded kid to a delinquent institution detainee, Truffaut does not glorify the story and rather tells it straightforwardly without over-sentimentality, drawing a portrait of juvenile delinquency in naturalistic strokes. He captures Paris beautifully in a mobile, monochrome cinematography that uses an array of filmic techniques: panning, tilting and tracking, a plethora of visual panache. Standout shots are the restrained camera movements in the classroom scenes, the amusing dissolution of a PE class in the streets, Antoine and Remy’s nostalgic escapade around Paris, and that striking, affecting shot of Antoine’s silent tears falling into the night behind the bars of a police van – a pure magic of cinema rarely seen in celluloid. Along with Godard’s sassy and revolutionary Á Bout De Souffle, this embodies the spirit of the nouvelle vague – masterful, emancipated, reflective, witty, blissful and beautiful.
For the record, this is one of the greatest childhood films ever captured in celluloid. The film that launched the French New Wave, this one is timeless, truthful, seminal, passionate, heartbreaking and extraordinarily beautiful. That wonderful, aching feeling after watching this is cinema’s pure triumph.