The 400 Blows directed by Francois Truffaut is an iconic film of the late 1950s that refined French cinema and helped spark a cinematic revolution known as the French New Wave. A touching story about a young adolescent growing up in Paris named Antoine Doinel, the film artfully captures the unfortunate circumstances of the troubled boy’s life and his tragic spiral into a life of transgression and crime as a result. Misunderstood by both his mother and stepfather at home as well as tormented at school by his ruthless teacher, Antoine finds himself seeking to escape such environments in search of a place where he feels he belongs. Initially conducting small acts of defiance like writing on the classroom wall, Antoine slowly progresses into more delinquent behavior as he begins skipping classes and later to stealing a typewriter. Outraged by his behavior, Antoine’s parents send him to a reform school. From there, Antoine finally makes a break for freedom and gets away from all that had troubled him as he makes his way to the shores of a beach. Altogether, the inspiring film illustrates a captivating cinematic theme of how an absence of understanding and loving parents and a lack of fair treatment at school can make young boys susceptible to acts of mischief and delinquency as a consequence. More important than this engaging element about the film, though, is the fact that the foundation of the film’s praise primarily stems from its representation of revolutionary French New Wave ideas. Such ideas included the development of films that portrayed artistic expression, captured real life spontaneity and authenticity, expressed genuine emotion, elicited critical thinking in the viewers, and much more (Csölleová and Formánek). The 400 Blows exemplifies three key characteristics of the French New Wave through its inclusion of various innovative film techniques, through its illustration of a realistic and philosophical storyline, and through its utilization of an unconventional plot layout.
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One of the first qualities about the film demonstrating characteristics of the French New Wave is that it consists of an assortment of creative filming techniques such as the long take, jump cut, and on sight shooting. To begin, there is one notable instance throughout the film which uses the newfound technique of the long take; a shot that films a scene for a long period of time (“Film Glossary”). An account of this technique can be seen through the running in Paris scene with the gym teacher. As the teacher and the boys run through the streets of Paris, the camera pans from a higher, wider view, and captures the Paris cityscape of the time as the boys sneakily run away from the group into buildings and alleyways. As a whole, this shot spans for roughly one minute and thirty seconds and allows the film to direct the viewer’s attentions towards significant narrative elements. In this case, this technique really helps to capture the liveliness of Paris during the 1950s for the viewer’s through its detailed and elaborate visualization of Paris’ architecture, buildings, bustling streets, etc. The long take in this example helps to define the progressive cinematic uniqueness that French New Wave filmmakers were striving for, specifically, for enabling realism in filming in order to make audiences feel more involved and part of the film. In addition to the unfamiliar use of the long take, is the incorporation of the jump cut in the film. In short, the jump cut is a technique that involves a sudden transition from one scene to the next (“Film Glossary”). An occasion when some jump cuts are used in the film is during the scene in which a psychologist asks Antione a series of questions while he is at the academy. In this scene, Antoine simply answers the questions that the psychologist asks and provides details about his early life and the happenings that took place. Interestingly, the viewer does not get a glimpse of the psychologist at all but only sees Antoine answering the questions. Throughout the interview, there are roughly four jump cuts that are integrated into it. After almost each question that the psychologist asks, there is a sudden change in the scene that occurs as it shifts into the next question as if the interview was broken up and edited in some parts. The use of the jump cuts in this instance enables the film to reel in the audience’s attention with the scene and with the film collectively. In a sense, this technique helps to gather the viewer’s attention with Antoine and his character on a deeper and more personal level so that the audience gets a better glimpse into Antione’s world and his situation. Overall, the use of the jump cut from the film helps signify French New Wave filmmaker’s cinematic push away from typical continuous and easy flowing films of the time to a refreshed and strange exhibition of discontinuity or jaggedness in films. Finally, the last significant filming technique in the film that represents French New Wave ideas is shown through the fact that the film is actually shot in multiple locations of Paris. There are multiple instances throughout the film in which on sight filming takes place. Such instances are expressed in scenes that show the city streets of Paris, that show Antoine’s small home, that show the school, and that show the shores of the beach towards the end of the film. The use of filming scenes in real locations is a major component of French New Wave ideas because French filmmakers wanted to attempt making films that were more natural and accurately depicted the real world as much as possible. The 400 Blows definitely showcases naturality and realness because of it being filmed in parts of Paris instead of using other non-realistic methods like backdrops, stages, etc. to indicate specific locations.
Another instance of how the film exhibits aspects of the French New Wave is through its expression of an authentic and thought provoking story line which utilizes a realistic representation of characters as well as invokes relatability or self-reflectivity in the viewers. To begin, The 400 Blows presents realistic and ordinary characters throughout its storyline instead of using fictitious or mythical individuals. An example of this can be demonstrated through Antoine’s character. Antoine is a rebellious fourteen-year-old teenager who lives a simple life in a small apartment with his mother and stepfather and attends school, nothing for which is over fantasized, exaggerated, or unlikely for the life of an adolescent. Like many children his age, Antoine is not perfect and has his own flaws. He occasionally fools around in class and gets into trouble with his teacher by writing on the walls or not doing his homework, he disobeys his parents at times by lying or running away when he disagrees with their rules, he has a difficult time listening to authority and doing what he is told, he steals things multiple times, and much more. There is not much about Antoine’s life that one would find unbelievable or unrelatable to in some way. Due to the depiction of Antoine’s practical life and character, the storyline throughout the film becomes more credible, interesting, and thoughtful for viewers because of the sincere portrayal of human normalcy and complications throughout the film. The realistic character usage in the film, in turn, also helps to conjure up relatability or self-reflectivity in viewers which makes the storyline more philosophical and meaningful as a result. To expand, the film showcases the feelings, struggles, actions, difficulties, etc. of not just one character but of multiple characters. First, is a mother who struggles with her relationship with both her son and husband at home. Second, is a son who struggles with problems at home and at school. Next, is a teacher who struggles with disobedient and troubling students. In essence, the film forms realistic stories about the lives of many characters which can encourage the audience to draw similarities from their own life with the events and circumstances from either a specific character’s life from the film or the story in general. Thus, these realistic and relatable qualities about the film allow for a meaningful and philosophical viewing experience for the audience.
Lastly, a final example of the film featuring elements of the French New Wave is through its usage of an unorthodox plot setup which contains choppy or seemingly random scenes as well as an unresolved resolution. To clarify, most films have plots that connect specific events, actions, etc. for viewers. That is, the plot should give flow to a film’s story and make the viewer feel as if events are all connected and not just randomly thrown into the film. However, one might say that The 400 Blows presents a less systematic and clear-cut plot setup than what most films usually did during the time. For instance, throughout the film there are countless scenes that simply display Paris’ landscape and cityscape or what seems like just random bits of footage with characters that do not add to the plot’s purpose or connect anything specific about the film. Scenes like these include when Antoine catches his mother kissing a man who is not his father as he skips school, the running in Paris scene with the gym teacher and students, when Antoine and Rene run down the steps of the Sacré-Coeur, when Antoine and Rene run around town just after stealing the typewriter, when Antoine makes a cigarette while in his prison cell, and more. These scenes do not necessarily explain certain events in the story or add to the plot for any particular reason or purpose, but rather, seem to be there for more artistic filming reasons or for no true reason at all. The inclusion of scenes that do not have a definitive purpose or add to the plot for any specific reason may make the film feel choppy at times. Nevertheless, the seemingly choppy and spontaneous plot feel that the film conveys is another aspect that French New Wave filmmakers were seeking because it went against the usual organized and directed plot of most films of the time. One last obvious example of the film’s illustration of a different plot layout, is through the fact that the film has an unresolved resolution. Unlike most films of the time, The 400 Blows does not have a plot layout that provides a sense of clarity for the viewer at the end of it. During the end of the film, the viewer watches a pivotal climatic moment as Antoine escapes the academy. As he runs as fast and as far as he can from the academy personal, Antoine makes his way to the shores of a beach. While there, Antoine runs up to the ocean and touches the water with his feet and then turns to the camera where the scene abruptly ends. Ultimately, the viewer is left with no definitive conclusion or resolve to Antoine’s story. The ambiguous ending left in the film is a striking presentation of French New Wave ideas because filmmakers from the time wanted viewers to think more critically about the films they watched and decide for themselves what they felt the ending might be.
All in all, the film encompasses a wide array of French New Wave ideas that can be seen in multiple ways. First, is through the film’s usage of an atypical plot layout. Having artistic and non-specific scenes that don’t necessarily relate back to the story’s plot as well as having an open-ended conclusion, the audience is left to philosophically think about and consider the film more in depth during and even after the film. Next, is through the film’s depiction of a realistic and thoughtful storyline. With the use of a relatable and realistic storyline in addition to seemingly average characters, the film allows the audience to make introspective and personal connections between themselves and with the film and the characters that play in it. Lastly, is through the film’s incorporation of inventive filming techniques. Techniques such as location shooting, the jump cut, and the long take, all help the audience experience the film in a more natural and realistic way so as to make them feel more part of the film. Ultimately, The 400 Blows is a unique film because through all of these French New Wave characteristics found throughout it, the film serves as an expression of a cinematic revitalization in filming.
Csölleová, Eva, and Vítek Formánek. “French New Wave – Nouvelle Vague: Revolution in Film Industry.” United Film, Ministry of Culture, 2016, www.unitedfilm.cz/unitedvision/index.php/en/articles/item/438-french-new-wave-nouvelle-vague-revolution-in-film-industry.
“Film Glossary.” Provided by the Brooklyn College Film Department, Brooklyn College, 2017,Â Â http://userhome.brooklyn.cuny.edu/anthro/jbeatty/COURSES/glossary.htm#name48.
The 400 Blows. Directed by Francois Truffaut. Les Filmes du Carosse. The Criterion Collection. 1959. 123 Movies. www. 123movies.gs/film/the-400-blows-4084/
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