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  400 Blows, The The Escape Artist
Year: 1959
Director: François Truffaut
Stars: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Remy, Claire Maurier, Guy Decomble, Georges Flamant, Patrick Auffay, Daniel Couturier, Francois Nochet, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Serge Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jeanne Moreau
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 2 votes)
Review: Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a young schoolboy on the brink of adolescence who has never really felt wanted, not by his parents and not by the wider society. When he is at school, he has to knuckle down and be ordered about by the teachers, which he resents since he cannot understand what use he is getting out of these endless lessons. Frequently he will be punished when he is there, and increasingly he is deciding not to show up at all because he just is not enjoying his time in education. But at home, it is not much better: his mother (Claire Maurier) merely takes him for granted and his stepfather (Albert Remy) barely tolerates him...

Antoine obviously needs an outlet for his energy and creativity, but he is not getting it in this world of adults toeing the line under everything he does. Les Quatre cents coups was the feature debut of that leading light of the French New Wave François Truffaut, setting him on a path to huge acclaim and a variety of subject matter, though romance was never far from his mind. Curiously, however, it was not a matter to be considered with this film: Antoine may have his affairs of the heart in the later entries in this series, which lasted more or less the whole of the director's career, but he is more interested in expressing himself here than getting a girlfriend.

What love we do see is sour, with Antoine's mother caught by him in the street kissing a man who is not her husband; already the disillusionment is creeping in, and may explain why the boy's interest in the opposite sex is strictly on a budding teenage lust level. Indeed, the only times we see our young hero genuinely escaping from the hubbub of his life is when he visits entertainments such as the fairground or the cinema - even a puppet show that kids younger than him watch with rapt fascination. But the cinema is important as much of this was autobiographical, and the juvenile Truffaut was a huge fan of going to the movies to forget his many problems for a while.

But don't go thinking this was some Cinema Paradiso, misty-eyed reminiscence about the power of the moving image, there was a hard edge to The 400 Blows that prevents it toppling over into sentimentality. What we notice is that Antoine must buckle under the pressure of the adults whose endless rules he is forced to follow - if only one of them took the time to try and understand him, to nurture his dreams, he would be a far happier individual. When he actually does try and apply himself to an essay on Balzac, he is accused of plagiarism because the teacher (the very picture of intolerance towards his pupils) can't believe he would have the ability to write a piece with that quality of insight.

Antoine does have his best friend, a rich kid called Rene (Patrick Auffay), who sticks by him and tries to assist in schemes that go more and more haywire, such as the harebrained scheme to steal and flog a typewriter from his stepdad's work. That goes about as well as you would expect, though there is some humour, as ever here, in the boys' bickering about how heavy the object they have appropriated is, funnily enough part of their punishment. Alas, the punishment goes further than that once Antoine is caught returning it, and a reform school awaits, the boy headed on a downward spiral that is at once sadly predictable and surprisingly affecting, no matter how poor his behaviour has been. The very last scene, one of the most famous in 20th Century cinema, where he literally has nowhere else to go, is incredibly powerful, looking for hope in a hopeless situation and still believing it might be there. Music by Jean Constantin.

[The BFI release this on Blu-ray with the following features:

Presented in High Definition from a new 4K restoration
Feature commentary by Robert Lachenay (2002)
Audition footage (1958, 7 mins): Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick Auffay and Richard Kanayan's screen tests for Truffaut
Les Mistons (1957, 18 mins): Truffaut develops his distinctive style in this early short
Truffaut, Bazin, Renoir: A Love Story (2022, 18 mins): Film academic Catherine Wheatley's illustrated presentation, recorded at François Truffaut's Cinematic and Literary Influences Study Day, BFI Southbank
Images of Paris: documentary gems from the BFI National Archive, including Panorama Around the Eiffel Tower (1900, 1 min), Metropolitan Railway of Paris (1913, 6 mins), and Lunch on the Eiffel Tower (1914, 1 min)
Original theatrical trailer
2022 trailer
Image gallery
*** First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with an essay by Ellen Cheshire, a biography of François Truffaut, credits and notes on the special features.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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