In an astonishing coup de cinema, François Truffaut's first feature proved to be an enduring masterpiece. Few films have captured with such authenticity the restlessness of childhood, and its desires, only rarely or partially fulfilled. The film also represents a poignant continuity of surrogate parenthood: from film critic and Cahiers du Cinema co-founder André Bazin to Truffaut to his archetypally precocious fourteen-year-old star, Jean-Pierre Léaud. Truffaut saw in the emotionally hungry Léaud a reflection of the director's own childhood, a restive negotiation with his cold mother and adoptive father (Truffaut never knew his biological father). Truffaut dedicated the film not to his parents, but to Bazin, his mentor.
The expression that lends the film its title—"faire les quatre cents coups"—means "to raise hell," an apt description of the young life of Antoine Doinel (Léaud). "Poor France will be in sorry shape in ten years!" laments his irritable English teacher (Guy Decomble). "Maybe it's something in his glands." Playing hooky, smoking, lying, (and doing the wooden boy one better by stealing), Antoine is a Pinocchio in reverse: a real boy who loses his innocence and has to leave his boyhood behind. Truffaut's autobiographical fiction shows an admirable equanimity by depicting the highs and lows of boyhood. The film is full of life, an impression which peaks during a "lost day" spent partially at the whirling amusement park ride "The Rotor" (watch for Truffaut alongside his j.d. hero). Soon, the safety of a ride that sees a predictable end gives way to a universe spiraling out of control—with no end in sight.
In exploring the phenomenon of the "juvenile identity crisis"—defined by puberty, distancing from parents, desire for independence, and an inferiority complex—Truffaut cultivates an emotional but never melodramatic reality populated with always credible details of character and situation. Antoine chafes at the arbitrary cruelties and general boredom of school, with its tinpot tyrants in positions of authority over him, and yet, when he's at home, the boy lights a candle for Balzac. Times are tight, putting an added strain on the too-common tentativeness of the family unit, but the parents' fighting and distraction can turn without warning to attentive affection and joie de vivre. When he's had enough of the emotional "Rotor," Antoine lights out, leaving a note reading "I'll prove I can become a man." When his parents have had enough, they make him one by sending him to a reform camp.
The supporting performances are indelible: Claire Maurier as Antoine's philandering mother, Albert Rémy as his mercurial adoptive father, and Patrick Auffay as Antoine's loyal best friend René. As a boy of unexpected depths, a city boy who longs to the sea, Léaud owns the film. It's the sincerity of his extraordinary, spontaneous juvenile performance—as much as Truffaut's—that makes the film unforgettable. Truffaut's command of cinema helped to define the French New Wave with its innovative photography and montage (credit also goes to Jean Constantin for his lovely, evocative musical themes). The ending of The 400 Blows has a soul-arresting impact, from a long take of Antoine running to a final shot culminating in an inventive freeze frame-zoom. Many over the years have seen themselves or their children in Truffaut's Joycean portrait of the artist as a young man.
In this Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection, The 400 Blows looks marvelous. The untouched film grain retains the impression that we are in a theater watching the film in 1960. Working from a 35 mm composite fine-grain master positive (aided by the MTI Digital Restoration system), Criterion delivers a clean and sharply detailed image (as much sharpness as can be expected given the film's age) with impeccable contrast to the black-and-white photography. The PCM 1.0 soundtrack accurately represents the original aural experience without losing any detail.
The new Blu-ray offers all of the bonus features from Criterion's most recent single-disc DVD issue of the film, though not all of the bonus features found in the Antoine Doinel DVD box set., which presumably will find its way to Blu-ray in the future. First up are a sparkling commentary by cinema professor Brian Stonehill (with academic critical and expository observations) and an equally revealing commentary by Truffaut's lifelong friend Robert Lachenay, the basis for the character of René and an assistant on the film.
"Auditions" (6:24, HD) presents rare 16mm screen tests of Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick Auffay, and Richard Kanayan. These are pure gold for enthusiasts of the film, as is the newsreel excerpt "Cannes 1959" (5:51, HD), which includes an interview with Léaud and footage of the film's reception.
The 1965 program "Cinéastes de notre temps: 'François Truffaut ou l'esprit critique'" (22:27, HD) inlcudes interviews with Truffaut, Léaud, Albert Rémy, and Truffaut collaborator Claude de Givray, and an excerpt from a 1960 "Cinepanorama" (6:52, HD) episode delivers another interview with Truffaut.
Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (3:47, HD), but there's more in the insert: a liner-notes essay by Truffaut expert Annette Insdorf. It's great to see Criterion's commitment to presenting bonus features in HD, helping to make this deathless classic another very welcome Criterion Blu-ray release.
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