Looking Back: The 400 Blows

The shot opens with protagonist Michael Fassbender running at night through the glowing streets of Manhattan, determined yet directionless. The camera follows the man in one uninterrupted shot, holding our attention on his almost hypnotic movement; the scene is startling in its persistence, and the longer the shot holds, the more potent the image becomes.

Steve McQueen’s fantastically uncomfortable, beautifully shot Shame is just one of many great films that owe a debt to Francois Truffaut and his seminal work The 400 Blows. Just like The 400 Blows, Shame is concerned with someone alienated from a society to which he struggles to relate: Truffaut portrays his isolation in a strikingly similar fashion, executing numerous extended shots of protagonist Antoine – most notably, one in which he too runs for miles, escaping through the French countryside towards the shore.

The 400 Blows (literally translated from Les 400 Coups, for which ‘The Hell Raiser’ might have been more accurate) was released in 1959, and soon proved to be one of the defining films of the New Wave of French film, and arguably one of the most significant in modern cinema. The New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague, was defined by films which turned on its head the traditional approach to filmmaking, combining elements of social realism, subjective reality, existentialism and absurdism which had never before been seen in such a manner. The 400 Blows epitomised everything that was groundbreaking about the New Wave. Above all, it entrenched into the public consciousness the Auteur approach to directing. Heavily influenced by the critical theory of André Bazin, Truffaut embraced the concept that a director’s style and voice should be prevalent within a film with the trademarks of the director are strongly imprinted upon their work.

Truffaut also promulgated an element of social realism within his films, not least of all The 400 Blows. Mirroring a similar trait in the British New Wave, Truffaut’s vision of post-war France sees the protagonist torn between the conservative values of the authority figures, and those of his mother, whose infidelity to her husband represents a modern attack on traditional values. Truffaut explores this conflict through Antoine, whose own amorality reflects the sense of moral uncertainty of the time.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The 400 Blows is that Truffaut is not afraid to depict film for the sake of film itself – cinema as pure entertainment. In one of the most iconic scenes the protagonist is plastered to the wall of a spinning rotor ride. We witness the world around Antoine blur and experience a moment of unqualified happiness for the boy. The scene contributes nothing to the film narrative – Truffaut is exhibiting the existentialist traits typical of the Nouvelle Vague movement, and most importantly, he is entertaining the audience without slavishly following a strict narrative.

Having directly influenced such directors as Scorsese, Coppola, Linklater, McQueen, Cianfrance and even Spielberg, the importance of The 400 Blows in the history of modern film cannot be overstated. The film encapsulates everything great about the Nouvelle Vague, and from extended tracking shots to elements of social realism; from existential fairground rides to Auteur theory, the film popularised ideas and techniques still at the forefront of the best cinema today.

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