Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Remy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flament, Patrick Auffay, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jacques Demy, Robert Beauvais, Francois Truffaut
Written by: Francois Truffaut, Marcel Moussey
Directed by: Francois Truffaut
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 97
Date: 04/05/1959

The 400 Blows (1959)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Wild Child

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A one of a kind filmmaker, Truffaut's name is synonymous with French film. But most people don't know about his historical passion for film. Truffaut began his career by skipping school to see films. After the landmark French film critic, Andre Bazin, got him started he was joined by his French New Wave contemporaries Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer in writing enthusiastic, controversial, and insightful film criticism for the famous magazine Cahiers du Cinema.

After a decade of writing about film these five began making movies of their own. In 1959 the world was hit with the triple-blow of Godard's Breathless, Chabrol's Les Cousins, and Truffaut's The 400 Blows. These movies incorporated the film language learned from the old masters adding a new young intelligence and a yearning to stretch the medium as far as it would go. They were the first generation of filmmakers who grew up in the dark, watching movies. And movies would never again be the same.

The five directors eventually settled into styles of their own. Godard continues to make eclectic "essays" rather than films; Rivette works sporadically and makes films too long for commercial release; Chabrol is a low-key workhorse; and Rohmer works on his own brand of intelligent talky character studies. But Truffaut has found the widest audience of all by opening his heart to us and sharing with us his love for movies, his appreciation for women, and his shy soul.

But now we find that Truffaut has fallen off the radar. True, he died in 1983 at the young age of 52 with only about two dozen films to his credit. But aren't people still aware of his remarkable debut The 400 Blows, or Jules and Jim, which routinely shows up on lists of the world's greatest films? Or perhaps people know him better for his role as the French scientist Claude Lacombe in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Pretty sad.

Now Fox Lorber has attempted to right this wrong by re-issuing several essential Truffaut DVDs, starting with Truffaut's world-class debut, The 400 Blows. The 400 Blows is one of the best movies about childhood ever made because it's really a movie for adults. Without sentiment, it looks at the fears, doubts, and anxieties of childhood. The film follows the tale of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), loosely based on Truffaut's own troubled childhood. Antoine isn't a bad kid, but he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as when he steals his father's typewriter. He finds he can't sell it and so decides to return it -- but that's when he gets caught.

But it's not all miserable. One memorable, exuberant moment includes Antoine's ride on the whirling carnival ride (Truffaut himself has a cameo as one of the riders). Truffaut's beautiful, widescreen black-and-white photography gets the immediacy of the moment, but its freshness still startles today. And the final freeze-frame shot is textbook in movie history, capturing the uncertain future of Truffaut's young hero, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud). Truffaut so loved the Antoine Doinel character that he returned to him four times over the next several decades, casting Léaud each time. He appears as a teenager in love in the short film Antoine & Colette (1962), the superb, lighthearted Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed & Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

DVD Details: Premiere Magazine film critic Glenn Kenny provides a very good commentary track, and the DVD (as well as all twelve of the discs in this set) includes a generous Truffaut trailer collection. This review refers to the older, Fox Lorber discs, but the Criterion Collection has now re-issued them.

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