The intoxicating humanism of Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups

Truffaut’s interest in people - their emotional lives, their relationships with one another - continues to fascinate. His films are about childhood, adolescence, love, loss, desire, betrayal, guilt, trust and solitude, not parallel universes and super-heroes.

400 coups
A still from the final scene of 400 coups. (Credit: 400 coups, Truffaut)

Revisiting François Truffaut’s films in your forties, after having gorged on them in your twenties, is a joy like no other. You have seen each of them many times of course, on a big screen, in Paris’s art-house cinemas, and although you remember them well, or so you think, the details are ensconced somewhere deep inside. A few weeks ago, I went to see again Truffaut’s first feature film Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows) at la Filmothèque cinema near the Sorbonne. I decided, dutifully, to take an 11-year-old to see this classic of French cinema, thinking of myself as a passeur. In other word, someone who is a go-between: between past and future, between generations. A passeur of history and beauty, from one world to the next.

The title sequence opens on black and white images of Paris streets as seen from, probably, the roof of a car in 1958, the Eiffel Tower, a friendly presence looming on the horizon above Haussmanian buildings. The name of Jean-Pierre Léaud appears for the first time in cinema’s history. The 14-year-old had been cast by the 26-year-old film director to play the hero of his film, Antoine Doinel. Unknown to them both at the time was the fact that this first film would herald a great cinematic adventure, and the Antoine Doinel cycle in Truffaut’s oeuvre.

And then, the first notes of the film’s music, a trickling of harp, flute, and piano, triggered a phenomenal reaction in me, the older cinephile. I felt literally crushed onto the red velvet seat of this old Left Bank cinema. I had forgotten, and it all came flowing back at once. Everything comes rushing: Paris, the late fifties, a France that no longer exists (or does it?), being 13 – a pivotal moment in youth, and the unquenchable thirst for freedom. This simple melodic theme takes the viewer’s memory right to the ending scene, a four-minute-long ‘plan sequence’ (long take), one of the best-known in film history. The moment is Proustian, the emotion overpowering. Even more so as the music, crystal-like and almost joyous, is never used to underline the drama. Poignant scenes in the life of the protagonist are left silent. Music is only used with parsimony, and thus great effect, to symbolise escape and freedom.

The film is dedicated to André Bazin, a French film critic who founded the Cahiers du Cinéma and saved the young Truffaut from a life of delinquency. For The 400 Blows is very much autobiographical. Just like Antoine Doinel, Truffaut grew up in a loveless home in Pigalle, and spent some time in a young offenders institution. Bazin vouched for him and gave him a home after his parents gave up on him. During his childhood, cinema and books always provided a refuge. In his memoirs, he recalls having seen 2,000 films in six or seven years; almost one a day. After a stint working in the film department of the agriculture ministry, thanks to Bazin’s connections, he started writing for Cahiers du Cinéma:

‘I suddenly had to think about films, how they are scripted and constructed, not just gorge myself on images. I had to analyse them. It was a crucial stage for me. I tried to understand why a film could be good in its first half and then lose momentum in the second half. Instead of just thinking “This is a good film” or “this is a bad film”, I tried to understand how it could have been a better film or why it was bad.’

In 1951, the 19-year-old Truffaut met the 45-year-old Italian film director Roberto Rossellini and worked for him for two years on a film adaptation of Carmen that was never shot. And yet,’ Truffaut wrote later, ‘I learnt so much with Rossellini during that time … He gave me a taste for simplicity, clarity and logic.’

Those qualities, combined with Truffaut’s profound humanism, make the experience of watching his films today so powerful. What is intoxicating is Truffaut’s interest in people – their emotional lives, their relationships with one another. His films are about childhood, adolescence, love, loss, desire, betrayal, guilt, trust and solitude, not parallel universes and super-heroes. They are realist but not miserabilist, they can be joyous, dramatic, or melancholic, but never sentimental.

This post-war humanism, also found, for instance, in Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau’s photographs, has now vanished and no longer illuminates our path. It hides however on a big screen near you. Go and find it.

As the light went back on at the end of the screening, my 11-year-old companion asked, anxiously, ‘But what will become of the young Antoine Doinel?’ Everything can happen to him, I replied. He can now choose for himself.

François Truffaut, for the Love of Films‘ is showing at BFI Southbank until the 28th of February.


Agnès Poirier