Re-Watchterpiece Theater: The 400 Blows (1959)

Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. This week, I’ve chosen François Truffaut’s seminal masterpiece from 1959, The 400 Blows.

The First Viewing
The first time I saw The 400 Blows was early in 2007. I had just started watching foreign films within the last six months, and had completely gone nuts for The Criterion Collection. My friend Ryan, a filmmaker and the most knowledgeable film fan I know, had been recommending Truffaut to me for a few months. With my increasing love of foreign film and natural Francophilia, my tastes and that director seemed like a match made in heaven.

Antoine Doinel tears down a still photo that features Harriet Andersson in Ingmar Bergman's SUMMER WITH MONIKA

My initial reaction was that I had enjoyed the film and found the story of young Antoine Doinel engaging. However, it didn’t quite “click” for me. It hadn’t set me off into one of my classic binges, this time focusing on Truffaut. For several years afterwards, I avoided further Truffaut films for that reason. I felt like I hadn’t caught on to the filmmaking technique in either The 400 Blows or a film I watched later that same year, Jules et Jim. Essentially, I had appreciated the stories of each but hadn’t grasped the depth of what Truffaut was doing in the film. I gave both 4 stars out of 5 on Netflix.

The Re-Watch
Four years have passed since my introduction to Truffaut with The 400 Blows. Last year, I’d found the Truffaut film that would ignite my binge- Shoot the Piano Player. Over the course of three months last year, I watched seven Truffaut films- a dizzying pace. He had gone from a director that I had (admittedly) not understood to one of my ten favorite directors in a very brief period of time. Everything clicked for me with his films, finally. I had figured out that he was a practitioner of post-modern film (and figured out what the hell post-modern film is). I also came to realize that he was revolutionary, experimental, influential, and a true master of the French New Wave… a film genre on which I had gained a grasp. In short, now was the perfect time to re-visit the film that serves as the Truffaut Totem for most film fans.

Sure enough, this time around I picked up on quite a bit more. There are at least a few occasions where Doinel’s mother is speaking and the film is spliced for just a very tiny millisecond. The camera occasionally drifts, as if from Doinel’s point of view. The tracking shots at the end of the film are impossibly long, matching Godard’s opening shot in Godard’s Week End for impressiveness. The freeze frame that concludes the movie is the perfect punctuation to a classic French New Wave movie. As usual, Truffaut never lets you forget that you are watching a movie. It’s self-referential in that way.

The film puts you into Doinel’s shoes on so many levels. We know when he’s happiest, we know why he acts out, we know how he feels about nearly everyone in his universe. He is made immensely human, presented as a lovable miscreant with depth, to the movie’s viewers. I also noticed this time around that Truffaut does a fantastic job of juxtaposing a childlike wonder and pubescent awkwardness with all the dirt and grime and filth of adulthood. I have yet to see the other Doinel films but I can already imagine how the young man’s life would develop from these beginnings. It’s very fertile territory for the beginning of a child’s entry into adulthood. Rest assured, I’m now inspired to see the Doinel movies, which are almost the only readily-available Truffaut movies I haven’t seen. I’d add that it’s impossible not to notice the influence that it had on Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998). These were all features of the movie that I hadn’t noticed the first time around and it enhanced my appreciation of it quite a bit. I finally feel like I “get” The 400 Blows.

My rating for the film is getting an upgrade to 5 out of 5 stars thanks to the re-watch. I do have to confess that I still enjoy and appreciate a few of his films a bit more- namely, Day for Night (1973) and Shoot the Piano Player (1960). But that means nothing in the big picture. This is only my personal bias, and the comparison is a lot like saying “It was the third best five-star meal I’ve ever had”. In other words, the point isn’t that it comes in third for me. The point is that all three are tremendous works.


Filed under Foreign Film, French Film, Movies

13 responses to “Re-Watchterpiece Theater: The 400 Blows (1959)

  1. The 400 Blows was one of the first French films I saw and probably the one that ignited my love for them. I have a copy of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim sitting on my desk that I haven’t watched yet, and you know what? I think I might…

    • Shoot the Piano Player has one of my favorite first scenes- it’s nothing but a zoom shot of the inside of a grand piano playing a happy, whimsical, yet sort of eerie tune dipped in minor chords. And the rest of the film is dipped in French New Wavey goodness.

  2. Phil

    I saw 400 Blows in a theater a few years ago and loved it, but I have a similar problem you had with other Truffaut, I appreciate it, but don’t love it. Filmspotting is a doing a movies-about-movies marathon and I’ll try to rewatch Day for Night with it.

  3. Love the first time/ second-time perspective! I would probably be closer to 4 stars in that I enjoyed the movie but it didn’t completely click with me. I thought the parents were going to be more negligent than they were which would have made Doinel’s plight more poignant.

    • I’m guessing that since it was autobiographical for Truffaut, he didn’t want to hang his parents out to dry. Of course, that also presumes that the parents WERE more negligent and he made the choice to omit it… and I really don’t know if that was the case at all. Not a clue.

  4. Great review John! I’ve seen The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player. Excellent, powerful films! I need to go back and see them again as well.

    • I’m becoming a re-watch junkie. I’m even wondering if I should ONLY re-watch things I’ve already seen, because it’s kind of amazing how much more you get out of things. Or at least, how different your perspective can be sometimes.

      • I totally agree. The first time around, you’re focused on the story and the characters, trying to tie it all together. The second time around, you know how it ends, so you can kick back and take it all in, i.e. the little details you missed the first time around, etc.. There has been many a film that I was so-so on the first time around, but by the second or third viewing, I learn to love it. Also, when my expectations are too high going in, I can’t help but be disappointed the 1st time around. I need that 2nd viewing to just take it all in.

  5. Wow this film sounds awesome. i would love to see it. I will have to venture farther than my wamr and safe comfort zone and see more cinema from around the world.

    Thanks for writing this great piece matey


  6. I’ve only seen 400 Blows once. The first watch left me incredibly angry at the ending. I was like WTF was that. I have since bought the Blu-ray and plan on giving it another try. Hopefully it comes off better this time.

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