Les quatre cents coups

“Allowing a victimised child to be less than wholly sympathetic – in ways that only a real-life child could ever be – Truffaut consolidates The 400 Blows as an act of rebellion. It is not just Antoine who is a rebel, or Truffaut on whose early life the film is based. The film, in its conception and mise en scène, constituted an all-out rebellion against the established tenets of French cinema. As a young critic for Arts and Cahiers du cinéma, Truffaut had railed savagely against films in the ‘Tradition of Quality’ – those glacially elegant literary adaptations that dominated French production in the ’40s and ’50s. His most brutal and notorious review had been of Chiens perdus sans collier (Jean Delannoy, 1955), which had tackled the problem of delinquent minors: ‘Chiens perdus sans collier is not a failure. It is a crime, perpetrated according to certain rules… [and] set to images by a man who lacks the intelligence to be a cynic, who is too corrupt to be sincere, too pretentious and solemn to be simple, Jean Delannoy.’ This particular piece of journalism had earned Truffaut a solicitor’s letter from the director – one of the most prominent and successful figures in the French cinema of the day. Never a man to grovel or eat his words, Truffaut further ridiculed the film in his 1957 short Les Mistons. Spotting a poster that advertises Chiens perdus sans collier, the anarchic and half-wild urchins of the title gleefully tear it from the wall.”

David Melville1