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The 400 Blows review – François Truffaut’s sad and spirited ode to childhood

The autobiographical 1959 French New Wave classic about a young boy with nowhere to turn has lost none of its poignant charm

The legendary French New Wave director François Truffaut arguably left his biggest mark on cinema with this autobiographical grappling with his own adolescence: The 400 Blows is a sad and scrappy story of a wayward childhood, beautifully photographed on the streets of 1950s Paris, and now back on the big screen to coincidence with the BFI's new season dedicated to the influential French filmmaker.

That odd title has always been the subject of confusion. What are the blows, exactly? I had always assumed they referred to a metaphorical assault, the film's hero as a punching bag for a bitter older generation. In fact, it's the result of a translation of a French idiom that was lost in translation – the film's original French title meant something closer to “raising hell.” That's one way to describe the renegade spirit of its hero, Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut surrogate unforgettably played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (and who would inhabit the role again across a short and four more features). His Antoine is a tearaway, but he's also intelligent, sweet, and misunderstood, not to mention perpetually at war with his selfish, adulterous mother.

This is a film that is constantly in search of itself, much in the vein of its frustrated protagonist. True to the New Wave, it mostly unravels as a scattered collection of scenes and moments before it ditches its spontaneousness for a darker story about institutionalisation in the final reel. There are touching scenes between Antoine and his naive, playful father in their cramped, cold apartment, where Antoine sleeps curled in a sleeping bag in a hallway and listens to his parents as they bicker in the next room. But he is liberated, like us, whenever he takes to the streets of Paris, captured here in gorgeous monochrome by the cinematographer Henri Decaë. Eventually, Antoine steals a typewriter and is packed off to an institution for juvenile delinquents, before he liberates himself and flees for the coast, his lengthy flight caught in an extended long take that has come to exemplify the spirit of the French New Wave in modern day homages – only the circumstances here are far less happy.

Léaud gives such a relaxed, unselfconscious performance – sympathetic without any of the mugging to camera we tend to associate with child actors. At times, observing him feels like watching footage from a documentary, a French edition of Michael Apted's Up! series. And the last shot is haunting – not so different to the final moment in the harrowing Russian war film Come and See, where the innocence of youth has been stripped away to reveal something lost and broken in the eyes of its hero. We don't realise until it happens that the film has been building towards this stark moment of desperation, a freeze-frame and a face that asks the audience: “What now?” In the end, it was the cinema that saved Truffaut, but things work out quite differently for Antoine.

The 400 Blows is now showing in select UK cinemas.

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