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The 400 Blows: The Criterion Collection

The title for 1959's Les Quatre cents coups ("The 400 Blows") may seem cryptic at first glance, but its meaning is revelatory. It comes from a French euphemism for what is known in America as "sowing one's wild oats," or having a hell-raising adolescence. For director François Truffaut, this story of a disaffected 12-year-old was party autobiographical: Like his main character Antoine Doinel, he was a rambunctious and fatherless youth who was saved from a stint in prison by famous French critic Andre Bazin, who mentored Truffaut (along with most of the critics-turned-filmmakers from the French New Wave) and got him writing for Cahiers du Cinema. It was there that Truffaut helped define the auteur theory — which cineastes still debate to this day — but what he really wanted to do was direct. At first he assisted Roberto Rossellini on some abandoned works, which led to a short film, Les Mistons. Truffaut's first feature-length project was The 400 Blows, which immediately established him as a talent to be reckoned with. With fellow critic Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless released the next year (Truffaut helped come up with the story), a movement was born — the French New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague. But though Truffaut moved on to literary adaptations and became one of France's most prominent directors, throughout his career he would return to Antoine Doinel (always played by Jean Pierre Léaud, whom Truffaut discovered for the part) and update his life.

The semi-fictional Antoine Doinel appeared in five of François Truffaut's films over the course of 20 years, with The 400 Blows his introduction. The film starts in the classroom, with Antoine as an unruly child who upsets his priggish teacher when he's caught looking at a pin-up girl. (In these scenes there's an echo of the classroom chaos of Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct, though Truffaut notes in this DVD's supplements the influence of Rossellini's Germany Year Zero for its documentary presentation.) Constantly getting in trouble at school, Antoine's home life is no better. His mother Gilbrete (Claire Maurier) never wanted him, and his father Julien (Albert Remy) isn't his real father — he's nice enough but dopey. With his school situation growing worse and worse, Antoine ditches class whenever he can with best friend Rene (Patrick Auffay), often to go to the movies. During one such absence he takes a carnival ride in a spinning room that resembles a zoetrope, and afterwards sees his mother carrying on with another man. This brings about a détente at home, since both have no intention of revealing their personal secrets. But after an episode where Antoine is punished for allegedly plagiarizing Balzac, he decides to run away for good. However, the only way for him to make money is to steal, and even with Rene's help he's not a natural criminal. Thus, Antoine is caught. And when his family says they can't control him any more, he's placed into social services.

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François Truffaut alleged that cinema saved his life, and he often said he only wanted to see films about the joy or agony of making movies. With The 400 Blows, he lived up to his goal and paid in full whatever debt he owes to filmgoing — it's simply one of the cinema's most penetrating works about adolescent alienation. Truffaut was part of the first generation of filmmakers raised on movies, and because he knew what he loved in film, his voice seems fully realized straight out of the gate. He had a playful formalist streak, which was more apparent in his follow-up efforts, such as Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jules and Jim (1962), but Blows is, as essayist Annette Insdorf calls it, "an exorcism of personal experience," which led to a very stripped down and raw production. Truffaut used practical locations and shot the film in a simple but elegant style that relied upon longer takes. Such shows off the picture's many grace notes, such as an overhead shot of a teacher leading a class down the streets of Paris, only to have the students stray off at each intersection, eventually leaving him with only two pupils, and the sequence in the zoetrope, where the camera switches to Antoine's point of view as he shifts his body. Antoine's fate is ambiguous at the end of the story, but it's no surprise that Truffaut had to return, to continually check up on his fictional recreation, to follow his careers in work and love. Though Antoine Doinel is a work of Truffaut's imagination, he also was a surrogate for both Truffaut and star Jean Pierre Léaud as well. In fact, it was such a powerful role that when Léaud has been cast by directors like Olivier Assayas, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Tsai Ming-liang, it's usually as a nod to his most famous screen persona, and to Truffaut's influence over a new generation of cineastes-turned-directors.

The Criterion Collection presents The 400 Blows on DVD in its fourth digital edition. The movie was first released under the Criterion folio on Laserdisc, and then as one of their initial non-anamorphic DVDs (spine #5), but it went out of print when Fox Lorber released a whole run of Truffaut discs. The film was then restored to The Criterion Collection for their "Adventures of Antoine Doinel" box-set — this disc is a reissue of the single-disc version, but with the improved transfer from the box-set release. It's presented in a stunning anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a very good black-and-white source-print with the original French mono soundtrack (DD 1.0) and optional English subtitles. Extras include two commentaries, the first by cinema professor Brian Stonehill, and the second by Truffaut's friend Robert Lachenay, which is presented in French with optional English subtitles. In the "Psychological profile" section there's audition footage of Léaud and some of the other children (6 min.) and footage from Cannes in 1959, where Truffaut won the best director award (6 min.). Interviews with the director can be found in "Cineastes de notre temps" (23 min.) and in "Cinepanorama" (7 min.), while the feature-set is rounded out by the film's theatrical trailer. Keep-case.

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