Les Quatre Cents Coups : An Ode to the Delinquent Youth
Les Quatre Cents Coups | Directed by François Truffaut | 1959 |Drama | 1 H 39 M
By Jocelyn Illing
A gym teacher has decided to take his students outside for some exercise. He comes trotting out of the school gates, with his students closely trailing behind him. As he turns around to usher them onto the sidewalk, the camera stays fixed on the line of the students walking into the distance, catching those who diverge to the side, out of the teacher’s field of view. Cut to an image of the rebellious students dodging cars to cross the street. Finally, cut to a high angle shot of the teacher leading the remaining students across the street like little ducks, almost all of whom eventually peel off, one by one. This scene from François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) depicts the juvenile delinquent during the French New Wave.
Truffaut’s film presents the story of Antoine, a young juvenile delinquent who has trouble focusing at school, and partakes in a series of antics that cause his parents to worry and for his teachers to give up on him. Supposedly autobiographical, the film depicts what it was like to be a child during the 1950s, a time where the rise of the youth caused both a headache for authorities and a new targeted demographic for the cinema. Through the use of narrative and deft camera work, Les Quatre Cents Coups encapsulates this artistic and social movement.
The French New Wave brought about new, vast avenues within cinematic production and consumption. A cultural phenomenon, the cinema during this movement was shaped by the growth of a new audience who were interested in film analysis and criticism. Various Cine-Clubs and film journals emerged across Paris in the 1950s as outlets for youth and other cinema-goers to contemplate and discuss the meanings of films. These young critics focused on the different formal elements within the films and how they worked together to create meaning. To cater to this new audience, films became more stylized and experimental, challenging viewers to study every aspect of the screen. Because of the decline in movie audiences due to the development of the automobile and the television, filmmakers switched to creating films that would appeal to certain demographics. Namely, the youth, and many films were aimed at representing youth culture and the distinct teenage community. Additionally, the French New Wave was a site for technological innovation. The New Wave aesthetic featured a combination of less expensive filmmaking techniques, on location shooting, and new portable production equipment allowing for experimentation. Les Quatre Cents Coups utilizes the style and technologies of the New Wave through its camera work. Throughout the film, we find alluring and daring cinematographic techniques that make the appearance of the camera so well known that it almost becomes a component of the narrative. Truffaut uses different camera movements, such as the pan and the tracking shot, in order to put emphasis on distance through brisk and shaky movements. During a scene in which Antoine is called out by his teacher for acting up in class, the camera swings rapidly between Antoine and his teacher as Antoine continues to make obscene gestures behind the teacher’s back. During another scene, in which Antoine is shown in an amusement park ride, the camera seems to spin along with him. This creates a nauseating effect that, mixed with first person point of view, makes us feel as if we are there with him on the ride, experiencing both the thrill of the whirling motion and the thrill of successfully skipping school. Truffaut’s camera work demonstrates the endless possibilities that these new technologies provide, and how camera movement and placement can be used to enhance the emotions within a scene.
The protagonist, Antoine, represents both the juvenile delinquent and the emerging cinematic audience. He is not one to follow the rules and, often, actively goes against them in order to cause a stir. He is also a lover of the arts, a frequent to the local cinema. Over the course of the film, by comparing Antoine to his classmates, it becomes evident that he is different. His attire makes him appear as a miniature film critic and he has no problem ditching school or pulling pranks within the walls of the classroom. Even after being sent to jail and, eventually, a centre for delinquent youth, Antoine continues to rebel, running away from the centre towards the sea, the place that brings him joy. Through his actions, Antoine represents the youths, from the young film critics of the French New Wave to the contemporary teenagers of Canada, who want to pave their own paths and be different from the rest. Traces of modernization can also be found throughout the film. The opening scene, consisting of a tracking shot that takes us on a tour through the streets, sets the stage for a more modernized and stylized Paris. Shooting through the streets of Paris, we see dozens of cars driving by and the different store fronts and restaurants. Antonine’s mother is also a representation of modernity, with her lush fur coat and stylized hairdo. The symbols of modernity create the setting of the film and present different ways for Antoine to pass his time while he is rebelling. Because of its subject matter, camera work, and the excellent performance from its young star, I believe that François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups is a classic film from the French New Wave that must be viewed by all. Truffaut utilizes the technologies at his disposal to create a sensitive portrait of the delinquent youth during this period of change. If not for the formal elements and narrative, watch this film for its whimsical soundtrack.