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François Truffaut
Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier
Writing Credits:
François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy

Left without attention, a young boy delves into a life of petty crime. MPAA:
Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
French PCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 100 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 3/24/2009
• Audio Commentary with Cinema Professor Brian Stonehill
• Audio Commentary with Filmmaker’s Friend Robert Lachenay
• Audition Footage
• “Cannes 1959” Newsreel
Cineastes de notre temps Excerpt
Cinepanorama Excerpt
• Trailer
• Booklet


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The 400 Blows: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1959)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 15, 2020)

With 1959’s The 400 Blows. we get the debut from legendary director François Truffaut. Based on his own experiences, the film brings a “coming of age” tale.

14-year-old Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) doesn’t enjoy a happy childhood. Stuck with a problematic life at home dominated by unhappy, bickering parents, he finds himself in nearly constant trouble at school.

Eventually Antoine gets bounced from school so he essentially becomes a street urchin who commits petty crimes. When police apprehend him, his parents allow him to go to a juvenile detention center, where they hope Antoine will be scared straight.

As an American born in 1967, my generation’s first exposure to Truffaut came from 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The filmmaker worked as an actor there, so our parents needed to tell us about Truffaut’s “other” career.

Not that I suspect they knew his work all that well. For all his acclaim, Truffaut remained the very definition of an “art house” filmmaker in the US. Outside of 1966’s Fahrenheit 461, Truffaut only made French movies, so his flicks never enjoyed a wide audience in the States.

My age means I don’t have the perspective to see how Blows and other efforts in the “French New Wave” packed an impact when new. While groundbreaking in their day, their techniques became adapted by many others over the last 60-plus years, so how the impression they left at the time becomes tough for me to judge.

Viewed solely as a movie without a view of its cinematic influence, Blows seems interesting, if not totally absorbing. From what I understand, the “French New Wave” acted partly as a rejection of traditional filmmaking techniques, and those involved went for a more experiential and less formally narrative approach.

That becomes clear throughout Blows. Despite the impression my synopsis might leave, the film really lacks a true plot.

Instead, we get a general character arc, as we see the ways Antoine’s life changes, but it becomes tough to pin down a clear story on display. We simply follow Antoine through his life and see what happens to him.

Instead of a firm narrative, Truffaut focuses on the character’s experiences and offers a semi-emotional take on these. This doesn’t mean that Blows seems sentimental or melodramatic, though, as the movie often manages a fairly detached, nearly documentary take.

This works for positive and negative. On the good side, I like the sense of realism, as Truffaut doesn’t force concepts of themes on the viewer.

Instead, we follow events with a level of semi-detachment and take them as they come. The compelling and the banal appear in nearly equal measure, as the film paints a life without a lot of judgment.

On the negative side, this attitude can make Blows feel somewhat self-indulgent and aimless at times. We find ourselves with not especially useful scenes that run too long, such as one at a puppet show.

I get that this comes as part of the film’s “slice of life” orientation, but it still doesn’t seem to add to the experience. That and some other sequences could get cut without a detrimental impact on the film.

Despite my view of Blows as a mixed bag, I think it does more right than wrong. I like the lack of overwrought drama, as the movie’s choice to avoid the usual forced emotion comes as a positive.

While I’d probably enjoy Blows more if it boasted a stronger sense of narrative, it remains a compelling experience. Whatever impact it’s lost since 1959, it continues to offer a pretty good view of childhood.

The Disc Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C/ Bonus B

The 400 Blows appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. While I’m sure the folks at Criterion did their best with the material, the movie still came with a mix of concerns.

Sharpness seemed erratic. Though much of the film demonstrated good definition, more than a few examples of softness occurred.

Some of these came from poor source photography, but others were less logical. In any case, overall clarity was fine, and I noticed no issues with jaggies, shimmering or edge haloes.

The movie tended toward a grainy feel, but print flaws remained minor. I saw a few specks and some stray gate hairs but nothing substantial.

Blacks varied. Some of the movie showed deep tones and good contrast, but others displayed mushy blacks and a sense of excessive brightness. One of Criterion’s earliest Blu-rays, this one looked generally good but it might benefit from a new transfer.

I also felt the PCM monaural audio of Blows seemed lackluster but acceptable given the movie’s age and origins. Speech varied, so some lines appeared fairly natural and concise, but others could be rough and edgy.

I couldn’t easily judge intelligibility since I don’t speak French. I’d estimate that the work remained intelligible but lacked strengths.

Music was generally decent. The score could sound somewhat shrill at times, but it usually appeared acceptably full.

The same went for effects. While these occasionally came across as distorted, they still provided acceptable clarity. Nothing here was memorable, but the mix was decent for its period.

As we head to extras, we find two separate audio commentaries, the first of which comes from cinema professor Brian Stonehill. He provides a running, screen-specific chat that also occasionally includes excerpts from interviews with screenwriter Marcel Moussy, director/writer François Truffaut, and friend/assistant unit manager Robert Lachenay.

The commentary looks at story/characters, inspirations and influences, sets and locations, cast and crew, elements of the French New Wave and related domains. The track touches on these subjects well and becomes both informative and engaging.

For the second commentary, we hear from assistant unit manager Robert Lachenay. In this running, screen-specific piece, we learn about aspects of the production as well as reflections of the childhood Truffaut and Lachenay shared.

Truffaut’s lifelong friend, Lachenay inspired the movie’s René character, so Lachenay relates the ways the movie compares to real life. He also lets us know a bit about the movie’s creation, though his memories of fact vs. fiction dominate. Although we get more dead air than I’d like, Lachenay’s intimate connection to the material helps make this an insightful discussion.

Under Auditions, we get six minutes, 24 seconds of screen tests. We see casting interview with actors Jean-Pierre Léaud and Richard Kanayan as well as an improvised chat between Léaud and Patrick Auffay. This 16mm footage adds value.

A newsreel, Cannes 1959 runs five minutes, 51 seconds and shows a chat with Léaud – who looks like he went through a big growth spurt since the shoot - along with a little footage from the Cannes festival. The interview with the actor makes this worth a look.

Two TV excerpts follow, as we find segments from a 1965 episode of Cineastes de notre temps (22:27) and from a 1960 episode of Cinepanorama (6:52). In the first, we hear from Truffaut as well as Leaud, actor Albert Remy and collaborator Claude de Givray. The second segment features only Truffaut.

“Cineastes” looks at Truffaut’s early interest in film and his career to date at that time, while “Cinepanorama” examines Truffaut’s visit to America and some aspects of Blows. Both become engaging programs.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we finish with a booklet. It presents credits, art and an essay from film scholar Annette Insdorf. The booklet completes the set on a satisfactory note.

Groundbreaking in its day, The 400 Blows seems less impactful now, but it nonetheless offers a fairly compelling movie. Though I admit I’d likely it more if it delivered a stronger plot, I appreciate its cinematic choices and find it to become an interesting character study. The Blu-ray comes with erratic picture and audio as well as a useful selection of supplements. Blows stands as a movie with historic importance.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars Number of Votes: 1
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