Truffaut, Antoine, and The 400 Blows

From the moment the viewer first meets Antoine Doinel in a crowded French classroom full of boys, it’s clear the type of student he is: relentlessly bothersome, careless, and consciously incompetent. He’s a fearless clown in desperate need of attention. As time goes on, the viewer learns more and more about why this is. Catching a glimpse of his social life and the struggles he faces at home, it’s not hard to see why he acts the way he does. His mom and step-dad neglect him, he’s struggling to keep up in school, his teacher’s a jerk, and he’d much rather run away than face these things.

After resorting to petty crime, lying to everyone around him, getting kicked out of school, and spending a night in jail, Antoine finds himself in an observation center for other troubled youths. His future looks bleak—at least until he finds a chance to escape (despite what a fellow delinquent told him: “Around here to escape is bad enough, but getting caught is worse”). In a long tracking shot, Antoine runs to the ocean he’s been longing to see for the entirety film. He runs in, but only ankle deep. He slows, turns, and walks out. When he looks up, the camera zooms in close—FIN, then a fade to black.

The film is undoubtedly Truffaut’s. Extended tracking shots, bleak black-and-white, filthy set pieces shot on location, quick pans and zooms, jump cuts, and existentialism are all undeniably indications of a Truffaut film (even though other auteurs like Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson have since perfected the jump cut, the quick pan and zoom, and the tracking shot, respectively).

Other stereotypical Truffaut elements include the curvy, rounded opening title font also used in Jules and Jim, the quick, sarcastic dialogue exchanges, the semi-autobiographical story, and even a cameo from Jeanne Moreau. Because the film is a part of the French New Wave (a time during the 1950s and 60s where French filmmakers abandoned conventional shooting styles in exchange for a looser, freer, more experimental production techniques), all of these conventions are expected and welcomed.

In the years after Truffaut’s death in 1984 and the end of the French New Wave in the late 1960s, it’s clear to see just how influential he truly was. After watching two of his films, I can recognize a plethora of movies and directors who owe a lot to Truffaut. Like I mentioned before, Edgar Wright is the master of the jump cut. Like many films from the French New Wave, Wright’s editing adds even more excitement to his movies. Quentin Tarantino—who is guilty of referencing so many films some speculate he might not be as talented as he’s given credit for—has used the quick pan and zoom in almost every film of his, most notably Django Unchained and Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2. Paul Thomas Anderson’s love affair with incredibly lengthy tracking shots would probably be nonexistent without Truffaut’s groundbreaking visuals. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight feature the same two leads at three different points in their lives over an 18-year period, just like Truffaut’s five films about Antoine Doinel that span nearly 30 years. Dogme 95 filmmakers like Lars Von Trier owe elements of their short-lived avante-garde movement to the unspoken rules of French New Wave—techniques like shooting on location, avoiding artificial mise-en-scène, and extensive handheld camera use are simultaneously indications of French New Wave and Dogme 95.

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