French Film: Les Quatre Cents Coups
Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), the first – and largely autobiographical – film of famous Nouvelle Vague director François Truffaut, follows the exploits of a rebellious Parisian boy, Antoine Doinel, as he tries to negotiate his way through the injustice and coldness of the adult world. His misdemeanours at school, and his difficult relationship with a mother and father who show him little affection, cause him to run away from home, and roam the streets of Paris with his best friend René. However, this adventure does not end well for Antoine, and the second half of the film sees him trying to find his way out of the mess which he has created for himself.
Truffaut’s protagonist is locked in a constant struggle with the institutions of French society, which appear continually to push him to the margins, refusing to listen to or understand him. This is reflective of the director’s own experiences of adolescent life, and so gives us an insight into the personal difficulties which helped to shape the style of this pioneer of the Nouvelle Vague movement.
Despite the serious subject matter of this film, Les Quatre Cents Coups succeeds in injecting joy into the images displayed on the screen, as its viewers experience the mischievousness of youth, alongside Truffaut’s loving depiction of the autumnal streets of his home city, Paris. The director’s decision to film on location makes his work emblematic of the Nouvelle Vague, as it engages with its subjects in as human a way as possible, capturing real life in its production rather than sticking to the sterility of a studio.
Les Quatre Cents Coups was nominated for an Academy Award and the Palme d’Or, and won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. Its initial success was followed by a whole series of films following the life of Antoine Doinel, all of which starred the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who grew up with his film counterpart.
Fun Fact: The title Les Quatre Cents Coups comes from the French expression faire les quatre cents coups, which means ‘to raise hell’.