The 400 Blows

François Truffaut’s pioneering French New Wave classic signals an encouraging start to a season of films to see before you're 30

Cinemagic's Saturday afternoon screening of The 400 Blows Queen's Film Theatre has more than a few valuable cues for any budding young filmmakers and cinephiles knocking around these parts.

François Truffaut’s 1959 debut feature length proved seminal in shaping the course of French New Wave and today we see it as part of the new 30 Under 30 public film initiative, a series of titles which each in their own way could be seen to help shape viewers during the formative chapters of their lives.

What was achieved on the shoestring budget of 400 Blows came to embody D.I.Y. innovation carried out with a sense of fun in 20th-century film, and its championing of youth makes it especially relevant to the aims and concerns of the scheme.

Its use of certain cinematic techniques was pioneering at the time of production – the jump cut, and the ways in which the film, like others in the movement, used direct sound and handheld camera recording are all common currency now - and it still remains one of the New Wave’s most fresh and accessible titles after all these years.

The film tells the story of the young Antoine Doinel, a curious and enterprising schoolboy growing up in 1950s Paris, who’s more interested in bunking off classes, going to the fairground with his best friend and 'rotting his eyes' at the local cinema than attending to his household chores and schoolwork duties.

We watch as his adventurous spirit is repeatedly suppressed under a strict disciplinarian home and school regime, which is imposed and overseen by his father and stepmother as well as a particularly po-faced and dull teacher. They make him do chores and reel off verses of literature in orthodox and counterintuitive rote-learning classes, failing to pick up on Antoine’s originality and resourcefulness – which we see in the attempts he makes to break away from home and start out on his own two feet and equally in the affinity he finds with the novelist, Honoré de Balzac – not to mention a clearly demonstrated desire to make his own way in the world.

'Faire les quatre cents coups' – which literally translates as 'to make [the] four hundred blows/strikes'  is a French slang expression meaning to 'raise hell' or 'to live without abiding by laws and rules'. It’s where the film draws its title from, and it could almost be a keynote summation for the spirit of the New Wave, which sought to shake up several establishment bodies of the time in France, as its constituent members saw it.

Without the French New Wave, modern fashion, advertising and pop music would be missing some iconic reference points, and the movement’s influence on contemporary directors like Wim Wenders, Charlie Kaufman and Quentin Tarantino is undeniable (Tarantino even named his production company, A Band Apart, after Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part).

Four hundred isn’t quite the exact number of knocks – often quite bluntly communicated in the film through physical slaps - and setbacks the likely young hero receives over the course of the 99 minute runtime, but they certainly add up to make a fair few by the time the end credits start rolling.

Antoine’s progressive move from smaller misdemeanours – running away from home, 'plagiarising' schoolwork and the like - to being punished for theft and put in a juvenile delinquent correctional centre provides a unique and direct account of a conservative post-war France, where religion and social orthodoxy play a large part in directing and policing people’s lives and behaviour. Again, the parallels between this France and a post-Troubles Northern Ireland, without making too much of the similarities, will be noticeable to some of those watching, despite the almost sixty-year time gap.

The New Wave’s foregrounding of a filmmaker’s vision – versus, say, a potentially stifling political or moral project - along with formal experimentation and a provocative style which explores the medium of film itself, instead of labouring away at narrative building blocks, still has some relevance today. 

In the film, this kind of inventive, low-budget approach is seen as much as anything else in a fourteen-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud’s improvised lead performance and the film’s outdoor, naturally-lit cinematography (a giddy scene shot from the rotating pivot of a fairground spinning drum ride hasn’t lost any of its directness or uncomplicated sense of enjoyment over the years).

There’s something in this screening for aspiring critics too, as the New Wave collective (who, to clarify, didn’t call themselves that – the tag was added retrospectively) began in several cases as young film writers, contributing to the Cahiers du Cinéma journal, who rejected convention and received wisdom in French film (what was called the 'cinema of quality') and political thought from an inhibiting bourgeois Left.

Although the past year has been positive for Northern Irish cinema, with The Survivalist, A Patch of Fog and I Am Belfast all well-received – an initiative that looks to sew the seeds for a more fun, youthful sense of iconoclasm in future filmmaking here is a welcome move.

The main purpose of 30 Under 30 – which extends out to events programmed by the Strand Arts Centre, Belfast Film Festival, the Nerve Centre and QFT itself - is to help instil and foster a passion for cinema of all types, particularly in young people (30 is where the BFI draws the line for young here), making use of a '30 Films to Watch Before 30' formula as a general thematic banner for selections.

Initiatives like this sometimes run the risk of falling flat, and looking around, it's hard not to notice the usual scenario of there being higher attendance numbers, proportionally-speaking, from older members of the public, rather than younger ones, which is part of the wider imbalance for arthouse cinema as a whole that this looks to redress.

The healthy overall turnout however signals an encouraging start for the programme, which runs until October. And with arguably more marquee-name events still ahead (Se7enAmélie, The Man Who Fell to Earth), you would imagine these to help wave a greater number of the intended demographic in off the streets and open their eyes further to the big (cinematic) picture.

The 30 Under 30 programme, made possible by Film Hub NI with support from BFI, runs until October 18 with screenings at various venues in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry. Full details are still to be announced. To book tickets for already confirmed events visit the Queen's Film Theatre, Cinemagic, Strand Arts Centre, Belfast Film Festival and Nerve Centre websites.