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The 400 Blows: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959) movie poster The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups)

US Theatrical Release: November 16, 1959 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: François Truffaut / Writers: François Truffaut (scenario & adaptation), Marcel Moussy (adaptation & dialogue)

Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Claire Maurier (Madame Gilberte Doinel), Albert Rémy (Monsieur Julien Doinel), Guy Decomble ("Little Quiz" Teacher), Georges Flamant (Monsieur Bigey), Patrick Auffay (René Bigey), Daniel Couturier (Bertrand Mauricet), François Nocher (Child), Richard Kanayan (Child), Renaud Fontanarosa (Child), Michel Girard (Child), Serge Moati (Child), Bernard Abbou (Child), Jean-François Bergouignan (Child), Michel Lesignor (Child), Luc Andrieux (Gym Teacher), Robert Beauvais (School Director)

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François Truffaut is a name frequently placed among the all-time greatest filmmakers, but this French writer-director does not have a résumé as widely known or beloved as many of the others in the same conversation.
The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), his first and arguably best-known film, was revisited on Blu-ray last week by The Criterion Collection, presenting me with an opportunity to get my long-awaited first real taste of Truffaut, a director I embarrassingly best know from his appearance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and mention in a song from Pixar's Your Friend the Rat short. (Though I have seen and enjoyed Fahrenheit 451, that Ray Bradbury adaptation is not what you would call "a Truffaut film.")

The 400 Blows is a coming-of-age film à clef drawn largely from Truffaut's own upbringing. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a French youth around twelve years old. He gets in the occasional trouble at school. The start of the film has him punished for being caught with a pin-up calendar being passed around the room. Sentenced to recess detention, he defaces the wall with writing that doubly offends his stern French teacher (Guy Decomble).

The parents (Albert Rémy and Claire Maurier) of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) aren't sure what to do with him in François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows."

Antoine's parents can't agree on how to handle his innocent mischief. His pretty mother (Claire Maurier) gives him a hard time, while his father (Albert Rémy) cuts him some slack. Other times, it's Mom who decides to spoil the boy with a spontaneous movie and strawberry ice cream outing while Dad has to be convinced it's a suitable reward for a boy who just accidentally started a small fire in his room. The family of three scrounges to make ends meet in their cramped apartment.

Antoine's transgressions grow more serious in time. He skips school with a friend (Patrick Auffay) and spends his lunch money on a Rotor ride. On this day of playing hooky, he catches his mother with another man, an incident neither speaks of. Unable to forge a note, Antoine blames his absence on the death of his mother. After that outrageous lie is exposed, he decides to move out, crashing at a printing press for the night. His mother comes to school the next day, relieved he's all right.

But Antoine isn't all right. He's pocketing money, stealing milk, smoking, and drinking with his pal on top of plagiarizing Balzac when he's not playing truant. Antoine even steals a typewriter from his father's workplace, but is caught returning it when he's unable to pawn it without a receipt. This theft is enough to get the father to turn him over to the juvenile justice system. After a night in jail, the boy is sentenced to months in an observation center, where he's surrounded by other troubled boys. The film ends with Antoine escaping from this observation center his mother won't pull him out of, after he discusses his illegitimate lineage and near-abortion in an official report.

Antoine's story continues; this is the first of six films made over twenty years in which Léaud plays Truffaut's alter ego. This opening film sends the boy down a bad path, the result of no great malice, chemical imbalance, or terrible attitude but minor transgressions that add up to more than his busy, working parents can handle.

It's all fun and games skipping school to ride a Rotor... ...until you wind up taking a mug shot at a police station.

A candid and human drama, The 400 Blows not only launched the feature career of Truffaut, a 27-year-old who had gained notice as a film critic, but also the French New Wave, an era of cinema that is revered by many and often channeled by Wes Anderson, one of today's most acclaimed filmmakers and the active one by far most recognized by Criterion.
The New Wave has also inspired Anderson's friend and sometimes collaborator Noah Baumbach, whose Frances Ha was probably one of the best 2013 films you didn't see. (It too, fittingly enough, entered the Criterion Collection.)

Truffaut doesn't glamorize or defend his youth, just processes it in some cathartic way. A film about childhood with a young protagonist for adults is rare today and doesn't seem to have been any more common back then. Even the autobiographical narrative of a tumultuous adolescence in an unstable home seems to have influenced Anderson and Baumbach on films like Rushmore and The Squid and the Whale. The film's contemporary setting of Paris in the 1950s creates distance that makes it resonate less for a 21st century American viewer. Still, quiet, melancholy, and nicely photographed (in 2.35:1 black and white), this strikes chords both cinematically and emotionally, encouraging me to prioritize seeing more Truffaut and more New Wave cinema in the near-future.

Released to DVD all the way back in March 1998 when it took spine number 5, The 400 Blows got a new DVD edition from Criterion in May 2006 and its first Blu-ray in March 2009. Last week, this classic, the rare foreign film to get an Oscar nomination in a screenplay category, received a new Dual Format Edition consisting of two newly-authored discs, one Blu-ray and one DVD.

The 400 Blows: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.35:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 1.0 LPCM (French); DVD: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; French Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: April 8, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-50 and 1 DVD-9)
Clear Keepcase
Still available as Essential Art House DVD ($19.95 SRP; February 10, 2009) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Criterion Blu-ray (March 24, 2009), Criterion DVD (May 9, 2006), and Criterion DVD (March 31, 1998)


In what should surprise no one, Criterion has treated The 400 Blows to a great Blu-ray transfer. The 2.35:1 picture is as clean and sharp as its age will allow. Light grain maintains a constant presence, but the film only becomes fuzzy in the infrequent zoom. Though I haven't seen it before in any medium, I can only assume that the film has never looked this terrific before.

The monaural soundtrack is presented in 1.0 LPCM, which suits it fine. Dialogue and music remain crisp and consistent, while the clean, easily read English subtitles offer flawless translations.

Patrick Auffay and Jean-Pierre Léaud's seemingly casual discussion of their schools is preserved as an audition. Jean-Pierre Léaud is again interrogated by an offscreen figure, this time a year after filming for a Cannes 1959 newsreel.


The same on each disc, the extras begin with a pair of old audio commentaries. The first is a 1992 track by cinema professor Brian Stonehill. It's a scholarly track, which comments on autobiographical elements, Truffaut's career and technical mastery, the influence of his Hitchcock appreciation,
and qualities that were new to the New Wave (e.g. dubbing everything, finding poetry in the mundane). This commentary, old and novel enough for Stonehill to call it an "audio essay", benefits from the use of excerpts from other parties, specifically co-writer Marcel Moussy, Robert Lachenay, and a reading from Truffaut's own writings.

The second commentary is recorded by Robert Lachenay, the film's assistant director and Truffaut's lifelong friend (the René to the director's Antoine), sometime prior to 1998. Interviewed by Serge Toubiana, Lachenay speaks in French, their comments translated by English subtitles. Lachenay's unique perspective (it's their friendship being "canonized" in the film), ability to compare Antoine's childhood to Truffaut's (the parallels are endless), and involvement in production give this commentary something rare and special, even if you've got to read it.

On the video side (where the BD presents everything in HD), we begin with some 16mm auditions (6:24). The first is basically a job interview for Jean-Pierre Léaud, who makes a case for his casting despite being old for the role. The second lets Léaud and Patrick Auffay (the film's René) chat about their schools. The third lets Richard Kanayan (another one of the film's enfants) sing like Aznavour and discuss his day.

"Cannes 1959" (5:51) is a newsreel excerpt from the annual "Reflets de Cannes" on the year's Cannes Film Festival. It interviews a precocious Léaud about his experience making the film and about one standout scene he reveals was improvised.

Oui, that is the Eiffel Tower standing behind François Truffaut in his "Cinéastes de notre temps" interview. NBD. On "Cinépanorama", a bubble-blowing elephant sits in front of Truffaut to mock America, for some reason.

Next comes a really good excerpt from a Truffaut-dedicated December 1965 episode (22:27) of the French TV show "Cinéastes de notre temps" ("Filmmakers of Our Time"). The director's reflections on his youth (half of which was spent inside movie theaters) and deciding on a documentary style for his debut are complemented by remarks from 400 Blows cast members Léaud and Albert Rémy plus fellow filmmaker Claude de Givray.

An excerpt of a 1960 episode of the French TV series "Cinépanorama" (6:52) has France Roche interview Truffaut about his recent trip to New York. He discusses The 400 Blows' reception there and elsewhere, what he would make of the film if he was still a critic, and what it's like to become a filmmaker from that background.

"400 coups" is kind of a big deal is the point being made in the film's French theatrical trailer. Two views of Antoine's escape run on The 400 Blows' main menu.

Finally, we get the long French theatrical trailer for The 400 Blows (3:47), which talks up the film with press and filmmaker endorsements plus a list of accolades.

Criterion packages this set with one of their standard thick clear keepcases. Of course, the discs are joined by an essay booklet. This one is light by Criterion standards, folding open to just eight pages.
Four of them go to transfer information, chapters and credits lists and photography, leaving just two for Truffaut biographer and Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf. Her article, "Close to Home", comments on the many parallels between the director and his protagonist.

The scored menu loops small clips from the dazzling long tracking shot of Antoine's reformatory escape against a larger, blurry, screen-filling backdrop of the same. As always, Criterion thankfully authors the Blu-ray to support bookmarks and resuming. In a minor annoyance, I found subtitles had to be turned on for each bonus feature instead of appearing by default.

In a standout scene at the observation center, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) opens up about how he came to be the troubled youth he is.


Launching an important filmmaking career and a significant era of cinema, The 400 Blows is more than just a movie. But, should you approach it like that, you'll find it's a pretty good one, gripping with autobiographical experience and savory technique.

Criterion's Blu-ray combo presumably improves upon past releases if even only for supplying the film and the numerous substantial extras in two formats.

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Reviewed April 17, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1959, 2014 Janus Films, Les Films du Carrosse, MK2 Difussion, The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.