The 400 Blows (Blu-ray)
Directed by Francois Truffaut
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:11080pAVC codec
Running Time: 99 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: March 24, 2009
Review Date: March 9, 2009
Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the first in what would become known as the French New Wave, is one of the most touching and exhilarating of films. Filmed in the Paris streets and in other real-life locations and not in the confines of a studio, The 400 Blows screams innovation and originality in its every frame. Even today, fifty years after its premiere, it still manages to impress through its fresh, flip approach to storytelling and with a mesmerizing young actor in the movie’s central role. How miraculous that in subsequent films by the same director, the story of Antoine Doinel continues to amaze and delight those who first became taken with him as a thirteen-year old boy in this fine film.
Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a thirteen year old living with his rather apathetic mother (Claire Maurier) and stepfather (Albert Rémy) in a cramped Paris apartment, is all boy. He scribbles graffiti on school walls, plagiarizes from Balzac to get a good grade on his class essay (and gets caught), plays hooky from school and uses the time to see movies and play arcade games, and runs away from home when he lies about his mother’s dying to get out of trouble at school. Distraught over their “juvenile delinquent” (though compared to the gangs we have today, he’s almost a choir boy in comparison), his parents have no choice but to have him sent to a reform school where Antoine, looking for any opportunity to escape, longs to see the ocean for the first time.
Antoine’s story is based on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, but what’s most unique here is the writer-director’s obvious excitement at telling his story with all the cinematic marvels available to him. You’d be hard pressed to find a more intoxicating sequence than Antoine, on his hooky holiday, enjoying the Rotor Wheel ride at a local carnival with Truffaut’s cinematic eye and the dizzying camerawork of Henri Decaë a true work of art. Subsequently, a long, revealing tracking shot as Antoine makes his detention center getaway is breathless in its ruthless examination of emotions. And yet, that famous final freeze frame isn’t the joyous, triumphant look we expect but something more vacant, distant, and longing, just another surprise Truffaut has up his sleeve. Other moments also remain memorable: the gym teacher who takes his class out on a walking excursion around the neighborhood loses them a few at a time as they splinter off for other adventures of their own, all seen from above as Truffaut films downward on the boys craftily sneaking away; the Doinels' idyllic night on the town (movies and strawberry ice cream) soon to come to a sad end when Antoine becomes impossible; Antoine‘s tear-streaked face as the paddy wagon takes him away after a creepy night in two separate jail cells.
Jean-Pierre Léaud was truly a dream find as Truffaut’s childhood surrogate. His naturalness before the camera and his seeming innocent face masking his inner mischievousness made him the perfect choice to play this part. Both Claire Maurier and Albert Rémy, neither bad people but lacking the ability to show warmth and affection for their son, make wonderfully real adults who should never have had children. Patrick Auffay as Antoine’s best friend René matches Léaud with his cherubic face masquerading for a sweet little demon underneath. Guy Decombie as the pedantic teacher (nicknamed “Sourpuss” by Antoine) is every kid’s nightmare: a dull, uninvolved teacher.
The film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio is delivered at 1080p using the AVC codec. Though the grayscale isn’t top notch resulting in blacks of only average quality, sharpness is pleasing, and the film’s grain structure is definitely intact. A stray hair or two show up, but otherwise the image is blemish free. The white subtitles are quite easy to read though they can speed by quickly. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The PCM (1.5 Mbps) 1.0 track can have its shrill moments, but most of the time, it offers a well balanced, open mono track that‘s a pleasure to listen to, Jean Constantin‘s jaunty music being given a fine aural record that complements the visuals beautifully. Much to my surprise, there was no hiss or other audio problems that are often found with foreign films of this age.
The disc offers two commentaries. The first and best is by professor Brian Stonehill who dissects the film and also adds audio comments from others in Truffaut’s life to give the commentary additional interest. The second commentary track is by Truffaut’s lifelong friend Robert Lachenay who speaks his comments in French which are then subtitled in italics. His comments, though, are start and stop and not as interesting as Stonehill’s more scholarly approach.
All of the bonus features are presented in 1080i.
There is 6 ½ minutes of audition footage featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick Auffay, and Richard Kanayan (who has a hilarious scene in the film as a child trying to get thoughts down on paper but whose pen keeps blotting ink on each fresh sheet). Léaud seems very natural while Auffay is shyer, more reticent. Kanayan is full of bubbly spirits as he sings a couple of songs.
The film won the Best Director prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, so there is 6 ½ minutes of newsreel footage at the event showing the standing ovation for the movie and featuring a brief interview with Jean-Pierre Léaud.
The 1965 French television program Cineastes de Notre Temps features a 22 ½-minute interview with Truffaut, Léaud, Remy Albert, and Claude de Givray talking about Truffaut’s career as a director from The 400 Blows to his most recent (then) successes.
A 1960 French television interview with Truffaut on the program Cinépanorama features Truffaut answering questions after returning from the United States having been presented the Best Foreign Film award by the New York Film Critics for The 400 Blows. The interview lasts for 7 minutes.
The film’s original theatrical trailer runs 3 ¾ minutes and is in the proper aspect ratio. (Other film clips in previous featurettes were in pan and scan 4:3.)
The Criterion Blu-rays are now including a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
The disc case contains a folded pamphlet with a couple of stills, a cast and crew listing, and film professor Annette Insdorf’s brief essay on the cinema of Francois Truffaut.
One of the world’s great films, and the first in a number of masterpieces by the great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, The 400 Blows is not to be missed, especially in this Blu-ray release which offers quite clearly the greatest sound and picture the film has ever enjoyed on home video. Highly recommended!