The film that actually started French New Wave cinema is The 400 Blows, from 1959.
It was produced and directed by François Truffaut and stars Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier and Albert Remy.
Besides being a character study, the movie is also an exposéof the treatment of juvenile offenders in France at the time.
It’s highly auto-biographical and is based on real events in director Truffaut’s life. He was born out of wedlock in 1932 and his birth was kept secret because of the stigma of being illegitimate back then.
In the French hospital records, he was registered as "A child born to an unknown father". As a child, he was passed around to live with various nannies and his grandmother.
The identity of his biological father was unknown, although a private detective agency in 1968 revealed that their inquiry led to a Roland Levy, a Jewish dentist from Bayonne, France.
His mother's family disputed the findings but Truffaut himself believed them. A movie lover from early childhood, he started his own film club when he was 16 and in 1948, he met a man named André Bazin, who was a movie critic and head of another film club.
Bazin became a personal friend and helped Truffaut out of various financial and criminal situations throughout his life.
At age 18, Truffaut joined the French Army but absolutely hated it and spent the next two years trying to get out. When he was arrested for attempting to desert, his friend Bazin used his political contacts to get him released and then set him up with a job at Bazin’s film magazine.
Over the next few years, Truffaut became a film critic at Bazin’s magazine, where he became notorious for his brutal, unforgiving reviews and earned the nickname 'The Gravedigger of French Cinema'. He was so despised that he was the only French critic not invited to the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
He had made a couple of short films, but after seeing Orson Welles' Touch of Evil that he was inspired to make this movie, his first full-length film. When it was released, the movie was widely acclaimed, winning numerous international awards, and was nominated for best screenplay at the Academy Awards.
And The 400 Blows currently holds a rare Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100% from critics and 93% from viewers.
So, amazingly, just a year after he was ‘not’ invited as a hated critic, Truffaut was back at the Cannes Film Festival to be awarded the best director prize for 1959.
The character of René in this film was inspired by Truffaut’s best friend from childhood, Robert Lachenay, who Truffaut hired as an assistant on many of his films.
Extremely passionate about film, Truffaut once picked up a hitchhiker and started a conversation about movies. When it turned out the man knew almost nothing about film, Truffaut stopped the car and made him get out.
You may know Truffaut as one of the stars in Steven Spielberg's film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he played the scientist, Claude Lacombe.
And look for Truffaut to make a cameo appearance riding next to Antoine in the centrifuge ride at the Funfair, and then smoking a cigarette just outside the ride.
Truffaut dedicated The 400 Blows to André Bazin, the man who had been his spiritual father who, unfortunately, died just as the film was about to be shot.
An icon in French film, Truffaut was only 52 when died in1984. In his career, he directed only 27 films but was nominated for 3 Oscars and won 29 international film awards.
There is also a Francois Truffaut Award given out at a French film festival; appropriately, it’s for films made for children.
Playing the young lead is Jean-Pierre Léaud. Truffaut loved working with him and over the next 20 years, he made four more films withTruffaut, playing the same character, Antoine, at later stages of his life.
One of Léaud’s idols was Marlon Brando and he once worked with the great actor….sort of. In 1972, he appeared in The Last Tango in Paris, which starred Brando.
But Léaud was so in awe of Brando that he was terrified of working with him.
So he asked that all of his scenes be shot on Saturdays, when Brando didn’t work.
So, although he’s in the same film, during the entire shoot, he never once met his idol.
Léaud is still acting today.
All the dialog in the film was dubbed later by the actors because shooting on the streets of Paris was hectic and noisy.
Because everything was dubbed later, Truffaut didn’t have to worry about lugging bulky and expensive sound equipment around. Plus, he didn’t have to worry about a street scene having too much background noise.
In the classroom scenes, notice all the young kids. All of them are young actors who unsuccessfully auditioned for the lead role of Antoine.