It was 40 years ago today: `The 400 Blows' takes Cannes by storm

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The Independent Culture
On 15 May 1959, the announcement of the major prizes at Cannes heralded the start of a new era. The winning directors were all young, French newcomers; the films were low-budget, independent productions: the nouvelle vague had swept the board.

Alain Resnais got the Palme d'Or for Hiroshima Mon Amour; Marcel Camus won two hors concours prizes for Orfeo Negro; and 27-year-old Francois Truffaut - a provocative former critic who had been banned from Cannes the previous year - won best director for Les Quatre-Cent Coups.

Truffaut had made his name - along with Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette - in the pages of Andre Bazin's influential Cahiers journal. The young guns slated traditional cinema, championed Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, and devised the politique des auteurs, the prioritisation of the director's vision over the story.

Chabrol was the first to make an impact behind the camera, producing Le Beau Serge in 1958. But it was Truffaut's autobiographical tale about Antoine Doinel, an adolescent sliding from minor misdemeanours to truancy, theft and reform school, which was ground-breaking in form and content. Its budget was tiny; its lead was a 14-year-old debutant, Jean-Pierre Leaud, who improvised on-screen; it was filmed on the streets of Paris, using hand-held equipment. It was fresh, innovative, stylish and authentic. The French critics were stunned.

"A masterpiece," said Nice-Matin; "An outstanding film, a great French film, a great screen classic," said Liberation. It was "better than a perfect film: sincere, authentic, overwhelming" (France-Observateur) and "rigorous, vibrant, beautiful" (Parisien Libere). Le Monde's critic said it was the only Cannes film which "truly touched me"; Jean Cocteau had "never been so overwhelmed" (France-Soir); cinephile Georges Sadoul hailed "a great talent" (Les Lettres Francaises).

The 400 Blows opened in New York in December 1959 and in London the following March. In reviews, its title was variously interpreted as "hell-raising" (New Yorker), "painting the town red" (London Chronicle), or "going for broke" (Time). Playboy suggested "Crazy Mixed-Up Kid". Most critics knew it was an important film and were impressed by its tone and subject: "Clever and deeply felt (Observer); "Touching and haunting" (Mail); "A record of childhood unsurpassed by any other" (Standard); "Even the English subtitles don't irritate" (News of the World).

But some were not as bowled over as their French counterparts at Truffaut's innovative style: "What has been gained in background realism has been in part offset by the difficulties of filming under such conditions" (Times);"No doubt about the amateurishness and the blinkered emphasis" (Guardian); "I hope he will in due course pay more regard to the normal technique" (Evening News).

Like many New Wavers who made a splash with their debuts, Truffaut was often accused of subsequently succumbing to such "normal" film-making. But his vast oeuvre includes classics like Jules et Jim (1962) and Day for Night (1973), plus a remarkable two-decade "autobiography" of four more Antoine films, all with Jean-Pierre Leaud. The original Antoine "sequel" became the basis for Godard's seminal A Bout de Souffle (1960).

Individual works apart, Truffaut and chums had a huge influence. The jump-cut is now standard fare. "New Waves" transformed world cinema. And even Hollywood directors left their studios and took to the streets.