Two DVD Versions of a Classic French Film
François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) is one of the greatest movies of all time, and I previously wrote up the Fox Lorber DVD containing it on this site. I gave my views on the film in that earlier article, so here I'll confine my discussion to the special features of the Criterion Collection 400 Blows DVD.
If you haven't seen any DVD version of The 400 Blows, I recommend starting with the Criterion Collection one. However, if you're a Truffaut fan like me, you'll want to go through both DVD versions.
Bonus Materials Focus on Film's Autobiographical Nature
In an essay in the six-page booklet that comes with the Criterion Collection DVD of The 400 Blows, scholar Annette Insdorf states that the movie is a supreme example of "cinema in the first person singular." In the film, the story feels as personal as that of a novelist using a first-person account given by a fictional alter ego. A major reason Truffaut succeeded in achieving that was because the movie's protagonist leads a life quite similar to the one the filmmaker had led about 13 years earlier. Most of the extras on the DVD center around the semiautobiographical nature of The 400 Blows.
Audio Commentary by Truffaut's Longtime Friend
My favorite bonus material is the feature-length audio commentary by Robert Lachenay, who befriended Truffaut in school when they were 12 or 13 years old. Just as Antoine Doinel, the main character in the film, was based on Truffaut, Lachenay was the model for Antoine's best friend René. Lachenay says that as boys he and Truffaut used to go out late at night and swipe movie posters, then as dawn approached, they would satisfy their hunger by stealing milk from doorsteps. He also says that just to get pocket money, Truffaut stole a typewriter from his parent's workplace. And Lachenay mentions many other things about Antoine and René that are based on real life.
Lachenay remained friends with Truffaut for four decades until the filmmaker's death in 1984. He was also a production supervisor on The 400 Blows, so he knows a lot about the film. In the commentary, which was apparently recorded in 2001, Lachenay is asked questions by Serge Toubiana, a writer who has also been an actor, producer and director. They speak in French, and English subtitles are available.
Audio Commentary by a Film Professor
The DVD contains a second feature-length audio commentary track, this one recorded in English in 1992 by cinema professor Brian Stonehill. This scholarly commentary duplicates some of the material covered by Lachenay, but it was still worth the time I spent listening to it because the professor comes up with quite a few insights.
For example, in the scene where Antoine takes out the trash, Stonehill notes Truffaut's ability to "bring out the poetic in the mundane." The professor also observes that Truffaut shares with Hitchcock the approach of drawing viewers into the story by getting them to identify with the protagonist. And finally, Stonehill points out that Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us and Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins were all released very close in time to Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and this spate of innovative French movies was seen as the beginning of a movement dubbed the nouvelle vague or New Wave.
Two 1960s French TV Programs on Truffaut
The DVD contains a seven-minute interview of Truffaut on the show Cinépanorama, which was broadcast February 20, 1960. The filmmaker had just returned from the United States, where The 400 Blows had been honored as Best Foreign Film by the New York Film Critics Circle. Also on the DVD is a 22-minute program segment for Cinéastes de notre temps that aired December 2, 1965. This features Truffaut discussing his youth, his writings for Cahiers du cinéma and the beginnings of the character Antoine Doinel. I found both of these television programs to be informative.
Two Featurettes, Mostly About Jean-Pierre Léaud
Jean-Pierre Léaud gives a brilliant performance in The 400 Blows as Antoine Doinel, and Truffaut went on to make four more films with this actor playing the character. The six-minute featurette titled "Auditions" shows an interview with the then-unknown 14-year-old Léaud, and I can understand why he got the part. There's also a six-minute featurette about Léaud attending the 1959 Cannes Film Festival (where Truffaut won Best Director). Both featurettes are entertaining.
On the next page, I have given the details for the Criterion Collection DVD containing The 400 Blows.