In September of 1958, a fledgling director placed an advertisement in France-Soir, seeking a young adolescent to star in his upcoming movie. Finding the right actor was particularly important to him: Not only would this be his first feature film, but the boy he chose would be playing a thinly veiled version of the director himself.
To understand The 400 Blows, it’s necessary to start in 1932, twenty-seven years before the film premiered. On February 6th of that year, a young Frenchwoman named Janine de Monferrand gave birth to a son whom she named François. Neither Monferrand nor her family wished to deal with the stigma of unwed motherhood, so she placed the baby in the care of a wet nurse. Upon her marriage to Roland Truffaut in November 1933, her new husband gave François his surname, but the child remained with the wet nurse until almost age three, when his maternal grandmother realized that he was languishing and decided to take him in. He stayed with her until her death in 1942, at which point he went to live with his mother and stepfather for the first time. The transition was not a smooth one. François Truffaut felt unwanted and unloved. He drifted into petty crime, was sent to the Paris Observation Center for Minors, joined the army, went AWOL, spent time in military prison. It all might have ended very badly indeed if it hadn’t been for one saving grace: his love of movies.
One of the many things I enjoy about French New Wave movies is seeing people look directly at the camera. I’m not talking about the final shots of The 400 Blows and Breathless; I mean ordinary people who are walking down the street, going about their daily lives, and suddenly notice that someone is shooting a film. Street scenes were a vital part of the nouvelle vague style. Jean Douchet devotes an entire chapter of his book French New Wave to them, in which he explains that they were both a means of saving money and an act of rebellion against the studio system. He then talks about the effect on extras:
Extras dominated film sets throughout the world. As a trade union they took advantage of the corporatism of the other film unions to obtain jobs. Extras were everywhere and no one was spared their presence. What was most typical of the extras of the time (they could still be seen in films by Mizoguchi and even in Bresson’s Pickpocket of 1959), was their total and well-known lack of naturalness. Motionless, they posed, ‘expressed’ themselves, and had no other ambition than to be seen. They got in the way of the modern filmmaker and interfered with the audience’s involvement in the film. By shooting on location, which overturned the rules of the studio, they were thrust outside the camera’s field of view. And as in the films of Lumière and Griffith, the great silent films or the first talkies (1930-1933), Renoir (Boudu or La Chienne), Vigo, Barnet, the impression of life once again swept across the screen. When people were needed for a scene (a café, newsstand, bus stop), friends were used, or friends of friends, or even passersby who were willing to give an hour or two of their time. It not only lent an air of truth to the film, it was fun as well.