The 400 Blows + Breathless • The French New Wave

Greenscreening Series #28

March 31, 2023

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The 400 Blows (1959) directed by François Truffaut


Breathless (1960) directed by Jean-Luc Godard



François Truffaut’s first feature is also his most personal. Told from the point of view of Truffaut’s cinematic counterpart, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) sensitively re-creates the trials of Truffaut’s own childhood, unsentimentally portraying aloof parents, oppressive teachers, and petty crime. The film marked Truffaut’s passage from leading critic to trailblazing auteur of the French New Wave. -Criterion

There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless. Jean-Luc Godard burst onto the film scene in 1960 with this jazzy, free-form, and sexy homage to the American film genres that inspired him as a writer for Cahiers du cinéma. With its lack of polish, surplus of attitude, anything-goes crime narrative, and effervescent young stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, Breathless helped launch the French New Wave and ensured that cinema would never be the same. -Criterion

Find The 400 Blows and Breathless via Reelgood

Why The 400 Blows and Breathless?

“I don’t know if there was actually a plan behind the New Wave, but as far as I was concerned, it never occurred to me to revolutionize the cinema or to express myself differently from previous filmmakers. I always thought that the cinema was just fine, except for the fact that it lacked sincerity. I’d do the same thing others were doing, but better.” - François Truffaut, 1965

"There used to be just one way. There was one way you could do things. There were people who protected it like a copyright, a secret cult only for the initiated. That's why I don't regret making Breathless and blowing that all apart." -Jean-Luc Godard, 2007

In 1959, two French films revolutionized the world of cinema: François Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. These films marked the beginning of the French New Wave, a movement that transformed the way the world thought about film, and ushered in the modern era of cinema. They introduced the world to two of its most influential thinkers and innovators: François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

Prior to the New Wave, postwar French cinema was dominated by traditional studio filmmaking, which emphasized polished visuals, linear narrative structure, and adherence to established genre conventions. Many of these films were made with big budgets and featured popular actors, and they were often created with the goal of appealing to a broad audience.

These films were produced by large studios such as Gaumont and Pathé (the studio who way back in the silent era brought us Max Linder and Max Takes a Bath), and they were typically characterized by their polished, studio-bound look. They often featured complex camera movements, elaborate sets, and extensive use of studio lighting. Many of the films of this period were melodramas, comedies, or adaptations of popular novels, and they tended to follow established narrative and visual conventions.

In addition to traditional studio filmmaking, there was also a more experimental strand of French cinema that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, known as the "cinéma d'auteur" or "cinema of the author." These films were characterized by their emphasis on personal expression and the individual vision of the director, and they often dealt with more serious and intellectual subject matter. Jean Renoir was the spiritual godfather of this movement and filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Jacques Becker were particularly influential in shaping this movement.

The New Wave emerged as a reaction to the conventions and limitations of these two approaches and sought to create a new, more personal form of cinema.

Several key influences contributed to the emergence of the French New Wave. One was Italian Neorealism, with its emphasis on naturalistic acting, location shooting, and a focus on everyday life. Many New Wave filmmakers were inspired by the raw, unfiltered realism of Neorealism and sought to bring a similar approach to French cinema.

Another influence was the French film critic André Bazin, who championed realism and the auteur theory of filmmaking, or the idea that the director is the true author of a film. Recall that we’ve highlighted a few examples of directors who were considered auteurs — John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock — Bazin was responsible for popularizing the auteur theory in his publication, Cahiers du Cinema. And many of his writers embraced the theory and decided to set about making their own films, on their own terms.

“Personal” is probably the purest distillation of the French New Wave's spirit. Auteurs were encouraged to explore style and visual expression, experimenting with film techniques, narrative structures, and where necessary, to break the rules in search of the purest personal expression. And in Truffaut and Godard’s feature debuts, you have some of the most personal expressions in cinema history.

*The 400 Blows*

Truffaut's The 400 Blows is widely considered the launching point for the French New Wave. The film is a semi-autobiographical tale of tells the story of a young boy growing up in Paris, who struggles to find his place in the world, chafes at authority, and drifts towards a life of crime.

Truffaut infused the film with details from his own childhood, and encouraged his lead actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud, to improvise where he felt inspired. In doing so, Truffaut created one of the most authentic portrayals of adolescence in film history. It’s also one of the most enduring love letters to cinema; the protagonist, Antoine Doinel, finds his greatest moments of peace and happiness at the cinema.

The film was a critical and commercial success, winning Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival and receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Everyone was talking about The 400 Blows and its director.


The next year, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless landed and further exploded the film landscape. The film couldn't have been more different from The 400 Blows, though they're close siblings, and Godard's debut was based on an original story by Truffaut, and features both men in bit parts.

Breathless tells the story of a nonchalant small-time criminal on the run who falls in love with an American student, was shot on a shoestring budget and featured a nontraditional visual style that included jump cuts and improvised scenes. Godard and his production team innovated throughout - using a wheelchair to film dolly shots since they couldn't afford an actual dolly, timing one location shot to capture the lights on the Champs Elysees turning on, and when the rough cut came out too long and a bit boring, Godard literally started hacking out sections of scenes, creating the iconic jump cuts.


In fact, Truffaut and Godard threw every cinematic trick in the book into their films to tell their personal stories:

  1. Jump Cuts: A jump cut is a sudden cut between shots or takes within the same scene that disrupt the continuity of time and space. It’s called a jump cut because characters and objects might jump to a new spot in the frame, even though it’s largely the same camera setup. Jump cuts are commonplace now in contemporary cinema, but also in YouTube and TikTok videos, but at the time, it was unthinkable to use jump cuts, as most industry professionals regarded jump cuts as unpolished and unprofessional, as they broke the audience’s focus on the story and called attention to themselves. But Godard loved the idea that he was reminding people they were watching a film.

  2. Naturalistic Dialogue: Instead of using polished, scripted dialogue, the New Wave filmmakers used the language of everyday conversation. As mentioned before, Truffaut encouraged his actors in The 400 Blows to improvise where they felt appropriate. And the dialogue in Breathless is largely improvised, giving the film a sense of spontaneity and realism.

  3. Location Shooting: The 400 Blows and “Breathless” were shot on location in Paris, which was a departure from the traditional studio-based filmmaking of the time. Truffaut used real locations and street scenes to add a sense of authenticity and realism to the film.

  4. Handheld Camera: Godard used a handheld camera to shoot many scenes in "Breathless," which adds to the film's sense of spontaneity and immediacy. The camera moves with the actors, giving the audience a sense of being right in the middle of the action.

  5. Cultural References: Godard's films are known for their cultural references, and Breathless is no exception. In one scene, Michel and Patricia discuss Humphrey Bogart and his films, which shows the influence of American cinema on the French New Wave. And one of the iconic images of the film is Michel posing and brushing his lip, imitating Bogart.

  6. Breaking the Fourth Wall: Breathless also features several instances where the characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. The 400 Blows also includes a powerful moment breaking the fourth wall, in its iconic final shot.


It's impossible to overstate the impact these films had on cinema history. The launch of the French New Wave was on a level with Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane - films that upended film history and left a completely singular legacy. Truffaut and Godard immediately became critical darlings and hot commodities. A few films from now, we’ll talk about when these two went to Hollywood, directly inspiring and fueling the New American Cinema. Hollywood had grown a bit stale in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and thanks to Truffaut, Godard, and half a dozen other amazing filmmakers, for the first half of the 1960s, Paris was the capital of cinema.

Like many other cinematic movements, the French New Wave didn’t last. By the early 1970s, Truffaut had made most of his best work, and Godard’s work became increasingly radical and experimental. There were other major filmmakers in the French New Wave, including Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Pierre Melville, and more. We could run an entire course on the French New Wave, or even just on Godard and Truffaut.

Cinema lost Truffaut in 1984 to a brain tumor. Godard continued making films until a few years ago, winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for “Goodbye to Language.” He passed away in 2022.

Countless filmmakers have cited Godard and Truffaut as influences. Quentin Tarantino has cited Godard's use of jump cuts, nonlinear narrative, and pop culture references as influences on his work. Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach have also been influenced by the French New Wave. Anderson's films feature symmetrical compositions, quirky characters, and stylized visuals that echo the New Wave's emphasis on style and visual experimentation. Baumbach's films explore themes of alienation and personal struggle, which are central themes of many New Wave films.

Additionally, Wong Kar-wai, Pedro Almodovar, and Bernardo Bertolucci have been heavily influenced by the French New Wave style.

In the 2022 Sight and Sound Critics Poll, Breathless ranked 38th (tied with Rear Window and Some Like it Hot), and The 400 Blows 50th.

Other Films to Consider

  • Vivre se Vie (My Life to Live) (1961) directed by Jean-Luc Godard
  • Jules and Jim (1962) directed by François Truffaut
  • Contempt (1967) directed by Jean-Luc Godard
  • Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) directed by Alain Resnais
  • Last Year at Marienbad (1961) directed by Alain Resnais

Learn More About The French New Wave

Roger Ebert with an excellent essays on The 400 Blows and Breathless

The 400 Blows: Close to Home essay for the Criterion edition

Breathless: Then and Now essay for the Criterion edition

Norman Holland on Breathless

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