The films The 400 Blows and The Bicycle Thief are great examples of the French New Wave and Italian Realism movements. Both movements were prominent during the mid-1900's and were huge in the foreign film market. I've chosen to focus on The 400 Blows due to the fact that I found the cinematography, the style, the acting and the story very interesting.
The French New Wave was popular during the late 50’s - early 60’s and was driven by popular directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer. Some films that were part of the New Wave were Elevator to the Gallows, Mon Amour, Paris Belongs to Us, Shoot the Piano Player, etc.
These films were all characterized by a series of things. They were all going for a more natural, realistic vibe to them. This was shown through editing styles, locations, protagonists, stories, handheld cameras and improvisation. This is also shown through the technical, aesthetic, and story-telling aspects of The 400 Blows.
The story centers around a boy, Antoine, in the middle of a tough family dynamic where his mother cheating on his father. This and his threatening schoolteacher eventually lead to him skipping school frequently. Antoine continues getting in more trouble until he is caught when he steals a typewriter from the business that employs his father. He is then sent off to an observation center for troubled youth and eventually escapes and makes it to the ocean. This was his goal from the beginning, to see the north shore.
The story doesn't follow a typical narrative in that there isn't clear escalation over the course of the film, it ends a bit abruptly, and theres not necessarily a major goal that Antoine is trying to achieve or overcome. This relates heavily to many other tropes of French New Wave films including the “anti-authoritarian protagonist.”
Typical protagonists were heroic, good-looking men with no issues. In French New Wave, the protagonists were younger men who had many flaws. These protagonists were also anti-heroes and alienated loners. They behaved spontaneously and acted immorally. This is very similar to Antoine in the film as he is a young boy who faces many challenges and is stuck in his boring life.
The New Wave films did this to connect to a different audience than they had been targeting before. Instead of making movies for richer, upper-class, good-looking men and women, they made films that could appeal to the middle and lower classes. Films that showed the struggles of the poor man and contained plots involving breaking the law, family struggles, etc.
Apart from the story, The 400 Blows also emulated the New Wave style by using certain camera techniques, editing processes, location scouting, and audio recording.
For example, in the editing process for these films, the editors would try to not include many quick cuts and keep a smooth simple progression. This helped achieve the real, raw feel of these films. In The 400 Blows, editor Marie-Josephe Yoyotte emulates this editing style to great effect. She manages to achieve a real-life quality in the editing and carries us through a somewhat stagnant story perfectly.
Also, shooting with handheld cameras on cheap, “real” locations and recording natural sound helped achieve this real feel as well. The handhelds gave a “homemade” quality that influenced cheaper films in the future such as found-footage, indies, etc. The real locations as opposed to sound stages and built sets show the effort to achieve realness. The natural sound also did this by not having to use foley and other techniques as much to create ambient sounds. The recorded ambient sounds from the locations helped greatly in the editing process.
All of these things are clearly evident in The 400 Blows. From the simple camera work and shot progression from Director of Photography Henri Decae, to the numerous French landmarks, streets, and locations used throughout the film. Even the sound is well done in that it really feels as if you are stuck in these poor conditions with Antione. These techniques all go back to the point of the film which is to make the audience feel for Antione and to see the world through his shoes. By implementing all of these techniques, they manage to achieve it.
Overall, The 400 Blows is a great symbol of the French New Wave and showcases how ever-changing the styles of foreign film, well, film in general, can be. It is done through the well developed story, the smooth editing, the simple camera work, the genuine locations and the authentic sound. These all form a package that is well worth viewing by anyone interested in film and why it is important to mid-century French culture.