One of the key films of the French New Wave, François Truffaut’s classic debut feature The 400 Blows (1959) follows the director’s young alter ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) on various escapades around Paris. Doinel is a troubled teen, unhappy at home and resistant to authority. He raises the ire of his teachers at school but also escapes the world by reading Balzac. Things take a turn for the worse after he steals a typewriter from his stepfather’s workplace, and Antoine is forced to go on the run.
From its opening credit views of the city, Truffaut’s film is a love letter to Paris as much as a dedication to the cinema he loved. Even in the film’s sadder sequences, the capital never looks less than spellbinding, while the story’s later move to the Normandy coast produces some of the most evocative and powerful images of the nouvelle vague.
Here are five locations from The 400 Blows as they are today.
After wandering the streets at night, Antoine is in need of freshening up. He comes to some fountains where the dirty water has frozen, breaking the ice for a quick wash. The location is L’Église de la Sainte-Trinité and its beautiful water feature in the Square d’Estienne d’Orves. The first shot sees Antoine looking down over the garden, but it wasn’t possible to recreate it due to ongoing work in the church. The next shot sees Antoine climb into the water feature from the side. Today it’s exactly as it was.
Truffaut then shows the whole fountain and some of the church’s atmospheric frontage. Restoration started on the church in 2021, so it was hidden behind coverings. The water feature itself, however, can still be seen.
We first see Antoine’s flat after he has finished school and is walking back with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). The flat was in Place Gustave-Toudouze in the Saint-Georges area. Truffaut first shows the characters walking from the direction of Rue Clauzel. Today, the space is almost entirely taken up with seating for the square’s various cafés.
Antoine and his friend take a seat on a bench outside his house. The bench is still there and now sits opposite a couple of restaurants. The road behind, however, has since been pedestrianised.
Antoine eventually leaves his friend and heads to the flat. The door to the flat itself is at 4 place Gustave-Toudouze, and its leafy entrance shows it to be far more upmarket than in Truffaut’s time.
A pivotal moment of the narrative occurs when Antoine and René decide to steal a typewriter in order to sell it. Though the interiors of the office that Antoine robs are shot in a different building, the exteriors were shot around the Champs-Élysées. We first see our pair of miscreants head into 52 Galerie Elysées-La Boétie, where there used to be an arcade of shops. Today, the entrance opens to a department store on the left and some sort of ambient commercial space at the back.
Truffaut shows us the view out onto the street from the inside. Today, it has been simplified and is now just an empty corridor.
After Antoine has pinched the typewriter, he and René flee back to the street. Rather than leaving the way they came in, they exit via 9 rue La Boétie. The entrance now leads into another part of the shop.
Following the pair down rue La Boétie, we see the side of the building. Again, this is just one huge department store now, so its various windows and doorways have likely been rearranged in the intervening 60 years or so.
Making their escape, the pair flees to the métro, down the steps of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, the stairs are now half serviced by an escalator.
Inside the station, they run to catch a train. The station has been extensively changed since filming but the general layout of how it once was can still just be made out.
School may not be very important to Antoine but it’s one of the more recognisable locations in the film. Though its interiors were filmed elsewhere, the exteriors were filmed on rue de Vaugirard at number 85. We first see the building outside when Truffaut shoots its bas-relief by the sculptor Aimé Millet. The artwork is still there today.
The building itself was L’Ecole Technique de Cinématographie et de Photographie, only the second ever film school (organised by Léon Gaumont and Louis Lumière). It’s still as it was in the film.
In the beautiful and heartbreaking finale, Truffaut perfectly captures the loneliness of his main character. The scene is Antoine’s final jog along the beach towards the sea. Though the institute to which Antoine is sent is in the Normandy town of Honfleur, the location of this final sequence is further down the coast at Villers-sur-Mer. The first aspect to mark the location is where Antoine runs down the steps to the beach. Though the steps have long gone, the distinctive house and its turret on the hillside mark the location as being the same.
Truffaut follows his actor all the way along the windswept beach. The distinctive cliff faces known as Les Vaches Noires are seen in the background, leading to a point where the land crumbles into the sea. Though the landscape has obviously changed, the recognisable shape of the headland still remains.
With a single freeze-frame, Truffaut defined everything that was innovative and exuberant about the French New Wave. You never forget your first viewing of Antoine’s final look to camera. The shot is looking directly out to sea. It may be the end of the road for Antoine in this film, but it was only the beginning for Truffaut and Léaud.
In memory of Dr Roland-François Lack.
François Truffaut: For the Love of Films runs across the UK in January and February 2022.
The 400 Blows is back in cinemas from 7 January 2022.
Originally published: 11 January 2022