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Fifty Years after 'Les 400 Coups'

François Truffaut screened his new film Les 400 Coups at the Cannes Film Festival fifty years ago, on May 4, 1959. It was a triumph, the coronation of the Nouvelle Vague, a phrase coined by Françoise Giroud in L'Express only two years earlier, to describe the new wave of young directors then reinvigorating French cinema. As Jean-Luc Douin describes it in an article (Une famille aux quatre cents coups, June 3) for Le Monde, the film's success was a source of some personal embarrassment and emotional pain for Truffaut (my translation):

On June 3, when the film (winner of the Cannes directing prize) came out in theaters, François Truffaut published a surprising article in Arts, in which he denied that the movie was autobiographical: "I did not write my biography in Les 400 Coups." Why this denial, when he had not hidden his mining of his childhood memories, running away, his detention in the Youth Observation Center in Villejuif, as well as of that of his friend from that time, Robert Lachenay? Because the young director was harassed by his family, depicted in a rather negative way, who were dumbfounded to find themselves poorly treated in the press, who spoke of a child who was "unloved," "left to his own devices," called the father "a rather cowardly chump," and the mother as "flighty" and a "wicked little whore."
The press quotations oversimplify the way the child's life is depicted in the film, because there is love from his family as well as neglect. Still, it caused a major rupture, especially with Truffaut's adoptive father. The director was largely unrepentant, even quoted as saying, after the death of his mentor André Bazin, "I have no more parents."

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