François Truffaut was casting for his first feature film The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), the semi-autobiographical tale of Antoine, a rebellious adolescent growing up in Paris. The young director had already cast Claire Maurier as Antoine’s mother, Guy Decombe and comedian Pierre Repp as his teachers, and Henri Virlojeux as the night watchman who arrests the troubled youngster for the theft of a typewriter. But still Truffaut had no one for Antoine.
He placed an advert in the Paris Soir in the Fall of 1958. Hundreds of young hopefuls were auditioned but none were quite right for the role. Then a friend suggested the son of assistant scriptwriter Pierre Léaud and actress Jacqueline Pierreux.
Actor and Director in Cannes, 1959
When Truffaut met Jean-Pierre Léaud he knew he had found his Antoine. The director later wrote that he saw in the 14-year-old:
...a certain suffering with regard to the family…With, however, this fundamental difference: though we were both rebels, we hadn’t expressed our rebellion in the same way. I preferred to cover up and lie. Jean-Pierre, on the contrary, seeks to hurt, shock and wants it to be known…Why? Because he’s unruly, while I was sly. Because his excitability requires that things happen to him, and when they don’t occur quickly enough, he provokes them.
Jean-Pierre Léaud was a pupil at a private school in Potigny, where he was a described by the school’s headmaster as “unmanageable” with a level of:
Indifference, arrogance, permanent defiance, lack of discipline in all its forms.
Jean-Pierre had been caught with pornography in his dorm, and had often escaped with the older boys on their nights out. But the teenager was bright with an aptitude for writing.
An audition was held that confirmed that Jean-Pierre Léaud was Antoine, so much so, that Truffaut made changes in his script, as he later explained:
I think in the beginning there was a lot of myself in the character of Antoine. But as soon as Jean-Pierre Léaud arrived, his personality, which was so strong, often led me to make changes in the screenplay. So I consider that Antoine is an imaginary character who derives a bit from both of us.
The 400 Blows is described as “one of the defining films of the French New Wave.” It won François Truffaut numerous awards, and was his most successful film in France. It also began a fruitful collaboration between director and actor over the following decades, with Jean-Pierre Léaud going on to become one of France’s greatest actors.
As for the title, well The 400 Blows is a literal translation of the French, which doesn’t capture the nuance or double-meaning of the term Les quatre cents coups, which comes from “faire les quatre cents coups” meaning “to be up to no good.”
Below, an extraordinary interview with Jean-Pierre Léaud at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival: