P:O.V. No.2

A Note on Closure in Truffaut's Les 400 Coups

Richard Raskin

Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, in the final shot of François Truffaut's Les 400 coups (1959).

Closure in film has generally been understood to be the opposite of open-endedness. For example, Bordwell and Thompson write:

In a mystery film, if we learn who the criminal is, the film has closure, but if it leaves a doubt about that person's guilt, it remains relatively open.[1]

Note that closure and open-endedness are viewed here as mutually limiting options, so that the more (or stronger the) closure a film is given, the less open-ended it will be. A film left open-ended is likewise assumed to have weak closure. Again, Bordwell and Thompson suggest that

most classical narrative film displays strong degrees of closure at the end. Leaving no loose ends unresolved, these films seek to end their causal chains with a final effect. We usually learn the fate of each character, the answer to each mystery, and the outcome of each conflict (p. 83).

As an example of an open-ended film, they cite Truffaut's Les 400 Coups:

The boy Antoine Doinel has escaped from a reformatory and runs along the seashore. The camera zooms in on his face and the frame freezes. The plot does not reveal whether he is captured and brought back, leaving us to speculate on what might happen next (70).

An ending can be relatively "open" as our example from The 400 Blows suggests. In other words, the plot presents story events that leave us uncertain as to the nature of the final consequences (74).

Bordwell and Thompsen's argument could be taken one step further, since not only are we in the dark as to Antoine's immediate future, but we are even left uncertain as to how to interpret the look on his face as the film ends. This can be demonstrated by the fact that readings of Antoine's facial expression in the freeze-frame shot diverge considerably, and range from happiness (Baroncelli 1959)[2] and hope (Katz 1982)[3] to uncertainty (Insdorf 1979)[4] and disillusionment (MacDonald 1960)[5].

Yet other commentators take into account the fact that Antoine is looking into the camera, and therefore at us. For some, the film ends with an indictment of society (Allen 1974)[6], for others with a child's bewilderment and pleading (Crowther 1959)[7] or questioning stare (Houston 1963)[8]. And one commentator has suggested, in a manner that would gladden the heart of any French intellectual, that "At the end, you are no longer looking at the film - the film is looking at you" (Croce 1960)[9].

Other readings attempt to account specifically for the fact that the action is stopped in a freeze frame. For one commentator, this suggests paralysis or suicide (Kauffmann)[10], for others, Antoine's entrapment (Insdorf,[11] Greenspan[12]), a police photo or death (Thiher)[13] and dehumanization (Shatnoff).[14]

Finally, there are commentators who simply state that the ending is deliberately left open or ambiguous (Sadoul 1959[15]; Rohde 1960[16]).

It would seem, therefore, that virtually everyone would agree that Les 400 Coups ends with weak closure, at least as that concept has been defined in the past.

However, as Richard Neupert has argued in his recent book, The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema (1995)[17], an important distinction must be made between story resolution and closure of the narrative discourse. For Neupert, the story in Les 400 Coups is left open but the discourse is closed, largely through the freezing of the final frame and the use of the musical score.

In describing the frozen frame, Neubert wrote for example that Antoine is transformed

from a solid body moving through space into a figure of the arrestation of the film's driving strategies. The "stilled" Antoine becomes an image of termination; the optical zoom approaches, turning him into a static spectacle. There is nowhere for the viewer's glance to wander. The point of view structure has changed the spectator's look into a fixed stare, freezing the action codes and closing the narrative discourse by giving a final, impossible view of Antoine (99).

Whatever else it may be taken to signify in relation to the story (entrapment, paralysis, dehumanization, death), the freeze-frame image is a strong and innovative closure device, signaling that nothing more will happen in this film and giving us a moment to adjust to the fact that we now have to let go of the fiction.

Curiously, Truffaut himself thought of the freeze-frame neither in terms of its possible story meaning, nor even as a means for providing closure - at least if his reply to an interviewer was entirely frank. When asked about his intentions regarding the freeze-frame, he replied: "the final freeze was simply an accident. I told Léaud to look into the camera. He did, but quickly turned his eyes away. Since I wanted that brief look he gave me the moment before he turned, I had no choice but to hold on to it; hence the freeze."[18]

Truffaut's original intention was thus for Léaud to continue looking into the camera in live action, presumably for the same 10 seconds the freeze-frame lasts. This ending would also undoubtedly have provided adequate closure. But the stasis embodied by the freeze-frame is even more striking. And considering how open-ended the story is, and even the final image of Antoine - susceptible as it is of radically divergent readings - it is probably just as well that Truffaut had to find an alternate and even stronger closural device.

This example illustrates the fact that closure and open-endedness are not mutually exclusive nor even mutually limiting options, as was previously held. It could even be argued that the more open-ended a film is with respect to story, the more important it is to provide the strongest possible closure within its narrative discourse.


Allen, Don. Truffaut. London: Secher and Warburg, 1974.

Baby, Yvonne. "Les Quatre Cents Coups: Une chronique de l'adolescence, nous dit François Truffaut," Le Monde (21 April 1959), p. 12.

Baroncelli, Jean. "Un très bon film: Les 400 coups," Le Monde (6 May 1959).

Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompsen. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992; orig. pub. 1979. Chevalier, J. "Les 400 Coups," Image et Son 124 (Oct. 1959), p. 25.

Croce, Arlene. "The 400 Blows," Film Quarterly 13, 3 (Spring 1960), pp. 35-38. Crowther, Bosley. New York Times (17 Nov. 1959). Greenspan, Roger. Movie Goers 1 (Winter 1964). Houston, Penelope. The Contemporary Cinema 1945-1963. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963.

Insdorf, Annette. François Truffaut. New York: William Morrow, 1979.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. New York: Perigee, 1979/1982. Kauffmann, Stanley. The New Republic 141, 23 (7 Dec. 1959). MacDonald, Dwight. Esquire 53, 3 (March 1960). Neupert, Richard. The End - Narration and Closure in the Cinema. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

Rivette, Jacques. "Du côté de chez Antoine," Cahiers du cinéma 16, 95 (May 1959), pp. 37-39.

Rohde, Eric. "Les 400 Coups," Sight and Sound 29, 2 (Spring 1960), pp. 89-90.

Sadoul, Georges. Les Lettres Françaises 777 (11-17 June 1959).

Sadoul, Georges. "Entretien avec François Truffaut: Je crois à l'improvisation," Les Lettres Françaises 775 (28 May-3 June 1959), pp. 1, 6.

Samuels, Charles Thomas. Encountering Directors. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.

Salachas, Gilbert. "Les Quatre Cents Coups," Télé-Ciné 83 (June-July 1959), pp. 1-11. Shatnoff, Judith. "François Truffaut - The Anarchist Imagination," Film Quarterly (Spring 1963), pp. 3-11.

Thiher, A. "The Existential Play in Truffaut's Early Films" pp. 143-163 in The Cinematic Muse. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1979; orig. pub. in Literature/Film Quarterly (Summer 1977).

Truffaut, François. Les Aventures d'Antoine Doinel. Paris: Mercure, 1970.

Truffaut, François. "Je n'ai pas écrit ma biographie en 400 Coups," Arts 715 (2-8 April 1959), pp. 1-5.

Truffaut, François. "Introduction à une méthode de travail," Cinéma 60 42 (Jan. 1960), pp. 14-22. Wildenstein, Pierre. "Conversation avec François Truffaut," Télé-Ciné 83 (June-July 1959).

[1] David Bordwell and Kristin Thompsen, Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992; orig. pub. 1979), p. 74.

[2] Jean Baroncelli, "Un très bon film: Les 400 coups," Le Monde (6 May 1959): "l'histoire d'un enfant en quête d'un peu de chaleur humaine, d'un peu d'amitié, d'un peu de bonheur, un bonheur dont il prend un jour brusquement conscience en découvrant la mer."

[3] Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: Perigee, 1979/1982), p. 1151: "...ends on a troubled, hopeful note in a memorable final freeze frame shot at the ocean."

[4] Annette Insdorf, François Truffaut (New York: William Morrow, 1979), p. 33: "The 400 Blows ends with the boy escaping from reform school, running toward the sea, and when he reaches the water, a freeze-frame of his face expresses uncertainty."

[5] Dwight MacDonald, Esquire 53, 3 (March 1960), p. 376: "...the little figure trotting through interminable landscape to finally reach the seashore he has never seen but has dreamed of as meaning freedom, and then the last close-up, frozen in stop motion, of his face as he realizes there is nothing before him there either."

[6] Don Allen, Truffaut (London: Secher and Warburg, 1974), p. 46: "Antoine slows down as he reaches the sea, takes a few paces forward, stops and turns to face the camera. The image freezes as he looks back at us. Not one of his problems is solved, but the indictment of society is complete."

[7] Bosley Crowther, New York Times (17 Nov. 1959): "And there, at the edge of the water, he looked seaward, hesitated, then turned back to face the camera (the audience) with bewilderment and pleading in his eyes."

[8] Penelope Houston, The Contemporary Cinema 1945-1963 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963), p. 106: "Its final image, when the child runs away to the sea and the last shot of the picture freezes into his long, silent, questioning stare out at the audience, remains one of the most truly haunting in contemporary cinema."

[9] Arlene Croce, Film Quarterly 13, 3 (Spring 1960), p. 38.

[10] Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic 141, 23 (7 Dec. 1959), p. 22: "Truffaut ends his picture some time before its close and uses a photographic trick to conclude it. The baffled boy's face simply freezes into a still photo; is it a symbol of paralysis or does it predict a news story about a suicide?"

[11] Op. cit., p. 175: "The still of Antoine's face can be seen as the first example of the sculpture metaphor that Truffaut would develop in Jules et Jim and Two English Girls: he turns Antoine into a living statue whose entrapment is expressed by the immobility of the frame."

[12] Roger Greenspan, Movie Goers 1 (Winter 1964): "One remembers Antoine alone at the water's edge, caught in a still photograph with nowhere further to run..."

[13] A. Thiher, "The Existential Play in Truffaut's Early Films" in The Cinematic Muse (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1979; orig. pub. in Literature/Film Quarterly , Summer 1977), p. 147: "The film's final frezze frame presents a still image that recalls the mug shots the police made of Antoine [...] Moreover, the image, in that it recalls the police photo, seems to offer a kind of summing up, a résumé that might attempt to fix the boy's identity, though in an absurd world of radical freedom this final résumé can be fixed only by death. And so the final image perhaps connotes death, the final absurd limit of all freedom."

[14] Judith Shatnoff, "François Truffaut - The Anarchist Imagination," Film Quarterly (Spring 1963), p. 5: "If the reality of our dreams is as futile as the reality of experience, what is left? Where can one run? The question remains as motion stops and a grainy image of the boy as a clipped newspaper photo, dehumanized, hangs on the screen."

[15] Georges Sadoul, Les Lettres Françaises 777 (11-17 June 1959): "Pas de happy end ou d'unhappy end. Une open end, une fin ouverte en point d'interrogation."

[16] Eric Rohde, Sight and Sound 29, 2 (Spring 1960), p. 89.

[17] Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

[18] Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972), p. 40.