An Appreciation – The 400 Blows
“Sometimes I’d tell them the truth and they still wouldn’t believe me, so I prefer to lie.” – Antoine Doinel
Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) remains one of the most incredibly moving films ever made about adolescence. Even after seeing it countless times, aware of every moment that has happened and that will happen throughout its story, I cannot help but be affected by its power every time I watch it—it is the ultimate expression of misunderstood youth. The title of the film derives from the French idiom meaning “to raise hell,” and to see the young boy at its center quickly heading toward a life of crime, and to understand why he found himself on that pathway, is heartbreaking. This is not a nostalgic piece regarding one’s childhood with fond love and enjoyment. Rather, it remembers youth as a harsh world, not wanting to return to it, but to leave it forever in the past. The film is starkly realistic, exceptionally passionate, and unwaveringly observant. It is one of my all-time favorite films.
To talk about The 400 Blows is to talk about its director, Francois Truffaut. Truffaut is one of cinema’s great directors, and with this, his first feature, he would solidify and contribute to one of the most influential movements in movie history, the French New Wave. Coming from a background in criticism, he, along with his colleagues of the film magazine “Les Cahiers du Cinema,” would write about his dissatisfaction with contemporary films, and would call for a change in the style and manner in which they were made. This can easily be seen in this film, as we see many shots of Paris outdoors, away from the bright lights of the studio. Many scenes contained natural lighting, his takes lasted longer than usual, topics that were considered taboo were brought to the forefront, and all throughout, his own personal story would be infused. The filmmakers of the French New Wave would coin the idea of the “auteur theory.” This is the belief that a filmmaker would subconsciously “imprint” their own personal stamp in to a movie; they had complete control of all that went into the making of their film. This means that even though you haven’t been told who made it, you can tell who it was by the very style of it. Based on this idea, I would say that Truffaut was a great auteur himself.
Truffaut is represented in the film as the character of Antoine Doinel, played by the young French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. To say that the film is autobiographical would be putting it mildly; nearly everything that happens (or has happened) to young Antoine is reflected in Truffaut’s own life. The story revolves around Antoine as he is on the brink of early adulthood; his interactions with others both at school and at home; and the various misunderstandings that eventually lead to him having a reputation of being an uncontrollable troublemaker. This is probably the most tragic aspect about the film, because we see, from Antoine’s perspective, that he is not actually a bad person in reality. He is very smart, intellectual, a deep thinker, and also surprisingly creative. However, he has very little means of expressing that creativity, and when he does, he does so in a socially inappropriate way. When he is sent to the classroom corner for getting in to trouble, Antoine writes an eloquently scripted line on the wall, which is taken by his teacher simply as graffiti. Antoine loves to read, and is inspired by the French writer Balzac, even lighting a candle vigil in honor of him. However, the light from the candle catches the cabinet on fire, leading to his parents thinking he is an arsonist. When writing a homework assignment describing the death of his grandfather, Antoine decides to use lines written by Balzac to express his feelings, but the teacher takes it as plagiarism instead of homage.
At home, things are more or less the same. Antoine lived the first part of his life with a wet nurse and his grandmother, and did not join his real mother until he was eight years old. The film shows him living with his mother and stepfather in a small, rundown apartment. Neither of them really care much about Antoine, and instead care more about themselves. His stepfather Julien (Albert Remy) is actually not a terrible man, and at times can be playful and joking with Antoine, but spends much of his time more concerned with automobiles and being on the racetrack. His mother (Claire Maurier) is having an affair with another man, and when Antoine catches her on the street with this other person, she, in turn, expresses a fake attitude of sincerity toward him, even going so far as to pay him money if he does well at school. Obviously, this is not because she actually is committed to being like this, because if she were, she would have been like that from the beginning. Instead, she acts this way simply so that Antoine won’t tell on her. The parents have fights at night that keep Antoine awake, many times with him being the main subject. Breaking it down, Antoine’s parents are not cruel people, and in many ways they are more realistic than your usual movie parents. They have their bad days, but they also have their good days. One particular scene has the three of them going to the movies together, and we see afterward that they do have moments of joy and laughter. The main issue is that, in the end, they simply neglect Antoine much too often. They do not see the creative, intelligent young man, but the troublemaker who can’t seem to get his act together. As a result, Antoine begins to distance himself from them. There is a moment in the film, when Antoine’s mother walks by him while he is in bed, where he closes his eyes and pretends to be sleeping so that she would walk right past him. This is a tiny, minute detail, but speaks volumes in regard to Antoine’s relationship with his parents.
This is not to say that the film is only depressing, because it is far from it. The ages of the kids is the time in life when people are their most rambunctious, playful, and mischievous, and there are many scenes and moments that Truffaut puts in that express this. I remember the early scenes in the classroom, where the children would make faces and poke fun at the teacher while he writes on the blackboard. Or the moment when a student, while taking a test, rips out a piece of a paper every time his pen blotches, eventually having no more paper to write on. Another scene that comes to mind is when the children are lined up and taken out by their fitness instructor. From a high angle, we see the instructor jogging the kids around the streets of Paris. But one by one, the children escape from behind him; what starts out as twenty kids ends up being two or three by the end of the scene. And then, there are the scenes between Antoine and his best friend, Rene (Patrick Auffay). Rene is the one person that Antoine can turn to, and the times the two have are perhaps the best times Antoine has in the entire film. They escape from school, go to the movies, to the arcade, and to a puppet show. When Antoine decides to run away from home, Rene takes him in and finds a place for him to sleep for the night, even offering his own home to eat and smoke cigars while Rene’s father is away. One of the highlights of the film is when Antoine goes on a spinning ride. Round and round he goes, stuck to the wall due to how fast he is spinning. Notice the look on Antoine here, his smiling face beaming with joy and excitement. We can conclude that at this fleeting moment, away from the troubles of school and home, Antoine is truly happy.