The 400 Blows: excellent existential film of young adolescent search for understanding

Francois Truffaut, “The 400 Blows” (1959)

This debut feature film by director Francois Truffaut is a very affecting one. By the standards of its time (1950’s), it was a revolutionary film of its kind and is considered as being the first film of the French New Wave Cinema. Set in a working-class Paris few people had seen, it is a snapshot in the life of an young adolescent schoolboy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), whose life quietly goes off the rails as he strives to find meaning in it. Neglected by his mother and step-father, who are occupied by their own concerns – mum has a secret boyfriend at work and step-dad is obsessed with organising weekend car races – and regarded by teachers at his school as a trouble-maker, Doinel starts skipping classes with a friend, Rene (Patrick Auffay), going to amusement parks and stealing money, dossing in a printer’s shop overnight and going into his step-father’s office to take a type-writer which he and Rene hope to sell to raise money to run their own business. Eventually he’s suspended from school for plagiarism in his homework and his mother dumps him into a juvenile delinquency / observation centre where he decides that he has no-one to look out for him and he must make his own way in the world alone.

The entire plot and the dramas and conflicts that arise are entirely character-driven: Antoine’s problems are the result partly of circumstances beyond his reach and partly of the clash between his own exuberance and the institutions around him that seek to instill conformity and meek obedience in him. The plot progresses in such a way that it almost seems improvised; there appears to be nothing staged or contrived in the movie. The entire film is shot from a child’s viewpoint but Truffaut often uses aerial shots and scene-framing shots with few, if any, close-ups of actors’ faces. The closest we may get to seeing an actor’s face in most of the film bar its beach scene conclusion would be a shot of the person’s head, shoulders and chest, often from the side as well as from the front or a three-quarters view. Fairly long takes and tracking shots are also a feature here.

Leaud plays the young Antoine splendidly, appearing in nearly every scene and often the sole character in several scenes without dialogue. His acting seems unself-conscious and naturalistic and most likely much of it is improvised. The highlight of his performance is his interview with the unseen woman psychologist: he answers her questions in such an unself-conscious way that you can easily forget the lines spoken are all rehearsed. Antoine is portrayed as intelligent and resourceful with a lot of spirit though at times he seems a little remote and detached. The support cast is also very good, in particular the actors who play Antoine’s parents: the mother (Claire Maurier) reveals she was once rebellious herself and for all we know, she may still have dreams about escaping her dreary life in a tiny, cramped flat shared with her son and a husband she may or may not love. The boys in Antoine’s class are lovable scamps who cleverly pass another child’s goggles around and damage them with split-second timing while the boy recites a poem so that by the time he is finished, the goggles are back in front of him.

The background setting of Fifties-period Paris as a grimy city of narrow streets, small cars, dreary schools with concrete playgrounds and tiny, run-down apartments might be a surprise to viewers brought up on images of Gay Paree. Filmed in black-and-white, the city looks impersonal and not at all romantic. The look of the movie is clear, almost as though filmed with a handheld video camera. Modern audiences may be too familiar with the filming techniques Truffaut uses to notice anything unusual and the film might appear as a simple, plotless story of a boy at a particular stage in his life, getting into more and worse trouble as time goes by. The film still makes an emotional impact on viewers as Antoine struggles for understanding from his parents and his mother alternately feels guilt, exasperation and anger towards her wayward son.

The climactic end in which Antoine faces the camera directly, questioningly, is a fitting revelation (the ocean, which Antoine had always wanted to see, becomes another barrier, a kind of prison) and closes a period in the boy’s life in which meaning and direction had been lacking, and he was constantly misunderstood and punished by older people simply for being natural, for being a child. We can presume that Antoine is at a crossroads in his life and can choose either to return to the reform school or create his own life without help from others or society generally. “The 400 Blows” is very much an existential film in that it reveals a character who is essentially alone in a hostile world and must make his own decisions about how to lead a meaningful life.

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