THE 400 BLOWS, 1959
Directed by Francois Truffaut
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Remy, Guy Decomble, Georges Flamant, Patrick Auffay, Daniel Couturier
Review by Vinny Borocci
A young adolescent boy by the name of Antoine is not cared for at home by his parents. The boy begins to misbehave in class, steal from his parents, form lies, and engage in criminal activities. He escapes with his friend and finds other places to stay, while avoiding his parents. Ultimately, the parents send him to reform school in order to help clear his thoughts and shape his poor behavior. While there, he is left with a choice: to cooperate and attempt to work out his problems, or continue to act inappropriately. What will this troubled young boy decide?
As we all should know, Francois Truffaut first made his name working for the film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, a magazine which spent heavy time evaluating Hollywood films and directors. Unabashed and undaunted, Truffaut zealously began writing critically on films offering his own unique style. Spending arduous time studying the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray, bringing a new perspective to criticism, combining somewhat blatant words with sincere appreciation, Truffaut helped solidify the idea that the director has omnipotence and authority for engineering the cinematic experience. Through his passion for films and literature, Truffaut’s uncommon criticism became the forefront in cinema evaluation. It was in this way, Truffaut’s name caught the attention of readers and avid cinema followers. The result: recognition and popularity, culminating in Truffaut venturing out to make his first (personal) feature film, The 400 Blows.
In The 400 Blows, Truffaut continues his writing approach and simply applies it to directing his first feature film, becoming the so-called “author” of the film. From the very beginning sequence, as the opening shots are beautifully shot, with the camera gracefully capturing various shots of the Eiffel Tower, Truffaut sends a message that the director’s artistic vision “towers” over the medium itself. Incorporating his own techniques while also including overt references to his admirers (mainly of Renoir in this film with the use of long tracking shots), Truffaut creates an environment dedicated to the distinct visual styles in which the director exhibits. For The 400 Blows, in recognition of his writing icon, Andre Bazin, who died just before production, the director’s style is clearly nothing more than a personal exposition.
The story revolves around a young, troubled preadolescent boy named Antoine, whom Truffaut utilizes to represent his own childhood struggles. Through multiple instances, Antoine is presented with a set of unprincipled values: we see in the classroom Antoine initiating disturbance by mocking his teacher; Antoine roguishly scampers through his own parents belongings and steals money, along with stealing a typewriter from his father’s work later in the film; not only performing an ill-advised action by ditching school and his studies, Antoine foolishly creates lies to cover his school’s absence by falsely claiming his own mother’s death. In these ways, however, Truffaut is not depicting Antoine’s character to distribute a sense of immoral behaviors, but rather establishing Antoine as an image of pathos, to voice his idea on the meaning of family and parenting, while in the process, brazenly expressing his deprecation for his own childhood upbringing.
As we see Antoine repeatedly scurry through the bustling city streets, almost all of the time on his own, Truffaut reinforces the idea of the importance of the parent in a child’s life. The boy’s mother gives him harsh orders, while never showing an offering of care – only after the boy catches her having an affair with another man is when she attempts to suck up to him. The relationship between Antoine and his mother’s husband – as we find out that the father is not Antoine’s – is nothing more than a token friendship. They talk about sports and women, but the man never gives Antoine a sense of “fatherly” direction. In some ways, the man looks forward to the boy getting out of the house for good. On multiple occasions we hear the man and mother having conversations about sending the boy away to reform school, while Antoine listens in the background, dejected but unruffled.
In the scene where Antoine skips school with his friend, the boys wander off to an amusement area. While there, Antoine decides to go on a “Wheel-spinning” ride, where Antoine stands against a wall, and the ride spins at an incredible rate, forcing Antoine and the other adventurers to rise in the air and stick to the wall. Truffaut decides to capture this scene with mostly point of view shots, where we see through Antoine’s eyes the blurry and chaotic vision in which he sees, or in some ways, understands. Because of the insecurity provided by his parents, Antoine deliberately acts foolish; with the lack of comfort in his own home, filled with displeasure, punishment, and alienation, Antoine does not recognize a sense of stability, but identifies with the jumbled interactions which he finds in the streets causing disarray and confusion. Ironically, it is here, on the lively, brisk and active streets, running away from the lack of affection from his parents, where Antoine finds his repose and his depth of solitude.
After Antoine continues to create havoc for his parents, they finally agree to send him away to reform school. As this happens, Antoine is taken away in a truck, as he looks out from the vertical, impenetrable bars, blocking his view and access from the city streets. In some ways, as we see from Antoine’s point of view, or Truffaut’s own, we can say that the bars are blocking his sense of freedom; Antoine can no longer escape from his struggles, but must find within himself a sense of self-determination. Later, at reform school, Truffaut expands this message when Antoine is presented within the confines of a cell, with images of similar bars like those of the truck, surrounding the boy in four corners. This time, we see the bars suffocate the boy, as he exhaustingly enhales the smoke from his tattered cigarette.
Finally, while the group of problematic children are playing a game of soccer, Antoine escapes the surveillance of authorities. In the same fashion as escaping from his parents, Antoine runs away from the reform school. This time, running through the barren woods, Truffaut utilizes an extremely long, tracking shot following Antoine running. It is in this way, by shooting this long, tense, and fatiguing take, that Truffaut reflects the “auteur’s” approach by indicating the pain and suffering produced not only in Antoine’s life, but of his own. When Antoine arrives at a shore, still running from authorities, trying to keep his breath, he continues toward the ocean. After taking a few steps into the water, Antoine quickly and suddenly looks back. Truffaut ends the film on this frame exactly, as he provides the shot of Antoine’s face with a still image; even though Antoine senses freedom as he enters the ocean, his footprints will remain: Truffaut splashes away his troubled past, but his childhood isolation will never be forgotten. As a result, it is not whether or not Antoine has looked back because the authority might be there, but rather Truffaut asking if he can avoid revisiting his troubled youth. In the same fashion with Antoine, the end result is probably not good.