Re-watching “The 400 Blows” again recently, I felt a connection with the young hero Antoine Doinel I hadn’t felt in the other times I had viewed it. I had always liked “The 400 Blows” well enough as Francois Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical ode to his youth, I could see what made it so revered as a film, there were so many things I admired about it, yet I could never really say I loved it. I took it out of my DVD collection without much enthusiasm to watch it, I wasn’t sure what I was in the mood for, but on a whim it seemed fine enough to keep me occupied.
At first it took me awhile to get into the film, but paying closer attention, I was soon enthralled by the look, the joy, and the utter freedom it exhumed. It’s funny how some films have a different effect on you the more you grow, and the more you change as a person, “The 400 Blows” has definitely changed for me in a great way.
On my most recent viewing of the film, I found it to be really about an escape. We follow young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) a boy who is neglected from his parents, his mother who had him out of wed-lock doesn’t seem to care for him much. His step-father at first treats him fairly and doesn’t seem to mind his company, but he later grows to resent him, after he is caught lying to his class, and stealing from his work.
School for Antoine isn’t much of a refuge either, he is constantly bombarded by his strict teachers. At the beginning of the film he is caught with a picture of scantily clad woman which is being passed around by his classmates, afterwhich, he is forced to stand in the corner and miss recess. Later he is accused of plagiarism for an essay he wrote where he took a passage from a book by Balzac whom he considers his hero, and despite his efforts, he is given a zero grade for the paper. His teachers and his parents represent all the authority figures in Antoine’s life who seem to have given up on him, it’s no wonder he tries every means possible to escape from such a reality.
Truffaut’s film follows Antoine in a series of vignettes which see him in his home life and at school where he suffers, but the film also shows his more joyful moments when he is able to live his life freely from his familial and educational institutions. First Antione is shown one day skipping school with his classmate, as they go to an amusement park and enjoy a ride that spins them around so fast, they are elevated from the ground and pinned to the wall . Later we see Antoine go to the movies, and this happens more than once in the film, in fact the one happy moment he shares with both of his parents is when the three of them all go to the movies together. Truffaut, of course loved movies himself and saw them so much as an escape from his own troubled childhood.
But Antoine gets into more trouble as he sees himself forced to run away from home for good and soon becomes a thief stealing a typewriter from his step father’s work. When he is caught by a security guard, he is sent to jail and later to a youth detention center, but for a young by like Antoine who yearns to be free, nothing can keep him caged up for long.
“The 400 Blows” can be described as a youthful film, not just because of its subject matter, but because of how it broke all the rules that came before it. This was the first film by director Francois Truffaut, who was mentored by the French film critic Andre Bazin who’s memory this film is dedicated to. Bazin became a father figure of what is now known as The French New Wave, this included young French filmmakers like Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, Alain Renais, and Jacques Rivette. They brought a youthful iconoclasm to film that was new and rebellious. These sometimes were thought of as a more personal expressions of filmmaking which sparked a revolution. If this was the case, then Antoine Doinel became the new cinema’s poster child.
But despite being revolutionary, “The 400 Blows” today looks very small and intimate, and if you take away the impact it had on film, the story itself doesn’t lose any of its significance. Truffaut takes us into the world of childhood that isn’t really touched upon in most films. Very often childhood is idealized and sentimentalized in movies, you sometimes lose the sense of isolation, loneliness, and cruelty it can sometimes come with. Antoine Doinel has often been compared to a Dickensian hero like Oliver Twist, or David Copperfield I suppose where their childhood was far from ideal. However despite the realism Truffaut brings to the forefront, he doesn’t forget the joy and the youthful exuberance of being a young man at a certain age. The fact that Antoine never loses his sense of play and adventure makes him such a compelling character and someone to root for. We feel for him every time he is caught either skipping school, or for stealing a typewriter because we know he doesn’t belong in a system ruled by the authoritarian figures that populate this film. Near the end of the film where his mother visits him for the last time and tells him the only future for him is to find a trade, and probably land a job at a mill, for Antoine this would be a death sentence.
The final moments of “The 400 Blows” are probably the most memorable as Antoine makes his escape from his prison and runs towards the ocean. Truffaut gives us one long tracking shot of Antoine just running through the country side with the camera right beside him. There is no music, just the sound of the country and Antoine’s feet as he moves closer and closer to his hopeful freedom. The final freeze frame image of the film has become iconic, it’s of Antoine reaching his destination to the ocean and looking back at what is behind him. Looking at Leaud’s face in this image, it’s rather ghostly as it resembles a time that looks to be long ago, and the face seems to be a mix of defiance but also uncertainty of what’s to come for him, a child who is maybe too lost, or too naive to realize how frightened he may be.
Of course we were not kept in suspense for too long to see what happened to Antoine Doinel as Truffaut and Leaud would return with the character in a series of films “Stolen Kisses”, “Bed and Bored”, and “Love on the Run” as well as a short film “Antoine and Collette” all of them are worth watching. Each film depicts Antoine at a different age, and had Truffaut not died suddenly at 52 from a brain tumour, perhaps we would’ve had more films of him as an older man, wouldn’t that have interesting?
But “The 400 Blows” has that special feeling of youth the other films seem to miss. Truffaut is able to examine the endless possibilities, and the freedoms met in childhood. Growing older, and maybe as we get more complacent, we forget these possibilities sometimes, and we see, or maybe we fear that we have become part of that establishment which would not allow Antoine to enjoy the great discoveries life has to offer. Watching this film again I yearned to feel what Antoine was feeling, he didn’t want to be caged or told what was right or what was wrong, he wanted to find his own way, on his own terms, he was not letting anyone tell him how his life was going to turn out. If we all had the strength of Antoine Doinel, how unlimited life would feel.