In my own mind I have always paired Francois Truffant’s The 400 Blows with Godard’s Breathless because of their proximity in release date, and the fact they were both trailblazers in the French New Wave. After seeing The 400 Blows, however, it is clear these are where the similarities stop. The 400 Blows is a quiet, charming picture about the tough times of a young boy, Antoine Doinel, a young boy without the love needed to grow up in a stable existence. This is partly an autobiographical picture, based on Truffant’s childhood, and the heart behind the picture is evident. While it didn’t affect me in the same way Breathless did, The 400 Blows is still a good film, succinct in its simplicity and touching in its emotional core.
Atoine Doinel is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. Antoine is in school but doesn’t much care about the education. Part of the problem is his own disposition; part of it is his teacher seems to have it out for him. At home, Antoine lives with his mother and stepfather in a cramped flat. His mother has her own things going on, including an affair with another man, so she has no time for Antoine or his issues. Antoine’s stepfather is a nice enough man, but his relationship with Antoine is one of a friend rather than a mentor. The relationship between the three is the heart of the film, and you can sense the instability teetering on the brink of implosion in every moment.
Antoine skips school one day and sees his mother kissing her lover on the street. Her mother sees Antoine, and later on that night she exudes a false sense of love and compassion towards him and you can feel the tension in the fact they both have something on each other. This, of course, is no way for a mother and son to relate to each other.
Antoine is the troublemaker in school, and is put upon by his teacher. He is the one caught with the note being passed around the class. He is the one who must stand in the corner. He skips school saying he was sick, and then says his mother has died. Of course, she has not, and when this is discovered things become even worse for Antoine. Things begin to pile up against Antoine until he is handed over to social services by his parents, and taken in by the police for a petty crime he was involved in. Antoine may sound like a bad kid, but Truffant frames the story to show it is not all Antoine who is responsible for his misfortunes and his trouble. Antoine is a product of his environment, and sometimes has no choice but to break the rules.
The 400 Blows is not a desperate film, or a film soaked in sadness. There is joy in the storytelling, and some lighter moments Antoine shares with his parents. This allows the film to be one not of sadness, but of melancholy and longing. Truffant shoots in a simple way, and the black and white photography of the picture points the audience in the direction of story; we focus on emotions and certain shots rather than allowing colors to dictate mood. Jean-Pierre Leaud, who would work with Truffant on a handful of films after The 400 Blows, has a great face for the cinema. It is nondescript but still capable of showing emotions and moods in the slightest inflections.
The final shot of The 400 Blows is legendary, with Antoine standing at the ocean. It is a moment of freedom Antoine had not yet felt. You get the feeling he will be alright on his own, that perhaps he has been on his own this entire time. Of course, this moment could be taken as a moment of desperation or loss, but I think that would be missing the point of Truffant’s film.