Thursday, August 28, 2014



Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut; adaptation by M. Moussy & F. Truffaut, dialogue by Marcel Moussy 

I’ve been putting off and putting off a re-watch of “The 400 Blows” forever. Partly because I doubted that I or anybody else can really come up with anything new to say about it. It’s not only one of the seminal pieces of film that’s required viewing for every cinephile, it’s also that film that, debatably started the French New Wave movement (It certainly was the catalyst film that helped the movement explode.) However, it’s not the easiest watch of those films though. Most of the French New Wave focused on a love of cinema, and the freedom of storytelling. “Jules et Jim”, also from Truffaut, or Godard’s “Breathless” for instance, are not only pure cinema but they seem to both simultaneously ooze the conventions and clich├ęs of film, but also reinvent the art form from within. “The 400 Blows”, feels more like Italian Neorealism frankly. 

Antoine Donnel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a French kid, who’s confused by school, mostly ignored and put up with from his parents, and is otherwise troubled. The whole point of the film is that we’re supposed to empathize with Antoine, and to some respects we do, and in other respects, it’s more difficult. I had to be explained that when he copied word-for-word from Balzac, who he admires enough to build a small shrine to, for a school paper, that he thought he was doing what was asked, because the whole class up until that point seemed to be writing, repeating, and copying down what the teacher tells them to. It’s clear by the ineptitude of the teachers and the class structure that he’s making a commentary on the French public school system, (Although I remember other French films with similar perspectives about the school system and the kids in those classes, almost none of which, including Antoine can I really even relate to) but it never would have dawned on me as a kid to think that when we’re learning things like spelling and structure, that we we’re subconsciously being taught to copy. 

The movie works strongest for me, later, when we don’t just get subtle clues and insight into his life, and Antoine discusses his life and parents with the psychiatrist at the Juvenile Camp, which he’s sent to after stealing, then returning his father’s typewriter. Before that, there’s this constant frustration that they have with Antoine. It’s an erratic one to him however. Just as they can be having fun and going to a movie together or when Antoine first tries strawberry ice cream, but to then be treated like a glorified pet most of the rest of the time. That shift I can't say I relate to, but I can understand it. 

The final image of “The 400 Blows”, the infamous breaking of the 4th wall zoom-in freeze frame close-up on Antoine as he stares into the camera, after running into the beach, forces us to confront Antoine, and the ills of the world that created and shaped him, but ironically, it gives us some hope that perhaps he can overcome this and be reborn with the help of this juvenile center. Maybe the parents giving up their rights to the state, is the best thing for Antoine. No more useless schools that punish instead of teach, no more useless parents who’d rather punish than love. 

Truffaut based Antoine on his youth, and cared more about him than any other character, and they, Leaud and Truffaut teamed up numerous times, to look into Antoine’s life again and again over the years, following up with first with the short film “Antoine and Colette”, which indeed shows him, as a teenager, having success in the music industry and stratling that line between peering into adulthood, yet still struggling with having a short and abruptly-ended childhood having not learned as much as he really needed. 

The title refers to a French saying about how a kid needs/get 400 blows, presumably to the backside every child before they become an adult. Yeah, that's clearly these days a saying from another time, and if the movie tells us anything it’s that, that’s not a great standard to countdown to adulthood with.

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