Review: The 400 Blows (1959)

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Being a great believer in context,  it was a wonderful thing watching 400 Blows once more because I felt like I knew this man behind the camera so much better and I knew this character Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) even better than he knew himself. After all, he was just coming into his own in this initial film.  I was also aware of some cameos including Francois Truffaut himself, Jean-Pierre Brialy and of course Jeanne Moreau, all important forces in the French New Wave movement.

However, one the most powerful things is the degree of foresight we gain about Antoine Doinel. All the things that make up his life at this juncture in time have repercussions later on that Truffaut continued to examine as he matured. We can see the gears turning as the boy develops as an adolescent. He skips out on class to go to the cinema and the carnival. He purloins a bottle of milk out of thirst, steals little trinkets from the ladies room and finally a typewriter from his father’s work. He receives the ire of his teacher and goes home to the cramped conditions and turbulence of his home life. His mother and step-father are constantly bickering. His mother is having an affair. It’s not a very happy life or a firm foundation for a boy to grow up in. And it shows.

In many of these moments, the autobiographical aspects come to the fore. Before Antoine’s story was simply a depiction of realism but as time goes on it becomes more obvious that Truffaut is being very transparent in showing bits and pieces of his own experiences. What’s striking is that this is hardly a bitter film. Somber and melancholy, yes, but it hardly ever seems to cast blame. It shows the brief moments of reverie along with the pain and that’s why I am a great admirer of Truffaut. He’s a deeply heartfelt and personal filmmaker, no more evident than in The 400 Blows.

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Antoine Doinel is a vagrant and pretty dismal kid, getting in all sorts of trouble and yet Truffaut makes us sympathize with him and to an extent we see the director’s point of view too. He’s the one trying to fall asleep while his parents bicker about what to do with him. He runs away from home and relies on the charity of a friend. He’s being locked up in a jail cell on his way to juvenile detention. He talks to a psychologist candidly about his parents never trusting him. All those moments have the power to move.

And the film is so easy to watch, so simple and wonderful and honest and unassuming, it’s almost hard to remember how influential this film was for not only jump-starting the French New Wave but for rejuvenating cinema in general. Hollywood didn’t make movies like this. That’s all I had ever seen for the longest time. But the likes of Truffaut, Godard and even Renoir, De Sica and Rossellini revealed to me that there are numerous ways to make an impassioned cinematic experience.

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As always, my mind returns to the climatic freeze frame of The 400 Blows. It remains with me and part of its iconic status is undoubtedly due to how it sums up this boy so perfectly. There’s a sadness in the eyes that without saying anything denotes all that we have already seen. It’s the perfect summation of his story thus far and with that look, it’s difficult to forget his hardships–his flaws too. Perhaps it allows us to extend grace to him because we can see firsthand that he’s in dire need of some. He has not been offered much his entire life with true love and affection being traded for punishment and biting remarks. True, his story does not end here but it’s a telling chapter of his life. Arguably the most formative years for the rest of his existence.

Within the storyline, Truffaut includes passing references for his love of the cinema and even suggests his promise with his writing composition though his teacher accuses him of plagiarism. But from these troubled roots came a man who loved movies to an extent that few others could claim. He was passionate both as a critic, champion, and creator.

Thus, it makes perfect sense that this film was dedicated to the memory of Andre Bazin, the noted founder of Cahiers du Cinema. Truffaut undoubtedly owed a tremendous debt to the magazine and its editor but he also elevated it with his own amount of passion. That same passion comes out in The 400 Blows and really all the subsequent films he made before his death. His movies are wonderful because each one shows that he genuinely cares about the material on its own individual merit. That is the kind of director that I want to watch.

5/5 Stars

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