My Favorite Movies – The 400 Blows (1959)

15 Apr

By Tanner Smith

One of my most unpleasant memories of film-school was in a Film Theory course in which we learned about Auteur Theory by watching Francois Truffaut’s French New Wave classic The 400 Blows.

I had already seen “The 400 Blows” about a year before watching it in class. I knew it was a great film and something special, and watching it in this class and learning about Auteur Theory made it all the more intriguing to me…when it ended with that iconic image of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) looking to the camera with a look of question (like, where does he go from here?), I was getting ready to applaud but nearly everyone else in the class was laughing. One student in the front row even said, “Why would you want to show us that? That was one of the worst movies EVER!”

I felt so bad for the professor that at one point, as I ran into him in the hall, I told him, “For what it’s worth, ‘The 400 Blows’ is one of my favorite movies.”

And it is, too. It’s also one of the biggest influencers for my favorite subgenre of film: the coming-of-age story.

It’s also one of the tougher ones: no melodrama or sentimentality–it’s just showing this troubled kid who always gets in trouble with school and with his parents, puts himself in a bad position many times, and everyone sees him in the worst possible light. Even when he changes his mind to return something he had stolen, everyone wants to label him as a bad egg. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, done in one shot (which was actually the young actor’s audition footage–Truffaut liked it so much he included it in the film), we get numerous reasons for his unhappiness.

My favorite scene: the psychologist interview I already mentioned is a highlight, but my favorite scene is still the ending that my peers/classmates laughed at. Yeah, that awkward optical camera zoom-in is dated, but what it means, I will never forget. Antoine has just done yet another thing that will get him in even more trouble, he has no idea where to go from there, and neither he nor we have any idea what is going to happen to him. The push-in on his face says it all: an uncertain young man faces an uncertain future.

Truffaut has made four other films featuring this character of Antoine Doinel–I’ve only seen the immediate follow-up (“Antoine and Colette”) but not the others. Not yet, anyway…

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