Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
The title of the 1959 French drama, “The 400 Blows,” refers to an idiom that roughly means, “to raise hell.” It’s actually a somewhat-misinterpretation of its French title, “Les quatre cent coups,” derived from the French expression “Faire les quatre cent coups,” meaning, “to live a wild life.” (The literal translation is “400 practical jokes.”) I didn’t know that until I looked it up after I saw the film. Up to then, I didn’t understand what “The 400 Blows” meant and its literal translation didn’t make much sense to me either. But when the phrase “to live a wild life” came into place, I started to think about it and it made more sense.
The film’s central focus is a resourceful, misunderstood adolescent who is unlucky—he doesn’t necessarily go looking for trouble but it always seems to find him. Adults see him as a troublemaker—his insensitive teacher finds it easy to describe him as a troublemaker, his mother sometimes loves him while doesn’t know how to feel about him at other times, his stepfather tries to be his friend but even he sort of the same as everyone else does toward him, and by the end of the film, he’s labeled as a juvenile delinquent. Even before then, when he gets into trouble, he finds it best to run away and live on his own rather than go home. This kid lives in a world he didn’t make, he doesn’t understand, isn’t understood by, and would rather be left to his own resources, or to put it bluntly, “to live a wild life,” which the film’s title indicates.
“The 400 Blows” is a brilliant film—one that gives us a hard-edged, open-minded portrait as to how this boy, Antoine Doinel (played perfectly by Jean-Pierre Leaud), slowly but surely turns to crime because of how everything and everyone around him seems to judge him. We see events in his life that help shape his present while raising questions about his future. This material could have been treated as light as a feather, but through the vision of French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, it becomes as real as the feelings many kids like Antoine feel.
“The 400 Blows” was Truffaut’s debut feature and it came at a time when filmmakers took advantage of the French “New Wave” cinema by making unique choices through personal stories. This film was one of the most influential at the time because you could tell it was personal and even semiautobiographical (I’ve read reviews that state how the movies saved Truffaut from crime, and there are times when Antoine’s mood is softened by a trip to the cinema). Add solid filmmaking to that and it’s easy to tell why this film was so well-regarded from the start and even still holds up today.
Antoine is a real kid, not much different from other kids his age or from his own classmates for that matter. It’s just he’s usually the one that’s caught and he’s unlucky enough to get punished. At the start, the students are passing around a pinup; the teacher punishes him once it’s in his hands. Antoine fails to turn in homework, skips school, and even makes up a lie about his mother dying to cover for both. Once the lie is revealed, that puts him in a worse spot. For Antoine, it seems he can’t do anything right in his teacher’s eyes. At one point, he writes an essay about his grandfather’s death in homage to Balzac, whom he has a shrine dedicated to in his bedroom. But his teacher gives him a failing grade and suspends him, accusing him of plagiarism.
At home, things aren’t much better, especially when his parents immediately take things from the teacher’s perspective instead of Antoine’s. The only time there seems to be an attempt at understanding Antoine comes when he tells his mother he has trouble concentrating, and even then, it’s hard for Antoine to get across what he wants to say (like real people in general, not just children). Antoine lives in a tiny apartment with his mother (Claire Maurier) and stepfather (Albert Remy). It’s revealed that Antoine was the product of an unwanted pregnancy and his mother wasn’t ready for parenthood. It’s clear that she still doesn’t quite know how to handle issues with her son and grows impatient with him when something new comes up. She has her own problems as well, such as poverty and attempting to cover up an affair; she seems to want to spend as much time out of the house as possible. The stepfather seems friendly sometimes but also has his short-tempered moments due to work. The moments when the family is even remotely happy seem sporadic. For example, the happiest moment in the film comes after Antoine accidentally starts a fire. First, the parents are infuriated but then they decide to forgive him, and the whole family has a pleasant night going to the movies. But most of the time, they just see their son as a bother. This is why, when he gets into real trouble, he’d rather live on the streets than in his own home.
He does live on the streets for a while, with the aid of his school chum Rene (Patrick Auffay), who sometimes instigates Antoine’s troublesome activities. He slowly but surely stoops to petty crime, stealing milk, theater lobby cards, and eventually a typewriter from his own father’s office so he can sell it for money. But when he has a change of heart and decides to return it, he gets caught and arrested by the police. From that point on, he’s labeled as a juvenile delinquent and sent to reform school. His parents won’t help him anymore because they believe he’ll just run away again if he comes home. No one will help him because they have no interest in doing so. He’s left at the mercy of social services and is simply a victim of circumstance. The saddest moment in the film is when he is treated like a criminal and put in a police holding cell and a police wagon in the company of prostitutes and thieves. His look through the bars is heartbreaking.
Author Stephen King once said, “In all our lives, there’s a fall from innocence, a time after which we are never the same.” “The 400 Blows” is a film that illustrates that viewpoint very effectively. Nowhere is that clearer in this film than the scene in which Antoine and his friend discuss a way to make more money through petty crime…during a puppet show. While dozens of children are laughing and enjoying the show, these two older kids are in the middle of scheming. By the end of the film, Antoine is no longer innocent and his future is uncertain. The final shot, following a half-grim/half-satisfying final scene, is a freeze-frame with an optical zoom on his face—this closing image has been copied long since this film’s release, but this one has a purpose: for us to interpret Antoine’s predicament for ourselves.
“The 400 Blows” is a subtle, well-acted, great-looking, and emotionally deep character-study that I can’t recommend enough. Today, it still holds up wonderfully as a remarkable film and a classic. Truffaut’s style is direct and truthful so that his film is far from a traditional melodrama, like a good chunk of teenage “coming-of-age” dramas. It’s moving, effective, and causes us to reflect on our own youths. Where will Antoine end up? How did we get here?
NOTE: Truffaut would bring back actor Jean-Pierre Leaud to reprise his role of Antoine Doinel in four other films: the short film “Antoine and Collette” and the features “Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board,” and “Love on the Run.” This could show that “The 400 Blows” really was from a chapter in Truffaut’s life and wants to show how he became the kind of person he is now, but I haven’t seen these films…yet.