The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
As frequently mined as it is, childhood is a tricky subject to capture in any sort of art — maybe cinema most of all. It’s all too easy to fall back upon goopy sentimentality, excessive and shorthanded nostagia or the relentless woe-is-me of a humorless suffering narrative. On the occasions when realism and poetry properly coexist, when genuine wonder and mischief can rub up against an unflinching detail of the aspects of being a kid that are often painful and insurmountably difficult, one can occasionally discover some of the most sublime storytelling that exists in film. But that’s extremely rare, and that’s why François Truffaut’s debut feature The 400 Blows remains so stunning and singular: despite how familiar its world is — that is, the world of being a young romantic troublemaker who doesn’t know how to communicate and can’t sync up with his often uncaring parents — there is simply no other movie quite like it. It feels more like a piece of folklore that’s born into us all than something specific to Paris or to cinephilia.
The key, of course, is mostly Truffaut himself — one of cinema’s great tireless humanists, he began as a critic and authored books and analyses of film and film history that remain relevant and useful, perhaps most famously his humongous, film-by-film interview with Alfred Hitchcock. Truffaut and his peer Jean-Luc Godard, the two most conspicuous architects of the French New Wave, are arguably the first major filmmakers ever to start as mere lovers of film. As fans and writers, the craft was in their blood, as it has been for every generation of great directors afterward. The difference is simply that Truffaut and the other writers at Cahiers du Cinema were the source of many of the theories and ideas that still drive film scholarship and interpretation even now, and when they began directing films themselves it was with an eye toward fulfilling the promise of those same theories, to create cinema driven by the passions established in their writing. (Truffaut finally took the decisive steps after screening Touch of Evil!) At the time it was a rebellion against the establishment of French filmmaking; Godard, Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol loved Hollywood films — not for their factory sheen but for the way that directors like Hithcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford made movies that were exciting, innovative and dealt with subjects and material directly relevant to modern audiences, a contrast to the stuffy period melodramas in vogue in France through most of the postwar decades.
At least, that’s what we’re all told. Most of the pictures Truffaut and the Cahiers critics were reacting to have faded into history; you can find them on old festival lineups, but ironically the Nouvelle Vague pictures have endured long past anything they were meant to cure or question. In scrappy, low-budget, frenetic style, the films make use of extended tracking shots and atypical editing to discover and delve into characters who are seldom prone to heroics in any traditional or comforting sense. The 400 Blows is informed less directly by Hollywood than would be Godard’s corresponding, equally youthful and exuberant Breathless. Rather, Truffaut borrows a mood and emotional purity from earlier, pre-WWII French directors like Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir, whose work had been humane and liberal, a chaotic, warm and extremely creative reaction against pillars, order, traditional morale. There is also more than a touch of Italian neorealism lifted from the likes of Roberto Rossellini and especially Vittorio de Sica, whose city symphony of Rome Bicycle Thieves is all but directly referenced here, yet Truffaut’s effort seems infinitely truer to the emotional reality of childhood in the city, infinitely more alive.
The child at the center of his film is Antoine Doinel, an introspective youth who is evidently bright but does poorly in the oppressive setting of the classroom and is constantly in trouble for various forms of low-level law-breaking and deceitfulness. Doinel, brought to staggering three-dimensional life by 14 year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud, is without question a stand-in for Truffaut; you can tell, even if the writer-director hadn’t openly admitted it, by the way the boy’s misguided mother (Claude Maurier) decries the time he spends in a movie theater, “ruining his eyes.” Truffaut lived and breathed cinema by all accounts, even as a child, and he spent time shunted around between nannies and schools and expulsions, given a love of literature and film by a grandmother he was sent to live with at a young age. When she died, he was forced to return to a mother and stepfather (here represented by the affable Albert Rémy) too young and aloof to properly care for or sympathize with him. Upon quitting school and becoming self-taught, he was bailed out on numerous occasions, including after deserting a miliary post, by film critic André Bazin, partially responsible (with Truffaut) for the creation of the auteur theory, picked up by Andrew Sarris and still in use (not always wisely) by scholars today.
The film is dedicated to Bazin, yet the shadow hanging over it more explicitly is that of the director’s lifelong friend Robert Lachenay. In the picture he’s represented by Doinel’s all but selfless best pal René. René helps Antoine find places to sleep and hide during his truant days and nights on the streets of Paris and is often the one figure standing between the boy and some sort of dire fate. Lachenay himself, who outlived Truffaut by twenty years, verified on numerous occasions the relative accuracy of The 400 Blows as a representation of this period in their lives. And like Truffaut, Doinel — stuck in prep schools and with a mom who only openly shows him love when pressed (though she also meekly provides, in a cold and roundabout way, for a long-desired encounter with the ocean) — subsists without any guiding, strong or routinely kind influence from a woman. He is surrounded by the bumbling authority and pestering of boys and men, most of them bullies, and both Truffaut and Doinel — as explored in several sequels to this film that are not even a spot on its greatness but still worthwhile — would always have problems in their relationships with women later in life.
But for all these specifics, for every way that The 400 Blows is an act of self-therapy for a man coming to terms with the fumbling dread of his own past, practically drawing a diagram for how even a relatively emotionally healthy, self-made person will always circulate back to the darkness that wrought them, it feels as universally relevant, truthful, familiar as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, the other genuinely great portrayal of childhood to emanate from this decade. His run-ins with the druggist who glared at him when he mussed up the comic books aside, Charlie Brown was never a juvenile delinquent, but we experience the foibles of him as well as Doinel with an equal share of charm and terror. They don’t score points with their misfortune; Charlie Brown really did whine a lot and could be a smartass, and Antoine lies to us and to his friend as often as to his parents and teachers. (Truffaut is coy about revealing his transgressions in regard to a Balzac passage and a missing Michelin book.) The adventures of both are pure and subtly moving in precisely the same manner. Schulz and Truffaut — ten years apart in age — both mine their own lives liberally, which makes their work honest and gives it a level of detail that is suffused with constant rings of painful truth, but they also are great artists who know the key to telling these stories is the empathy they thereby establish with an audience of people who grew up neither around the suburban ice cream sidewalks of St. Paul, Minnesota nor the towering beauty and lower depths of Paris.
In other words: they recognize the events of their earlier lives not for a way to medicate or crucify themselves before a throng of potential millions, but as something that will bring those same throngs together. Because there are elements of both these stories familiar to every troublemaker or misunderstood or mistreated kid, of any gender or race or origin, and Schulz and Truffaut knew this, and knew the resulting catharsis would be valuable to all who joined them on this darker variation to the Trip Down Memory Lane. In neither case is the airing of old grievances petty or maudlin; in both there is self-deprecation and cutting, sharp humor and little to no rose-colored, trite remembrance of things past. The creation of Peanuts or The 400 Blows is itself an act of empathy; seeing and appreciating them is one as well, and neither artist nor audience has a monopoly on giving or receiving the most of it.
The story of The 400 Blows could easily have been told in film at any other time and place; there is nothing in it exclusive to postwar Paris that would prevent it from translating perfectly well into an alternative past or future. But that isn’t what happened, and it’s for this reason that the film is as much about cinema and its place in it as it is about Doinel and his life as an autobiographical figure. Truffaut and his cinematographer Henri Decaë take ownership of Paris as they wring all possible beauty and meance from every corner of the city they’re able to race to long enough to get on film. There is the sense throughout the picture, aided immeasurably by the influential editing of Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, of constant movement, of the excitement of life being actually photographed. Not merely because the movie climaxes with an extended tracking shot of Doinel running as fast as he can to the beach, it’s as though we spend the entire film on our feet. There is some precedent, such as the Scottish chase in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (shot by Bernard Knowles and cut by Derek Twist), a film Truffaut knew by heart, but far more significant is how much material owes its existence to Truffaut, Yoyotte and Decaë’s work, beginning with virtually the entire filmography of director Richard Lester — in particular A Hard Day’s Night — but essentially any subsequent film, Godard’s included, that is predicated upon a feeling of groundless mobility.
The 400 Blows is not a long film, and not one that is beautiful in any conventional sense — yes, its black & white widescreen compositions and elaborate takes are frequently breathtaking, but it’s designed to look like an unadorned document of life, not a carefully constructed expressionistic piece a la Borzage or Murnau — and its story is threadbare and simple, almost ethereal. As one revisits it, it’s striking how its many sublime scenes, despite not necessarily forming the meat of any larger narrative besides how Doinel’s life unravels over the course of a few weeks. What’s consistent is how the eyes and ears of the boy become our own, in part because Truffaut employs POV shots on multiple occasions that lend gravity to sequences like that in which he spends the night in jail for stealing a typewriter. Moreover, when we witness the unusual moments when his mother and stepfather make some effort to him, we see how he opens up and feels comfortable, as when the three of them go to the movies together, or when his mother attempts to gain his allegiance after he sees her kissing another man while skipping school with René. That stings all the more than being slapped in the classroom or having ties severed permanently. Love given and withheld hurts more than mere punishment or excommunication.
But then there are the moments of joy, which effortlessly sing out more than any greeting card paean to lost youth — the children, not actors, watching a Punch & Judy show and being completely captivated under the watchful gaze of Truffaut’s camera in one of the rare moments when Doinel is not the center of the moment (he is at the back with René, plotting a theft, the point being how he has already lost much of his sense of wonder); or the lengthy shot of Antoine riding a centrifuge as his friend watches from above, captured and expressed by Truffaut in the simplest yet most lyrical way imaginable, a direct two-minute evocation of childhood, trust, love matched only by the later moment when he and René briefly see each other as the latter tries to visit him at the juvenile hall. When René is denied entry, a disappointed Antoine’s hand just slips down the glass of the window as his friend bikes away.
While this film plays, Antoine Doinel’s confinement and desperation — magnificently palpable — become ours, and we laugh along at the botched moments in his own discovery of his identity, but the last and ultimate expression of this assertion comes at the finale, leading to one of the greatest closing shots in all of cinema. Antoine overhears a boy who escaped and is now back in a solitary room; we’ve been told the punishment for getting caught after an escape is not worth the effort of fleeing, but this young man speaks to a different truth: he was free for five days. Antoine’s never seen the ocean, but it’s near; during a football game, he fakes out the others and crawls under a fence. Quickly noticed, he gives chase along several back roads and through a wilderness, eventually coming alone to the ocean, where he stomps around in the water for the first time in his young life. As he spins, the camera captures his direct gaze for a moment and freezes. It isn’t a “what now?” expression, even if he is obviously lost, alone and full of apprehension, for he knows as well as we do that he will soon be captured and punished. But in this moment, he is free, unobserved, liberated. And life, for once, is briefly on his terms.