Back To School: Francois Truffaut // ‘The 400 Blows’

Here I am being all uber-film-student-y again. You can’t get much more “back to school” than by viewing François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

And here I must admit to a major gap in my film education. I confess — this was my first foray into Truffaut territory. I am guilty as charged. (Certain cinematic purists would surely be appalled.)

And so here I am, popping my Truffaut cherry.

The 400 Blows is a mostly autobiographical film recounting several episodes from Truffaut’s taxing childhood. His “father” (Albert Rémy) is not his actual biological father, and his mother (Claire Maurier) clearly resents him for being a burden, even before he accidentally catches her cheating on her husband. Things at school are no better — his teacher (Guy Decomble) has branded him a troublemaker and will not be persuaded otherwise. The boy’s only respite comes from his midday excursions with his best buddy René (Patrick Auffay), who is at least as troublesome as he is.

Jean-Pierre Léaud plays Antoine Doinel, the 12-year-old Truffaut stand-in who would reappear in four more of the auteur’s films (though this is the best-known). It’s a wonderful performance, and the film does a stellar job at allowing us to feel immense empathy for Antoine without portraying him as a saint or coming off as sentimental or sappy. He’s just an average kid who sometimes behaves foolishly, but at heart he’s a good kid. And no one seems to realize it.The film follows Antoine as he runs away from home on multiple occasions and gets into more severe trouble, often resorting to theft to get by, which only digs him in deeper. But as he says at one point, it doesn’t matter whether he is ill-behaved or good — everyone assumes the worst of him regardless. The 400 Blows ends on an uncertain note, almost a cliffhanger — at this point, Truffaut had no sequels planned, but it definitely leaves us wanting to know what lies in store for Antoine. (Even though we know he eventually became a legendary filmmaker.)

For a film released in 1959, The 400 Blows still feels pretty modern and entertaining. There’s more camera movement than you see in most films from the 50’s, which gives it a curious, youthful energy. It exhibits some French New Wave trends while also keeping roots in a more traditional style of storytelling, existing halfway between Neorealism and New Wave.

There’s not a whole lot of depth or subtext to comment upon — The 400 Blows is a solid, straightforward film that is very clearly about what it is about. The vibe is almost like a Spielberg film, preferring the wonders and adventures of youth to jaded adulthood. The 400 Blows made me curious to watch the rest of the films about Antoine, as well as to see more of Truffaut’s.

Cherry popped. I feel much better about myself now.


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