NOTE: I love this film, and my notes are all scattered in this write-up because I don’t think I could process my love of this film accurately. Forgive me. Also, I wrote the whole thing listening to The 400 Blows “Main Theme & Police Car” by Jean Constantin, and I suggest you do the same while you read.
The 400 Blows opens with a series of shots getting closer and closer to the Eiffel Tower. In some cases the view of the famous landmark is obstructed by buildings, but we get closer until we’re almost directly underneath it. Then we continue on, leaving the tower behind as it gets smaller and smaller.
This is what I picture when I think of the French New Wave film movement: a series of handheld shots in black and white. Yet The 400 Blows is surprisingly polished, particularly for a first time director (Francois Truffaut).
The story follows a young boy named Antoine Doinel. He’s picked on by the teacher at school for his excessive misbehavior, and his parents take turns punishing him for the same misbehavior. It’s the classic bad cop, worse cop routine.
In response, Antoine just wants to escape. He first ditches school because his friend Rene suggests it. So they go to the cinema, they go on an amusement park ride, and they simply enjoy themselves.
Later, when the teacher asks for Antoine’s excuse for cutting class, he lies and says his mother died. Beyond a strong (albeit ill-advised) excuse, this reflects the way he sees his mother. She is incredibly stern with him, and he has caught her kissing another man in public. Safe to say, her image is tainted. By contrast, Antoine’s father is a joker, and he’s quick to make Antoine smile.
Instead of facing his parents after this grand lie, Antoine instead decides to run away from home. He writes his parents a note, telling them he will make it on his own. Rene finds him a place to sleep in a factory, but Antoine, unable to sleep, wanders around Paris in the early morning hours, free to do as he pleases.
Upon his return home, his mother makes a concerted effort to be nicer to him. It still feels manipulative, as she doesn’t want him to tell his father that he saw her with another man. She promises Antoine that she’ll give him 1,000 francs if he places first in the class in his next essay. Antoine is motivated to succeed, and he is inspired by the novelist Honore de Balzac, whose refrain “Eureka! I found it!” echoes in his head.
After creating a small shrine to the novelist, Antoine accidentally starts a small fire. This brings his father’s wrath down upon him, and this time it’s his mother who comforts him. She then suggests they go out to a movie, all three of them. It’s the happiest moment in the film as their small car chugs down the Paris streets, the parents bickering playfully and Antoine laughing joyfully in the backseat between them.
Soon after, Antoine gets kicked out of school for plagiarizing the words of Honore de Balzac. The difference this time, is that Antoine was simply trying to write a good essay rather than trying to antagonize the teacher. He simply didn’t realize the gravity of his actions. It doesn’t matter to the teacher, it’s the last straw.
Antoine’s loyal friend, Rene, gets himself kicked out of class in solidarity, and they wander the streets of Paris together. Rene gives Antoine a place to stay in a hidden corner of an extra room at his father’s house.
Antoine wants to run away and see the ocean, so he steals a typewriter, hoping to sell it to fund his journey. Then, when he tries to return the typewriter, Antoine is apprehended and placed in jail.
He is then sent to an observation center for troubled youths, near the ocean. In the final scene, Antoine runs away, squeezing through a small fence. We get a long shot of him running, the camera tracking alongside him.
Then he reaches the ocean and looks into the camera.
God, I loved this film. It’s so much funnier and tender than I remember. I first watched The 400 Blows as part of a French New Wave film class four or so years ago. When I think of that movement, I think of films more like Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) than The 400 Blows. I think that’s because Breathless is so much more of a patched together series of shots. It feels like a messy collage that’s only beautiful when you take a step back to look at the bigger picture. But The 400 Blows is so stunningly beautiful in all its small moments as well as in the bigger picture.
In the first classroom scene, the camera moves with confidence, dollying slowly to the left, clearly choreographed to align with the action. In my memory of this film (and Breathless) the camera is shaky and poorly coordinated next to the character’s actions, but this movie is in fact very polished for something in 1959.
There are so many things I want to discuss that have little to do with the story I outlined above. I have no idea where to start, but I’ll focus on Antoine first.
Antoine is an earnest kid. He misbehaves as a reaction to the environment in which he’s placed. We see him acting out of line in the classroom, but then we see him dutifully setting the table, doing his homework and taking out the trash while at home. He thinks his teacher has it out for him, so his response in class is to act out. At the same time, he’s never malicious or aggressive. He’s just this sweet kid who wants to exert some kind of control in his life.
To add to that, the apartment in which his family lives is so cramped that he’s like a rat in a cage.
So cutting class like Ferris Bueller is a breath of fresh air. He goes on a ride in which this cylinder spins, and the riders stand up against the wall so that they rise up the wall as they spin. The look on Antoine’s face is one of pure, unrestrained happiness. Watching him try to maneuver around the wall is a joy to watch because he’s like a child taking his first steps, trying to see what’s possible because to him anything might be.
Look how happy that damn kid is.
Not only is he a pretty joyful kid for being a “troubled” kid, but he’s also pretty enterprising and self-reliant. Sure he steals, but he steals milk. When I was a kid I had to be forced to drink milk.
The scene in which he wanders the streets of Paris at night and in the early mornings also spoke to me in the same way Steven Spielberg’s Terminal (2004) spoke to me. That scene and that film both show someone trying to figure out a way to get by in a new location. That’s an incredibly broad description, but it’s something I thought about a lot as a kid. If I was alone in the city at night, where would I go and how would I get sustenance? It’s intoxicating. Being awake at night when everyone is asleep is similarly intoxicating, like you’re out of the matrix, or out of some sort of societal bubble. You don’t exist in real space at 3 or 4 in the morning, at least, that’s how it feels. Terminal is similar to me because it follows this guy who has to find a way to survive in an airport, due to some extreme circumstances. It’s not a traditional survival movie, by any means. Instead it’s a playful survival movie that I love to daydream about. What if I had to find a way to get by in an airport for a few months? Same thing with malls. There was a Simpsons episode about Bart and Millhouse getting stuck in a mall overnight, and it’s one of my favorite episodes. Anyways, I clearly digress.
So Antoine is a good kid who just wants to break free and see some stuff. He wants experiences, he wants to see things, and this is all misconstrued or channeled through acting out. But watching his day to day life, it does feel remarkably like some sort of prison. His home is tiny, his parents are controlling and cold while his teacher is vengeful.
That’s how it felt when I was a kid, to a certain degree. I mean, my parents are great, and I liked so many of my teachers, but school does feel very restrictive and intimidating as a child. When I watched Antoine and Rene walk the city streets, dressed like adults, I felt a tiny bit of anxiety knowing that it would be years before that could realistically be their day to day life. You don’t go to school for as long as you like. It’s a sentence, a prison sentence. Sure it’s good for you in the end, it makes you learn and develop social skills, but as a kid it can be terrifying. Sometimes you just need a friend to go through it with, and that’s what Antoine has in Rene.
So a lot of this film seemed to show what it feels like to be a kid.
There’s a scene in which Antoine and Rene take Rene’s sister (I think) to some sort of show for children. The camera is pointed towards the audience of children from the stage, and we see more expressions of laughter and insane levels of joy (like, levels of joy I haven’t felt in years and frankly might be incapable of feeling as an adult – that isn’t to say I’m unhappy, just that kids can access something adults can’t or may have buried beneath layers of responsibility, guilt, knowledge of the ways the world works, etc.).
This is what I’m talking about:
And then a moment later…
I miss being a kid. Look at them.
The first time I saw this film, that kid second to the right really stuck with me. I had even forgotten about this scene, but I remembered his face. I think it’s partly because he looks like a younger version of young Stanley Kubrick:
I think it’s the eyebrows.
Anyways, that scene of children just laughing and then just as quickly looking terrified is mesmerizing. In contrast, Antoine and Rene look so much older. They’re there to take Rene’s sister to the show, so it’s like they’re the parents. And in this scene they’re discussing whether or not it’s feasible to steal a typewriter (does it have a serial number? etc.). So it’s like they’re no longer children.
And, I guess that’s what this movie is about. It’s about the preservation of youth.
Antoine’s just a kid, yet he’s forced to grow up so quickly. He’s trying to survive on the streets, he’s stealing to survive on the streets, and he does all this so he can enjoy the things about life that kids enjoy. All Antoine really wants to do is go to the cinema, laugh with his friend, see the ocean, even just read a book.
So when he gets caught with the typewriter and taken to jail, it’s incredibly sad. Antoine looks out the back of the paddy wagon, through the bars, at all the Parisian attractions that he’s going to miss out on.
He’s a puppy being taken away to the pound, and he’s in the truck with prostitutes and thieves. He doesn’t fit in.
So at the end it’s a relief to see Antoine running. He finally gets to see the ocean, and some of his dreams are fulfilled even as many others have been stripped away.
His expression isn’t one of pure joy so much as exhaustion. When he looks back at the camera it almost reads as an indictment of the way he (and others) have been restrained. By looking at the camera he breaks the fourth wall. So not only does Antoine want to be free, but so do the filmmakers like Truffaut who were breaking down the illusions of film by calling attention to its restraints.
Up Next: Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1962), Antoine and Colette (1962)