The 400 Blows (1959)
October 2, 2023 12:31 PM - Subscribe

A young boy, left without attention, delves into a life of petty crime.

For young Parisian boy Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), life is one difficult situation after another. Surrounded by inconsiderate adults, including his neglectful parents (Claire Maurier, Albert Remy), Antoine spends his days with his best friend, Rene (Patrick Auffray), trying to plan for a better life. When one of their schemes goes awry, Antoine ends up in trouble with the law, leading to even more conflicts with unsympathetic authority figures.

Dilys Powell: But to a child they can seem disasters. Set against the insecure background of this child they are disasters; and he meets them with a novice's desperation (in adult life one rarely experiences again desperation of quite such intensity). And so there are the ludicrously incompetent lies, the ill-concealed truancy, the tragi-comic essays in petty crime. The rebellion becomes a hind which cannont be overlooked by the adult world.

And yet, though the situation of the boy is particular and his reaction to it peculiarly unruly and obstinate, one feels that the portrait has on a minor scale something of the universal. Fracois Truffaut has used his experience and his knowledge to re-create a mood which, muffled or recognised, has been present in every life: the mood of the break-out.

Sarah Brinks: While watching The 400 Blows, I couldn’t help but think about how difficult an age middle school is. You have so many new feeling and thoughts and you don’t know where to go with those feelings, and without strong support around you it is easy to get out of control. That is what happens to Antoine. His bad luck combined with his messed-up family life gets him labeled a trouble-maker and a bad seed. The moments that we see of Antoine’s secret inner life make me think he really isn’t a bad kid. He isn’t malicious or cruel. He is just young and frustrated. The fact that he feels guilty about his petty crimes shows that he is good. He is just a terrible thief and a bad liar.

Isabel Quigly: No, what matters, what Truffaut minds and one comes out feeling grey with sympathy for, is the child's isolation, his empty world. His mother and her husband aren't wholly bad : they sometimes give him a sort of companionship (his mother's efforts to get near him with sympathy over school, for instance, showing the typical values of the un- intelligent: 'All that algebra and science, what will it ever be any use for? But French—n0W you'll always have to write letters'), but this leads only to a few minutes of cosy illusion, all the more shatteringly destroyed next time they let him down. No one, from start to finish, understands, and no one till childhood is over ever will, you feel. The unexcited way in which this is said makes most of the film's effect; and Jean-Pierre Leaud as the boy, who seems to carry, in a painfully re- served face, a twelve-year burden as well as an occasional twelve-year-old exuberance. Adults are not monstrous, as in Vigo's film about schoolboYs in as grey but more nightmarish a world, Zero de Condone, they look quite nice from the outside (the schoolmaster looks rather like Pierre Fresnay, the mother, in a good mood, is pretty, the husband is a cheerful soul and there are sonic pleasant official faces), but they are hollow and exasperat- ing when you hope for any help. Antoine isn't a 'difficult' boy : he just can't explain (and who can, at twelve?), and nobody (but Rene) cares if he lives or dies. That's all, a tragedy not of child- hood but of a lifetime, for Antoine will grow with the scars of that early lovelessness and live with them till he dies. This beautiful, tough and some- times funny film is a lesson (by implication) in love : here's what it does, being without it.

posted by Carillon (2 comments total)
Really interesting, I hadn't seen this before but know it's important for the French New Wave. But it still felt so alive! You understand Antoine even as you hope he makes different choices. It doesn't feel railroaded to the end conclusion, but at the same time there's almost a certain inevitability about how things turn out. No one really sits with him to understand who he is or his own world. It's really a beautifully made picture, not sad or maudlin really but definitely shows how broken systems and institutions are. There's no one here for him.
posted by Carillon at 12:33 PM on October 2, 2023 [1 favorite]

Annette Insdorf for the Criterion Collection.
While the parents are neglectful and remote, my favorite part is when his little cardboard shrine starts to burn, and they put out the fire and take him to the movies. We can all escape by going to the movie theater.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:16 PM on October 2, 2023 [3 favorites]

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