Review: The 400 Blows (1959)
In 1945, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City introduced the world to a new type of “realism.” In 1969, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider destroyed classical Hollywood cinema by demolishing the American dream. And in 1991, Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) opened the celluloid closet for homosexuality in film. These films share one common trait: they are landmark works that define their respective cultures and generations. Amongst this collection of landmark films, one film not only shook the foundations of cinematic language, but also challenged the practices of how films could be made. That film was François Truffaut’s directorial debut The 400 Blows (1959), a semi-autobiographical work that introduced the world to a blossoming new movement called the French New Wave.
The 400 Blows recounts the childhood of Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a bastard child who is misunderstood by everyone in his life. Antoine’s parents and teachers continuously punish him, but their actions bear no results as the boy continues to cause trouble. Antoine finally crosses the line when he is caught stealing a typewriter from his stepfather’s job. His stepfather is furious and takes action by telling the police that a detention center is the only option for his misguided son. The misty-eyed Antoine is taken away, and as he gets closer to the detention center he can only hope that the new environment will offer him a better life.
Léaud’s performance as the troubled Antoine creates a memorable character, one whose childhood angst transcends time and geographical boundaries. At the core of Léaud’s performance is his depiction of Antoine’s sadness and pain. Léaud embodies that suffering and uses it to transform Antoine from an adorable boy into a lying and cheating scoundrel. Yet the constant punishments and scoldings take their toll on Antoine, forcing him to react against the lot that he has been given in life. Antoine’s reactionary behavior destroys the idea of “childhood happiness,” but from that destruction emerges a fantastic work of art from a talented new director.
Truffaut’s talent as a director comes from his ability to evolve his characters out of carefully crafted compositions. With The 400 Blows, Truffaut uses that talent create Antoine Doinel from a cluttered and claustrophobic atmosphere. He inundates Antoine’s world with stained walls, decaying monuments, dirty apartments, and domineering fences, all of which suffocate the boy, both literally and figuratively. Even in the final scene at the beach, Truffaut’s style reveals a sinister truth about Antoine’s future. Antoine looks at the empty landscape in search of happiness, but finds nothingness amongst the sand and sea. The empty landscape offers no hope to Antoine, only a larger cage that will continue to imprison him.
The 400 Blows delivers a brutal punch, one whose impact still has a harsh sting on contemporary audiences. It is a film that inspired, and still inspires, filmmakers to create new worlds and to tell stories that are overlooked. It finds beauty amongst the cluttered and dirty environments and it reveals important truths about life. Truffaut not only tells the story of a misunderstood boy, but he turns Antoine Doinel into a mythological figure. He shows that although Antoine may not have any hope in his claustrophobic world, his story will be immortalized amongst the pantheon of landmark films. Truffaut’s film gives Antoine that which he searched for amongst the sand and the sea: a purpose and a future.