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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The 400 Blows

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Director: François Truffaut
Country: France
Year: 1959

Background

François Truffaut was born in 1932. He never met his biological father, and was shuttled around between his grandmother and various nannies for the first years of his life. His grandmother, seemingly the only welcoming adult in his world, instilled in François a profound love of books and music. When François was 10, his grandmother died, and he went to live with his mother and stepfather for the first time.

François was not wanted in his mother’s home, and he was not successful in school. The original latchkey child, his parents often left him alone at home, even when they went on vacations. He spent much of his youth roaming the streets of Paris, committing petty crimes, playing hooky, and watching hundreds of movies at Henri Langlois’ renowned Cinémathèque Française. (Read up on Langlois if you don’t know who he is; fascinating and colorful character.)

In 1948, Truffaut started a film club, under the mentorship of André Bazin. Bazin was a noted French film critic and theorist, and co-founder of the influential Cahiers du cinéma magazine. Bazin would remain a close friend of Truffaut’s until his death in 1958 (more on that later).

In 1950, Truffaut joined the French Army, but then, uh… changed his mind. Only the intervention of Bazin saved Truffaut from court-martial and imprisonment. Truffaut then joined Bazin at the newly-founded Cahiers du cinéma, marking the beginning of his career in film and film criticism.

In the years to follow, Truffaut was known for his contentious and scathing film criticism, earning him the nickname “The Gravedigger of French Cinema.” Among his most important contributions to the field were 1) his essay, “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” in which he viciously dissected the current state of the French film industry, and 2) the so-called “auteur” theory, which held that directors are the “authors” of their films (yeah, there’s more to it than that, but we could be here all day).

Truffaut made a couple of short films, but after seeing Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil in 1958, he finally got off the pot and made his debut full-length feature: The 400 Blows. He was 27 years old. Feeling insignificant? Me too.

I had always assumed that The 400 Blows was some sort of reference to the repeated “blows” endured by the film’s protagonist at the hands of an uncaring society. Perhaps it takes 400 blows before your spirit breaks, or something…? Actually, the French title of the film is Les Quatre Cents Coups, a truncated version of the French expression, “faire les quatre cents coups,” which means “to raise hell.” Which is a much more accurate reflection of the film’s defiant tone.

The film’s protagonist, Antoine Doinel, is a stand-in for Truffaut. Antoine does not know his biological father, was passed around to relatives until he was ten, and is now a bit of a delinquent who smokes, steals, and sneaks into movies when he should be at school; all details from Truffaut’s unhappy childhood.

The 400 Blows is only the first of five films that Truffaut made about the Antoine Doinel character, all starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. The 400 Blows marked the dawn of the French New Wave, was hugely successful around the world, and was the recipient of numerous awards (including the Best Director Award at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival). Again: 27 years old. God damn it.

Truffaut was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1983, and died one year later. At the time of his death, he was still active, with several films in pre-production. His lifetime goal had been to complete 30 films before retiring, but ultimately he fell five films short. He is buried in Montmartre Cemetery, Paris.

Synopsis

Behind the opening credits, we drive through the Paris streets to a jazzy and romantic orchestral score by Jean Constantin. Despite a light mist in the air, we can see the Eiffel Tower hovering in the background of every shot. Finally, we arrive at the massive base of the tower, and drive past, and our story begins.

A title card tells us that the film is dedicated to the memory of Truffaut’s beloved friend and mentor André Bazin, who died one day after shooting began.

We are in a classroom full of boys.

A page from a lurid pin-up calendar is being passed around the room. (Sheesh. Boys.) When the teacher turns around, the pin-up is in the hands of our hapless hero, Antoine Doinel. Antoine is banished to the corner. Eventually, it is time for recess, and Antoine tries to sneak out with his classmates. The imperious teacher stops him in his tracks, thundering, “Recess is a reward, not a right!”

Antoine returns to the dunce corner, where he surreptitiously writes his sad story on the wall: “Here poor Antoine Doinel was unfairly punished by Sourpuss for a pinup that fell from the sky…”

Of course, Antoine’s slanderous graffiti is swiftly discovered, and he is given extra-hard homework as punishment: Conjugating the indicative, conditional and subjunctive tenses of the phrase, “I deface the classroom walls and abuse French verse.”

Antoine is a handsome little thug in a black turtleneck, with tousled hair and a penetrating, mildly defiant stare that leaves adults unsettled and, not uncommonly, furious.

The class continues transcribing a poem, but one boy is having problems with his ink pen. Before long, the floor beneath his desk is littered with crumpled and ink-befouled paper.

“My beautiful mistress…” says the teacher, reading the poem aloud. The boys in the class snicker and make vulgar kissing sounds, handily proving that this sort of thing was going on long before Beavis and Butthead was broadcast. Little boys have always been little unkempt, sex-obsessed wiseacres with a violent streak. Most of them, anyway. Not me, of course. Or Matt. But the rest of them? Bastards.

“I’ve known idiots before,” splutters the exasperated teacher, “but at least they were polite! France will be in sorry shape in ten years!” Indeed.

Antoine walks home with his miscreant friend René, grumbling about Sourpuss and their tattle-tale classmates, particularly that dickweed Mauricet, who ratted to Sourpuss about the graffiti. “Your days are numbered, Mauricet!” they shout at their classmate.

At home, Antoine sets the table and then begins the dreaded conjugation homework, but then his horrible mom comes home, smoking like a chimney and shrieking like a blonde Joan Crawford. “Get me my slippers! Where’s that flour I told you to buy?”

Down at the grocer’s, a gaggle of old biddies are discussing the horrors of childbirth. “If they hadn’t done a Caesarean on the last one, I wouldn’t be talking to you today!”

We’re not 20 minutes in, and already I’m getting the strong feeling that Antoine lives in a world where adults don’t really like kids.

During dinner that night, Antoine listens silently while his parents argue and gossip: “Your cousin called. His wife’s expecting again.” “Four kids in three years? Like rabbits. It’s disgusting.”

“Speaking of kids,” muses Antoine’s father, “what’ll we do with this one for the summer?” Both parents smoke incessantly in their tiny, squalid apartment.

Antoine tries to sleep on a cot in the hallway, while his parents bicker in the next room: “You’ll see; I’ll be VP one day!” “You’ll never be VP!” and so on.

The morning arrives, and shaggy-haired Antoine has still not completed his conjugating. On the way to school, he meets up with René, and learns that Sourpuss won’t let him return without his conjugation. They decide to blow off school and kick it Ferris Bueller-style. They see a movie, play pinball, and ride on a Tilt-A-Whirl.

Plus, they see Antoine’s mom making out with some mustachioed git on a street corner. Wait… what?

Unbeknownst to the pair of ruffians, their arch-enemy Mauricet has seen them playing hooky, and is plotting his revenge.

Antoine resolves to straighten up and fly right, but he needs a note from his parents to get back in school tomorrow. No problem, says René: “I’ve got one I never used. You can copy it tonight.”

That night, Antoine and his father have a bachelor’s dinner. Mom had to stay late for year-end inventory. Yeah, right.

“Where’s my Michelin Guide?” Antoine’s father demands, but Antoine denies any knowledge of the Missing Michelin Guide.

Later, Antoine tries to sleep on his cot, while his parents bicker.

“My boss drove me home!”

“Your boss!”

“I couldn’t very well refuse, could I?”

“I hope you get paid overtime for that!”

“I will, at the end of the month!”

“Those services are usually paid with cash!” and so on.

After the subject of Mom’s infidelity is exhausted, they move on to the “What to do with Antoine” argument.

“I gave him my name, damn it!” shouts Antoine’s father, pounding his fist on something for emphasis. “I put food on the table!”

“Fine!” Mom shouts by way of a retort. “We’ll send him to the Jesuits, or the army orphans. At least I’d have some peace and quiet!”

Mauricet’s revenge plot is set into motion when he drops by to see Antoine’s parents: “I came to see if Antoine is better today. He missed school yesterday.”

Antoine returns to school, but is collared by the eagle-eyed Sourpuss.

“A little extra homework and you get sick, eh?” But Antoine pulls the classic “My Mommy Died” routine, and Sourpuss buys it. “Why didn’t you say something? You can always confide in your teachers.”

One of Antoine’s classmates recites poetry in class: “Better thorns in the woods than flowers in the manger. Better to have freedom and constant threat than slavery.” That’s what we call foreshadowing, suckah. I also notice that all the boys around Antoine are wearing gray, but he is wearing his preferred black turtleneck.

His parents arrive at the school, spoiling for a fight and also giving the lie to his earlier “My Mommy died” excuse. His father slaps him hard across the face while his classmates watch. “Only his parents can be severe enough now!” proclaims Sourpuss.

Antoine decides that it would be better to run away than return home for further abuse. His ne’er-do-well friend René shows him a place he can sleep; behind a binding machine in his uncle’s printing plant. When the night shift arrives, Antoine leaves to roam the Parisian streets. He helps a woman look for her dog, wanders past “Joyeux Noël” signs, steals some milk, and feels lonely.

The next morning, Antoine returns to school. “I bet you got it last night!” cackles Sourpuss, rubbing his hands together in undisguised glee. “Not at all,” responds Antoine flatly. Of course, his mother shows up to claim him before first recess. “We don’t know what to do with him,” she complains. “Perhaps it is something in his glands,” offers the teacher.

Antoine’s mom takes him home and, somewhat inexplicably, starts being nicer to him. “I was your age once too, you know. You kids always forget that. I was stubborn too, and didn’t want to confide in my parents. You and I can have some secrets.” Before long, the real motive behind her sudden chumminess becomes clear: She wants to strike a bargain with Antoine, to prevent him from revealing her infidelity.

As we learned in Forbidden Games: Adults (and also Members of the Clergy) Cannot Be Trusted.

She concludes their little heart-to-heart by promising him some cash if his next French essay is in the top five.

The Phys Ed teacher is leading the class in a brisk jog through the streets. By ones and twos, the boys dart off down side alleys and into candy shops when the teacher is not looking, until only two students remain.

Antoine is sitting at home, reading Balzac and smoking.

Moved by what he has read, he tacks up a picture of Balzac in a small shrine. Surprisingly, he seems to be doing well in school, writing an essay about his Grandfather’s death. In a vain petition for supernatural assistance, he lights a candle in his Balzac shrine, but he is a young boy and not to be trusted with an open flame. After his father puts out the blazing fire in the hallway, he threatens once again to send Antoine to a military academy. But then Mom saves the day by suggesting that they go out to a movie, and the incident is apparently forgotten.

Sourpuss is speaking to the class: “Doinel, your paper is first today, only because I decided to return them in order beginning with the worst.”

Seems there is a little problem of plagiarism – Antoine’s essay has been copied from Balzac’s A Sinister Affair. He is sent to the principal’s office and told not to return until next term. René dares to speak up in Antoine’s defense, and is also suspended.

René invites Antoine to crash at his family’s crumbling mansion. Nobody will know you’re there, he assures Antoine: “My mother drinks, and my father spends all day at the races.” Sweet! They snag some cash from the box on the mantle, and hit the town again. After seeing a movie, they sneak into a ladies’ restroom, steal an alarm clock, and finally return home to smoke cigars and play backgammon. You know, boy stuff.

The next day, they are using straws to shoot spitwads out the window at unsuspecting passerby.

The spitwads are made from (wait for it…) the torn-out pages of a Michelin Guide.

Unwanted by parents and forbidden to return to school, Antoine and René decide to go on the lam, but where? Antoine admits that he has never seen the ocean; perhaps they could go there? First, though, they need some money to finance the trip, so they hatch a daring (and ridiculous) plan: steal a (huge and extremely heavy) typewriter from Antoine’s father’s office, and then hire a street criminal to hock it for them, in return for a share of the proceeds. Unsurprisingly, this plan is an utter failure, and the boys decide to return the typewriter to the office. Of course, Antoine is collared by an over-eager security guard, and thus begins the last section of the film.

“We’ve tried everything: kindness, persuasion, punishment.” Antoine’s father explains to the police. “But we never beat him, mind you.”

“Sometimes the old ways are best,” suggests the cop.

“Perhaps you could place him somewhere, like a camp in the country?”

“We can try the Observation Center,” offers the cop. But there is a catch: “You would have to transfer your parental rights… to the juvenile justice system.”

A junior officer takes Antoine’s statement, while Antoine’s father leaves the station. Antoine is placed in a cell for the night, with a young man.

“What did you do?” the young man asks Antoine.

“I ran away from home. What did you do?”

“Oh, you know…”

Later, a group of prostitutes are brought in, so Antoine is transferred to a much smaller cell by himself.

Sometime during the night, Antoine is placed in a police car, and we drive once more through the City of Lights, while anachronistically romantic music plays in the background. When the neon momentarily reflects off his cheek, we realize that Antoine is silently weeping.

Antoine is fingerprinted and photographed and remanded to the OBSERVATION CENTER FOR DELINQUENT YOUTH.

The Observation Center is full of boys. There is some excitement as a boy who escaped the previous week is captured and returned, flanked by police and much the worse for wear. “And I’ll do it again, first chance I get,” the bruised escapee tells his admiring friends.

René tries to visit his incarcerated friend, but is turned away by the guards. Antoine watches his friend leave, through the bulletproof glass.

Antoine’s mother visits. “Don’t look for your father. He didn’t come. Your letter hurt him very much… he said to let you know he’s washed his hands of you completely. All you’re good for now is reform school or a labor center.”

During a soccer game, Antoine makes a run for it, ducking under a fence and striking out across the fields. He runs and runs and runs, a particularly beautiful tracking shot following him down a dirt road, past farms and fields, on and on and on.

He reaches the cliffs above the beach, runs down the steps, and runs out across the tidal flats to place his feet in the ocean for the first time in his life.

Standing in the water, Antoine turns and looks into the camera directly, sadly, defiantly.

What I Liked

I’ve only seen 4 or 5 Truffaut films, so I can’t claim to be an expert, but The 400 Blows embodies what I’ve seen (and loved) in all of those films: an unhurried, naturally unfolding pace; carefully observed, entirely human characters; a gentle sense of humor; wonderful choice and placement of music; deeply empathetic and humanist outlook.

The 400 Blows is quite rightly hailed as a masterpiece of the French New Wave, but don’t let that scare you; this is one of the most accessible films in this series. There are scenes in this film that are so natural and alive and fresh and just simply fun that they took my breath away, made me excited all over again about the possibilities of film: The long shots of young children’s faces at a puppet show, the early morning drive through the Parisian streets, the chilling freeze-frame at the end. Plus, despite the underlying tragedy, this is a very funny movie: the revelation about the Michelin Guide, the schoolroom shenanigans, and the perpetually flustered adults all made me laugh out loud.

Finally, there are the performances. Truffaut made four other films about his alter-ego Antoine Doinel, always played by the same actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud. I have not seen the other installments, but in this film, Léaud is a revelation. He manages to remain sympathetic throughout, even when he is consistently making the wrong choices. There was not one moment in The 400 Blows where I saw him “acting” – every line he delivered, every bit of business he did, seemed entirely natural, as if we were simply eavesdropping on the real life of a 16-year-old boy. When he looked directly, accusingly in the camera at the end, it made me cry. He is astounding.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I can’t think of anything in this film that I wish was different. Very nearly a perfect film. Satisfying in every way.

Should You See It?

Yes. Immediately.

Next: Grand Illusion

3 Comments

  1. That’s it. I am watching it tonight while Jason is out of town. The still photos alone are so evocative. My remarks will be up soon…

  2. Yawn.

    It was perhaps a highly disadvantageous placement in the Janus list, in my opinion, to have The 400 Blows follow Forbidden Games. The two movies could not have elicited a more opposite response from me.

    Unlike Paulette and Michel in Forbidden Games, The 400 Blows never made me care very much about Antoine. Sure, he had a selfish, cheating, manipulative mother who didn’t want him from the beginning, and he had difficulties in school, but beyond that I felt little sympathy for him.

    Antoine’s step-father was fun. I especially liked the scene in which he is giving Antoine money and the logic he uses in reducing the amount asked for.

    I also liked the scene, shot from the rooftop, in which the P.E. teacher is leading the class through the streets below, I assume for exercise, and unbeknownst to him, the students are peeling off from the back of the pack in small groups of two or three, at the end leaving only a handful marching behind. What a bunch of normally delinquent juveniles!

    What was up with the three young children in the miniature stockades at the work camp/detention center?

    And where were the 400 blows? I think I missed about 396 of them.

    [After writing the above and reading the already-posted reviews:

    1. Thanks for explaining the real meaning of “the 400 blows,” versus the literal translation. Makes a big difference.

    2. Thanks for reminding me about Antoine setting the table. While I was watching that scene, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “You can sure tell he’s French. What other boys that age would know how to properly set a table?”

    3. Thanks VERY much for reminding me about the children at the puppet show. How could I have forgotten that scene? It was gorgeous, seeing how caught up the kids were in the skit. Absolutely beautiful!

    4. Thank you, overall, for the most excellent, informative, well-written and well-researched backgrounds on all these movies. It gives them much more meaning.]

  3. Finally! A film I’ve already seen! I’m not such a movie-going neophyte after all! A few months ago, after talking to my film study students about the “French New Wave” or the “New Wave” movement – I figured it was about time I actually sat down and watched a couple of the films that I talked about. So I sat down at watched Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.” Where I found “Breathless” to be a nearly worthless piece of shit with self-absorbed asshole characters and direction that defined pretentiously annoying (though at the time it was “cutting edge”), I found Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” to be amazing.

    My review, though, is going to take a different tact. I will tell you what it is and what it isn’t. It is NOT a Hollywood film.

    First, the movie is a “coming of age” film about a young boy in Paris. He’s all of 12 or 13, just at that age where puberty hits. Girls become interesting. Life becomes important. The future is both bright and scary. Parents go from being intelligent beings that can do no wrong to blithering idiots who should be shunned.

    In Hollywood “coming of age” films are usually about a young man having his first sexual experience.

    Doniel, or Antoine (I was never quite sure of his name) is the young boy, struggling through school with a teacher who looks like he’d rather stick his tongue in a shredder than teach these blasted kids. Within moments he is in trouble and has to deal with being marginalized by said teacher (who tells him to sit in a corner).

    When he gets home, Doniel/Antoine interacts with his parents. The boy, dutifully sets the table and gets the house ready for dinner, then his mother promptly yells at him because he forgot the flour. How many times have we, as parents, over looked the big picture and complain about the little things that don’t really matter?

    Like Hollywood, Doniel/Antoine’s mother is smokin’ hot.

    His father shows up. He’s some “gear-head” accountant or something who dreams of driving in the big race…at some point. Still, the boy has a good relationship with the ol’ man while the mother just puts up with the boy.

    The next day Antoine decides to ditch school with a friend and go to the movies and play at some fun park and just kick back. Possibly due to the teacher’s constant berating of the boy.

    While he’s out having a good time he sees his mother kissing another man.

    In Hollywood, the boy would have gone to a whore house or a strip bar or a baseball game and end up in a parade or something.

    When his parents show up, all hell is to pay for his lie and he’s sent home – he runs away from home and spends the night in an old print shop. Leaving a note that “things would be discussed.”

    In Hollywood he would run away from home and join a street gang, or end up in the whore house, or form a really cool club for other kids.

    The next day he goes BACK to school.

    This would never happen in a Hollywood film.

    When he goes back to school he makes up a story that is mother is dead (I didn’t say Antoine was very bright). This is the ONLY time the teacher shows any compassion for the boy. The parents show up, getting him in MORE trouble. But the mother takes a sweet turn with him, putting on the charm and implying that they can “have their little secrets.” He looks at her very dubiously. She also bribes him with $$$ if he does well on his next report.

    In a Hollywood film, he will have hooked up with his girlfriend and gone to the country to get away from “the Man.” Or he would be a struggling dancer looking for that one shot to make it big.

    Reading “Balzac,” Antoine gets inspired and puts Balzac’s poster up in a little shrine of some sort. He lights a candle and everyone plans a great night together. The problem? The candle catches the shrine on fire and the father is PISSED. How pissed? Threatening to send the boy to military school if he doesn’t shape up (and give him is “Michelin book”). But, even though the threat is hanging in air, they all – as a family – go to the movies and have a great time.

    In Hollywood the mother would plead for her son to come back, but he would join a rock band.

    Though the evening is a good one and everyone is happy (even with a little grab-ass going on), the story takes a turn for the dark as Antoine runs away again, living with a friend. He sure doesn’t want to go into the military school. He’d rather get a J.O.B.

    In Hollywood, no coming of age kid wants a job.

    But he gets arrested for stealing a typewriter from his father’s work. Now he’s done it, it’s the military school fer sure! His father even signs the paperwork!

    In Hollywood, no coming of age kid steals a typewriter. Gun, maybe. Drugs, sure. 42″ High Def TV, you betcha. But a typewriter…uh, no.

    For what was to me the most poignant moment of all, he gets thrown in jail and then, when the “girls” are arrested, he gets placed in an even smaller jail cell and Truffaut’s POV shots from the bars of the small jail cell really make you feel like you’re trapped with the boy. This is the losing virginity moment in this “coming of age” tale, he’s not going to be the cute little typewriter stealing ragamuffin after this!

    In Hollywood he doesn’t go to jail, or if he does, he kicks everyone’s ass. And then dances.

    Sent to “Juvie” the boy escapes during a soccer game and goes to where he’s wanted to go, the ocean. And the final shot…wow. Desperate, scared, alone, afraid. All in a still shot. Bee-you-tee-ful.

    In Hollywood he wins the dance contest money, pays back ol’ Mr. Gower, falls in love with the proper girl, parents forgive him and he lives happily ever after.

    There ain’t none of that happily ever after shit in “The 400 Blows.”

    What I liked:

    First and foremost, the performance of the boy is spot on. He does a GREAT job. He really carries the film on his small shoulders.

    The other cast members were very good in their roles. Yes, some of the other kids played it a bit too forcefully or cloying but it could have been worse.

    Truffaut’s filmming and the B&W film are also perfect. Certainly some shots go a little long and the pacing sometimes lags, but all-in-all for his debut, Truffaut did a fantastic job.

    What I didn’t like:

    What IS it with teachers like this? They’re all pretty one-dimensional. Granted, I’m not expecting “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Dead Poet’s Society” but a bit of compassion or SOMETHING. Does every teacher in France hate their jobs and their students?

    Bottom line:

    Really enjoyed it a second time. Great film.

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