THE 400 BLOWS is the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), 12-year-old terror of Paris. Francois Truffaut, having been a writer and editor at Cahiers du Cinema and notorious for harshly lashing out at a perceived mediocrity in French film of the time, made his feature directing debut turning childhood memories into cinema. So… the critic has become the critiqued! Actually, that worked pretty well for him. THE 400 BLOWS launched a legendary directing career, won him best director at Cannes, and has been cited as a favorite movie by no less than Akira Kurosawa. People seemed to like it.
Antoine is a kid who gets into some trouble. In fact, the title is from a French idiom that basically means “to raise hell.” So this could be called RAISING HELL. The second Doinel film, ANTOINE ET COLETTE, translates to TOUGHER THAN LEATHER in my opinion. Anyway, Antoine may 400 blow and raise hell and bring da ruckus, but he’s not a Bad Seed or a Problem Child. We can see that he’s not any worse than the other kids most of the time. His buddy Rene (Patrick Auffay) does all the same things Antoine does, for example they steal and smoke Rene’s dad’s cigars together. But Antoine seems to usually be the one that gets caught or blamed. When all the kids are passing around a pin-up in class, of course it has to be Antoine that’s holding it when the teacher (Guy Decomble, BOB LE FLAMBEUR) turns around.
The teacher obviously doesn’t like him. He thinks he’s bad, so he treats him as bad. How’s Antoine ever supposed to do better when he’s walking around with a target on his head? Of course he fulfills the prophecy.
Okay, so he’s not entirely innocent. Plagiarizing Balzac wasn’t a good idea. Also he skips school and tries to forge a note from his mom by copying Rene’s real one. He thinks better of it and burns the evidence, but makes the even worse decision to tell the teacher he missed school because his mom died. That reminds me of when I was a kid and I dumped my dinner on the table and put the plate on top of it so it would seem like I was done eating and my dad would let me go back to watching THE WIZARD OF OZ on TV. It’s a poorly thought out lie in my opinion, because it’s not thinking far enough ahead. Antoine and I would not make good chess players. But at least I got to see the flying monkeys for a minute before I got busted, and at least we got to see that the teacher could be nice to Antoine in the short period where he had sympathy for him. If only he could do that in a non-dead-parent situation.
Antoine’s mom is played by Claire Maurier (AMELIE) and his step-dad is played by Albert Remy (GRAND PRIX). They aren’t terrible parents in my opinion, but Truffaut portrays them badly enough that his real parents were pissed and he had to write them a letter defending his belief that he had had a bad childhood. I got a feeling from the movie that Truffaut puts the blame for whatever’s wrong with him mostly on his mom. She seems unfriendly and annoyed with him, preoccupied with looking attractive.
Things look up when stepdad gets home – he’s so buddy-buddy with Antoine that at first I thought he was just a cool neighbor. Like many moms, this one is pissed that she has to be the bad cop. Dad jokes around and she has to humorlessly scold him for it. She thinks he’s too lenient and part of the problem. But then when she’s worried Antoine could get her in trouble – he sees her kissing some other dude while he’s skipping school – all the sudden she starts trying to act like the sweetest mom in parenting history.
Antoine doesn’t seem that affected by catching his mom cheating, though. I wasn’t sure if maybe he didn’t actually see or understand what was happening. Or maybe it’s like a BEDROOM WINDOW type situation where he can’t narc on her without implicating himself for being in town in the middle of a school day.
He really wants to quit school and live on his own. He tries his hand at running away. On the streets he steals a bottle of milk for nourishment, like some cartoon cat. He’s kind of a weird kid. His stepdad keeps thinking he stole his Michelin Guide. What kind of a kid would want a Michelin Guide? What kind of kid would seem to his stepdad like he would want a Michelin Guide?
(That’s what I wondered until I realized he did steal it, and used the pages to make spitballs.)
As a critic, one of Truffaut’s big theories was that directors put too much emphasis on story and not enough on style. He wanted movies that were more true to life. Here he does it in a jail scene where a hooker mentions that she saw a police station in a movie, but it was much cleaner. Because other movies get it wrong!
According to The New Wave Encyclopedia,
“Amongst left-wing intellectuals, [Truffaut] was considered a reactionary who valued aesthetics over content.” So it’s not surprising that THE 400 BLOWS is very episodic, it’s filmed on location and the kids’ acting is mostly very natural. There are scenes that are obviously real, like the footage of Antoine riding a spinning carnival ride that takes away gravity, or the closeups of horrified little kids watching a Little Red Riding Hood puppet show. Just as gangsters in an old movie might plot inside a movie palace, little Antoine and Rene plan stealing something from Rene’s dad and hocking it while they’re sitting in this audience.
Some of my favorite parts are silly little comedy bits, like the long take of a classmate really fucking up while taking dictation in class, smudging the pages and tearing them out until he has no pages left in his notebook and no words written down. Or my very favorite is the overhead shot of the teacher leading the whole class jogging into town and we watch as the kids at the back of the line peel off to hide in doorways, down alleys or across the street, a few at a time until the teacher is all alone and doesn’t even notice. Then it just goes on to the next scene without letting us know if there were any consequences. Like when the fox says “Chaos reigns” in ANTICHRIST.
Antoine accidentally starts a small fire in the apartment, but this actually wasn’t from shenanigans. For a school assignment he made a shrine to Balzac and the candle got out of control. It’s funny, his biggest crime is when he and Rene steal a typewriter, and you might think this would be the romantic notion of a character who wants to be a writer just like his author. Nope. He plans to pawn it. It might as well be a hubcap to him, he doesn’t give a shit about what it does. But it looks funny seeing a little kid carrying a big, heavy typewriter and trying to act casual. He only gets caught when he realizes he can’t get enough money for it and tries to return it (wearing a fedora as a disguise). He shoulda kept it to write an underground newspaper. Or just type “fart” over and over again.
He ends up in the joint, or at least reform school. There they get marched around, but unlike in regular school P.E. class you can’t sneak off that easily. There was one kid who escaped, but they caught him and brought him back. He had no regrets. “So what? I lived it up for five days.” Just like Antoine did during the short period where he ran away, or where his teacher felt sorry for him.
Antoine is inspired by the escapist’s tale, so he busts out just like in the song “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” by Public Enemy. Well, a little different. He just crawls through a hole under the fence like a little dog. He gets chased but manages to give them the slip. There is a very, very long tracking shot of him running down a road to freedom, and another of him running down a sandy beach toward the ocean. Returning to Atlantis where he came from. Or maybe I misunderstood. Actually this is kinda like the end of POINT BREAK where Bodhi goes out onto that big wave and gets devoured. You don’t really know for sure what happened to him. Most likely he drowned, but you never know. He could be still out there having adventures, and who knows what number of blows he would be up to at this point?