Author’s note: I don’t normal write classic film reviews, though I should. However, a couple weeks ago Lincoln Center conducted an Emerging Critics competition that I decided to compete in. I didn’t win, but I did submit this review of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (writing it was a daunting task considering how many esteemed critics and cinephiles have analyzed it). I’m still very proud of what I wrote and decided that I shouldn’t let this piece go to waste, especially considering I needed five viewings and several drafts to write this review (one side note: I did make a couple grammatical and mechanical edits to this before posting). I hope I did this incredible classic some justice. My review:
François Truffaut’s debut feature The 400 Blows, has often been confused as the genesis of the French New Wave. While its evocative story of a rebellious and unlucky teen, Antoine, displays the complex use of the auteur’s camera to shape the narrative—the film’s most prevalent connection to the then burgeoning French New Wave is its message of freedom: The desirous freedom to express and control one’s narrative away from the clutches of an older generation who lack the compassion to empathize with a new form of not wholly “truthful” storytelling, but a captivatingly radical one.
The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) or its literal translation: “Raising Hell”—is the simple semi-autobiographical tale of Truffaut mirrored by the actions of Antoine. Much like Truffaut, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) struggles in school, grapples with his parents, and has a trusted best friend. He’s also controlled by the adults around him, and to a point, the camera itself.
When the film opens, a car-mounted camera tracks through the streets of Paris. The Eifel Tower looms in the background. Yet as we pass through the city, the tower begins to assume the foreground until we leave it behind. The camera is unruly, struggling to hold its attention. First pointing upwards, then laterally against the buildings, and finally backwards. The hyperactive need to consume everything visually represents a childlike Truffaut.
This sequence is in sharp contrast to the next shot, an over the shoulder of a boy with a pinup poster. The camera strictly follows the poster, tracking until it lands on Antoine’s desk, causing the instructor to order him into a corner. From the first over the shoulder shot until the recess bell, there are only three cuts. Here, Truffaut exclusively employs pans and long tracking shots. He imposes the same strict will on the camera—as opposed to the chaotic mounted sequence—as the adults around these children place on them. This restricts not only Antoine’s freedom, but the viewer as well because surely, we can only see what the camera allows us to see. We, therefore, empathize with Antoine’s plight before we even know of his origins.
What follows is a fairly uneventful story. Antoine spirals into more trouble, first by cutting class, then by catching his mother (Claire Maurier, who is so wickedly amazing in this role) with another man, then by falsely informing his teacher of his mother’s death as an excuse for him playing hooky. She is metaphorically dead to him—as most children would be blindsided if their domineering mother cheated on their father. He also loses the trust of his parents. First his stepfather (Albert Rémy), who initially treats Antoine as a buddy, then his mother (who was talked out of aborting him by his grandmother).
Rather than employing an elaborate plot, Truffaut provides The 400 Blows with its dramatic action by simply following Antoine. We know Antoine to be misunderstood, yet also a deceitful and mischievous boy. Truffaut picked Jean-Pierre Léaud to play the boy as both he and Léaud came from similar backgrounds. Truffaut was saved by Andre Bazin, who the film is dedicated to, and became a critic and filmmaker. His reliance upon constructing the narrative around Antoine’s facial expressions rather than dialogue or plot creates a mirror by which to judge and examine Truffaut. Is Antoine simply reacting the way Truffaut would? Maybe; though Truffaut did allow Léaud to do quite a bit of improvisation.
After running away from his home several times, Antoine is caught trying to hock his stepfather’s typewriter. Sent to a cadet prison, he’s examined by a psychiatrist. Truffaut could have treated Antoine with sentimentality: present in other films of the period—in the interrogation scene; instead, he opts to humanize and contextualize the character. While we’ve come to empathize with Antoine, we also discover that he stole money from his grandmother because she was old and didn’t need it. The callousness and ease by which he delivers this zero-sum conclusion challenges the audience to reexamine Antoine as an anti-establishment hero. Maybe he’s Milton’s devil? Not worthy to rise, but certainly worthy to fall.
In actuality, Antoine’s just a child. A human, like you or I, capable of being a devil in one moment and an angel in another.
Still, when Antoine does escape—running to the sea because he’s wanted to see the ocean—we’re rooting for him. We’re following him in the form of Truffaut’s elegantly long tracking shot. And when he does reach the shore, with his footprints disappearing underneath the tide like exploding spiders across the stars: with nowhere left to run—we and the camera relinquish control with an iconic freeze frame. We don’t need to know what comes next, we just know—as does the camera—that whatever may be, Antoine will always be a kid. The kid who’s raising hell.