Classic Movie Review: The 400 Blows (1959)

Title: The 400 Blows
Release Date: 4 May 1959
Director: François Truffaut
Production Company: Les Films du Carrosse

The title of The 400 Blows comes from a French idiom that most close in meaning “to raise hell” in English.  It is one of earliest movies in the French New Wave movement, when young filmmakers discarded the conventions of classical film-making for experimental filming and editing techniques, documentary-style realism, and subject matter of a more personal nature.

The 400 Blows is the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young teenage Parisian boy based somewhat on director  François Truffaut own childhood.  Antoine is presented as a troublemaker, but his offenses – passing around a pin-up photo in class, scribbling a poem on a wall, and skipping school for a day out with a friend – seem mild compared with the draconian response from authority figures.  He has a love for the author Balzac (and makes a shrine to him that he comically sets fire to by mistake) but when he writes an essay inspired by Balzac he’s accused of plagiarism rather than homage by his teacher (Guy Decomble).

Antoine’s mother (Claire Maurier) is strict and short-tempered with him much of the time. His father is a bit more easygoing, but doesn’t connect well with Antoine.  Neither are around much, leaving Antoine and his friend Rene (Patrick Auffay) to their own devices.  If anything, this movie depicts Antoine as a resourceful and resilient teenager, but with no adult willing or able to recognize his talents. He ultimately drops out of school, runs away, and takes up petty thievery.  When he fails to pawn a typewriter stolen from his father’s office, he is caught while trying to return it, and sent to juvenile detention center.

The plot of this movie could have been used for an After School Special, but without melodrama and moralism, it is a gritty depiction of real-life situations. Truffaut does a great job depicting the working class reality of post-War Paris, from the worn-out school room to Antoine’s cramped apartment (so small that when Antoine lays out his bed for the night, it blocks the entry door).  All the characters are flawed, none above judgement, but they also all can by sympathized with.

The movie feels bleak, but it’s not without hope.  Antoine’s joy in going to the movies is a particular detail that shows the autobiographical detail of how Truffaut found his way out of his troubled youth.  The last scene of the movie offers a moment of joy and release, while the fear of what comes next still ominously present.  I guess if you want to find out, Truffaut and Léaud made 4 more films over 20 years, continuing Antoine’s story, although I also think this movie can stand on its own with an ambiguous ending.

Rating: ***1/2